The Forgotten Plains
Colorado's high prairie has long been ignored, passed over for the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Here, we pay homage to the flat expanse east of the Front Range, home to an independent, humble, rugged way of life.
Winds of Change
Paul Gillham is a lot like most of the folks he knows on the northeastern Plains of Colorado. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, and soft-spoken, the laid-back 28-year-old grew up in Peetz, the tiny border town where he works. He lives just up the road a piece from his parents' ranch in a modest home across the state line in Sidney, Nebraska. He's married with three children, two of whom are infant twins. And he likes it out here—there's something honest and simple and good about small-town America that Gillham says suits him well.
But that's where the similarities end. Unlike many of his fellow Plainsmen and women, Gillham does not grow wheat or corn or raise livestock for a living. He doesn't toil away for hours on a tractor pulling a disk through soil or spend time talking about grain storage. Instead, Paul Gillham is part of a new generation on the Plains—a generation of workers looking to make a living by producing something else entirely: energy. And with an abundant natural resource—one that rarely ceases to blow, and howl, and scream across this flat expanse—to harness, there is tempered optimism for a new way of life east of the Front Range.
Driving along flat county roads in northeastern Colorado, you'll sometimes catch a hint of movement, a fleeting glint of white on the horizon that draws your attention. And then you see them: windmills, hundreds of them.
From a distance they look like tiny jacks tossed haphazardly across the land. Close up they are surrealistic sculptures soaring 400 feet into a clear blue sky. Their sleek blades ride a near-constant northwesterly wind and generate a dense swooshing sound you can feel as you stand at the base of a turbine. These windmills, beautiful to some, scars on a bucolic landscape to others, are shiny new additions to this otherwise timeworn landscape. Alien as they may seem, wind farms are fast becoming the great white hope of rural Colorado, where the sagging farming business has been the number one industry for longer than anyone can remember—or wants to.
With 37,000 farms and ranches spreading across 30 million acres and pouring $20 billion into Colorado's economy, agriculture easily beats out tourism as the state's primary breadwinner. Yet, farming is a tough trade these days: Water-rights issues; cap and trade regulations; the national credit crunch; shortages of seasonal workers; high prices for seed, fertilizers, pesticides, and farming equipment—the list of woes is a country mile long, and it has Colorado farmers looking for relief, if not for a new way of life altogether.
The thing is, until recently, there hasn't been a way out of farming for those wanting to remain on the Plains. In many areas, like Peetz, agriculture has been the only industry, save for a few government jobs in education, maybe a construction gig or two. Which means that few opportunities existed for anyone—especially educated young people—to get nonagricultural jobs and stay near their families. But when renewable energy companies began to converge on Colorado's windswept prairie, and windmills began to pop up at a furious pace a few years back, jobs—good-paying, nonfarming jobs—began to pop up around here as well.
In June 2001, then-20-year-old Paul Gillham was back home from Sterling College for the summer. He figured he'd probably end up doing long hours of backbreaking labor for a local farmer or rancher for a little extra cash before going back to school in the fall. But the landscape in Peetz had changed while he was away. "I showed up home and saw the trucks and cranes and giant white metal towers lying around everywhere," he says. "I'd never even seen a modern windmill before, but I went to ask for a summer job anyway." That gig—constructing wind turbines—led to a two-year job in Minnesota and a stint in Wyoming before Gillham found his way back to Colorado to take a job as operations manager with a wind company called Invenergy, located in an unassuming white building on County Road 74.
"I was always looking to come back home," says Gillham, "but I'd watched the struggles of the previous generation with farming, and I just didn't want to fall into the same situation." Gillham didn't want to stress over the price of wheat, or worry about drought and blizzards, or think about how he would pay for expensive combines and tractors. Instead, Gillham has now been with Invenergy for four years, in about as steady a job as anyone can find these days, running, maintaining, and managing the work and workers it takes to operate 40 wind turbines that power 20,000 Front Range homes. He still worries, of course—turbine gearboxes are known to go haywire at two in the morning—but it's a different kind of stress than he might have experienced as a struggling family farmer.
With nearly 400 turbines in the Peetz area—and hundreds more fanning out across the Plains—Gillham isn't the only one benefiting from the idea of harnessing Colorado's omnipresent breeze. What's happening in Peetz is happening elsewhere. In small towns like Haxtun, Lamar, Burlington, and Julesburg, wind energy companies are gearing up to build more farms—which means dozens and dozens of part-time jobs and handfuls of permanent full-time jobs will flood into areas that desperately need them. "Before now, if you were living in a small Plains town, there weren't jobs like these," says Gillham. "Having this job isn't something I take lightly," he adds. "I'm grateful for it every day." —LBK