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This city knows the drill

Times Staff Writer

LIKE many Western towns, Rifle is a plain-looking community in a remarkable location.

The town is wedged into a gulley carved by Rifle Creek as it trickles from the northern plateaus into the Colorado River. Most of Rifle consists of a narrow grid of modest clapboard and midcentury houses.

It’s the scenery that commands attention here. Looming above town are enormous sagebrush-studded plateaus, framed by rocky triangular hills that recede into the horizon. Winding roads lead into notches and hollows that cradle ranches and homes.

The setting is spectacular in another way too: One of the richest natural gas fields on the continent lies beneath the ground.

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The gas deposits of the Piceance Basin lay trapped beneath hard sands, too costly to extract for decades. But technological advancements and sky-high gas prices changed that just as the Bush administration opened more public lands for exploration.

Drilling rigs have mushroomed on the wind-swept mesas here. Big-rigs hauling drilling equipment and waste rumble down dirt roads that previously saw cattle drives.

Rifle is prospering. Its population has risen 20% in the last six years to 8,500. The state projects it will reach 40,000 by 2020. Talk of the town’s changing character is thick at the Elks Lodge and in cafes and butcher shops. Locals still can’t get over downtown’s two-hour parking limit imposed last May.

“It’s changing from a small town into more of an industrial area,” mortgage broker Liz Lippitt said. “It’s bringing a lot of money into town, but also some icky stuff.”

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Rifle residents aren’t the only ones torn by the energy exploration that has transformed the West over the last few years. In gas- and coal-rich basins in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, rural towns that struggled for decades are also enjoying booming economies. But some Westerners are distressed at the sort of communities the good times are creating.

“These are areas that attracted people for the hunting, for the clean air, and then you’ve got a lot of industry going in,” said Walt Hecox, an economics professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. “But a lot of people have been waiting two decades for this boom to come back.... It’s a mixed blessing.”

It has been especially bittersweet in Rifle and other ranching towns strung along Interstate 70 on the state’s western slope, an area brimming with so much fossil fuel that Hecox referred to it as “our Saudi Arabia.”

Rifle’s four motels are booked solid as energy firms compete to find housing for their workers. Apartments are packed: The vacancy rate is less than 1%. Spacious split-levels are sprouting on farmland at the north end of town. Home values have soared to levels comparable to those in Denver, 184 miles east; a three-bedroom ranch house that sold for $167,000 in 2000 fetched $295,000 in August.

On the southern edge of Rifle, a new Wal-Mart is making life easier for residents who used to drive 25 miles to shop. Downtown, which holds four blocks of old brick buildings, now features a bistro and an eatery that declares it is “more than a restaurant,” along with a new yoga studio. Those signs of gentrification share a block with a hunting shop that has a plastic buffalo on its roof.

Nearly everyone in town has a job, city officials say. Some ranchers who’ve struggled for generations to eke out a living running cattle and sheep are suddenly flush with royalty payments from energy firms drilling on their land.

“People tell me, ‘Paul, we’re the fifth generation on this outfit and we’re the first generation to ever get a regular check,’ ” said Paul Bernklau, a representative for the Colorado Cattlemen’s Assn.

WESTERN Colorado has seen many booms followed by busts. The most dramatic began in the 1970s, when the energy industry poured millions of dollars into the area to find a way to extract the oil shale embedded in the plateaus. On May 2, 1982, Exxon, the main company in the effort, announced it was pulling out because of plunging energy prices. Newly constructed subdivisions became ghost towns. Businesses failed and land values plummeted.

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To this day, Rifle’s old-timers host a “survivor’s party” every May to commemorate what they call Black Sunday.

“We seem to have short memories about energy, and how rapidly it can come and how rapidly it can go,” said Bernklau, 72. “There’ll be a big hole here again.”

Energy companies and independent analysts say that, despite a one-third drop in the price of natural gas in the last year, prices are still at historic highs and they expect the boom to continue. But the change is a reminder that volatile energy markets can easily bust.

That’s a part of Western history, said Richard White, a history professor at Stanford University. The region was shaped during booms that drove up the prices of the minerals and resources underground, he said. “Each one of these energy booms transforms these idyllic places, but what they see as idyllic is just what was left from the last bust,” White said.

Bernklau doesn’t romanticize Rifle’s past. His family arrived here in 1904, when the town was little more than a camp for a nearby coal mine. When that industry crashed, the region tried to revive itself by planting apples and peaches while waiting for the next boom.

“There never was any money in this valley until energy,” said Bernklau, who grew up on a ranch in a two-room house that was heated by a wood stove. He worked for a spell as a rodeo clown and later rode all over the West selling cattle.

Today, Bernklau lives on the eastern fringe of Rifle in a house in a subdivision -- constructed on the heels of the last boom -- that wouldn’t look out of place in Valencia. He owns the mineral rights to a small piece of property in the hills, which he leases to an energy firm, that provides him a regular income.

“I hate changes more than anyone,” Bernklau said. “But you’ve got to have change.”

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RIFLE’S latest transformation started in the 1990s, when the town became a bedroom community for people who work in Aspen, 68 miles southeast. It also attracted people from California and the East Coast who cashed in on the real estate boom and moved here to buy open ranchland and build their retirement house.

It was the quiet and beauty that drew Liz and Tom Lippitt from Denver in 1995. They bought 10 acres of land north of the Colorado River and began to grow hay and raise a pair of horses. They didn’t worry that someone else owned the rights to what lay beneath their land.

In the West, people who do not possess the mineral rights to their property can find themselves powerless to keep energy companies from drilling on their land. “There weren’t big headlines saying, ‘This is western Colorado and there’s gas everywhere -- buyer beware,’ ” Liz said.

But now energy companies are exploring near the Lippitts’ spread, and the couple fear that drills will soon pop up on their property. They have put construction of their 2,700-square-foot dream house on hold and joined a conservation group. Liz, 48, said she was resigned to possible drilling. “It’s like a root canal -- do it, get it done and go away,” she said.

Still, their businesses are doing well. Tom, a homebuilder, has a two-year backlog of orders. Liz’s volume in her mortgage brokerage has doubled in the last two years. As president of the Chamber of Commerce, Liz says, she sees bigger success stories daily.

“So many people are prospering because of this,” she said. “We understand we can’t do anything to stop it -- we all use energy.”

Gary Miller, 60, bought Miller’s Dry Goods downtown in 1981, just before the last bust. He spent the 1980s struggling to hang on. Now energy workers stream in to buy steel-toed boots, Carhartt jackets and overalls, and welding shirts, which hang on the brick-lined walls above stacks of hunting clothes and T-shirts that read: “PETA -- People Eating Tasty Animals.”

“It’s nice to see the store doing so well,” Miller said. The only downside is that there are so many businesses hiring in Rifle nowadays it’s almost impossible for him to find employees.

All those workers mean more congestion on the streets. Traffic has increased nearly 50% since 2003, though this is still small-town commuting -- tie-ups usually last minutes. “You can’t make a left-hand turn on the street anymore unless you’re at a traffic light,” said Mayor Pro Tem Alan Lambert.

The widespread affluence has led to a drop in property crime. But police say the influx of energy workers has led to escalating methamphetamine problems, domestic abuse and an unheard-of three shootings last year.

“As you have a lot of transient people coming into town, it tends to break down that sense of community” that prevents crime, Police Chief Daryl Meisner said.

ALTHOUGH sales tax collections are rising about 10% annually, the demands on the town’s $7-million budget are climbing faster. City Hall must build a $25-million water treatment plant for its new residents, and spend $4 million to upgrade offramps from the interstate because of the large number of commuters. The regional school district has passed three bond issues in six years to keep pace with the growing enrollment -- more than 700 new students in that time. Temporary trailers crowd schoolyards.

City officials say they hope the growth in energy doesn’t harm Rifle’s historic economic base -- catering to hunting parties that descend on the elk-rich hills every fall.

That natural setting is what drew Dee and Harry Hoffmeister. In 1995, the two retired to 40 acres southeast of Rifle, built a white clapboard house on a hill, scooped out a pond below it for carp and bluegills, and settled back to enjoy the quiet.

Now big-rig trucks clatter down Dry Hollow Road outside the Hoffmeisters’ property. The couple leave the radio on at night to drown out the noise. Dee, 69, fell ill last year after inhaling what she believes was refuse from nearby drilling. She stayed away from home for eight months. The house across the street has gone through three owners in two years, and a low rumble from drilling and trucking pervades the area. Dee said that in the past, they would see 200 to 300 elk about this time of year. Last year, about 50 came, and this year none had arrived as winter began, she said.

“We came out here to retire. There was maybe a hay truck coming up the road,” said Harry, 70. “Not anymore. They’re not going to quit until the gas runs out.”

But even the Hoffmeisters see the boom’s upside. Though there are no wells on their land, they just began receiving $600 monthly payments from one of the energy firms for the right to explore under their property. “If we’re going to suffer the consequences,” Dee said, “we should take advantage of it.”

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com


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