Rio Blanco County is a remote, mountainous county in northwestern Colorado covering 3,223 square miles. Named for the White River—“Rio Blanco” in Spanish—the county lies on the northern edge of the Colorado Plateau and is bordered to the north by Moffat County, to the east by Routt County, to the south by Garfield County, and to the west by the state of Utah. Rio Blanco County is widely known as the site of clashes between the Ute people and whites in the late nineteenth century and a burgeoning oil shale industry in the 1970s. The county also contains many scenic natural areas, including the White River National Forest and the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, one of the first designated wilderness areas in the United States.
The county has a population of 6,707. More than a third of its residents live in the county seat of Meeker, nestled in the White River valley against a steep ridge and ringed by mountains. About another third lives in Rangely, some fifty-seven miles downstream from Meeker on the White River. The two cities are connected by State Highway 64, which runs east–west from Meeker until it connects with US 40 at the western edge of Moffat County. Agriculture, ranching, and energy industries drive the Rio Blanco County economy.
About ten miles south of present-day Rangely, the area known as Cañon Pintado is home to a large collection of Native American rock art, likely drawn by people of the Fremont culture between AD 400 and 1100 and Ute people thereafter.
From about the mid-sixteenth century until the late nineteenth century, the Rio Blanco County area was inhabited by three distinct bands of Utes. The Parianuche, or “Elk People,” and the Yampa, or “Root Eaters,” occupied most of the county’s territory while Uintah territory straddled the present-day border between Utah and Colorado. The Yampa wintered in the White River valley and ranged into the Flat Tops and southern Wyoming; the Parianuche wintered near present-day Glenwood Springs and ranged into eastern Utah and the Flat Tops.
All three Ute bands fished and hunted elk, deer, and other mountain game. They also gathered a wide assortment of wild berries and roots, including the versatile yucca root. They were seasonal nomads, following game into the high mountain parks in the summer and returning down to the river valleys for the winter. By the 1640s, the Utes had obtained horses from the Spanish, which eased their nomadic lifestyle and allowed some of them to organize summer buffalo hunts on the plains.
Trappers and Explorers
On their way to find a connection between Santa Fé, New Mexico, and Monterey, California, the expedition of Spanish friars Francisco Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante crossed present-day Rio Blanco County in 1776. Fur trappers and traders frequented the area from the 1820s to the 1840s, finding plentiful beaver at places such as Trappers Lake. Among the first whites to visit the Rangely area were men from Antoine Robidoux’s trading post on the Gunnison River.
In 1868 the one-armed explorer, Maj. John Wesley Powell, his wife, and twenty of his students were the first Anglo-Americans to enter the Meeker area. They had come as part of an expedition to collect natural specimens from all over Colorado and made winter camp in the White River valley. That same year, a treaty granted the Utes a reservation encompassing most of Colorado’s Western Slope. In 1869 the White River Indian Agency was set up nine miles east of present-day Meeker. The location was chosen on account of its remoteness and lack of white settlement.
Ute Removal and County Establishment
By 1876 geographic data from the Hayden surveys produced the first accurate maps of northwestern Colorado, and a few years later, ranchers and miners were staking claims in river valleys and mountain parks throughout the Western Slope. The Utes, who had relied on the game and other resources in these places, now found their winter havens, such as Glenwood Springs, occupied by whites. The Utes’ resources dwindled and their promised annuities—supplies and payments delivered by the US government—rarely arrived on time or at all.
The breaking point finally arrived in the summer of 1879, after Nathan C. Meeker was appointed Indian agent of the White River Agency. A devout and ambitious man, Meeker was highly critical of Ute culture and believed he could force the Utes to abandon their centuries-old way of life and become Christian farmers. He ordered his employees to plow fields and dig irrigation ditches on Ute lands, acts that the Indians fiercely and sometimes violently resisted.
The tipping point came in September, when Meeker ordered one of the Utes’ favorite horse racing fields to be plowed. Tim, the son of a Ute named Johnson, shot at the agency employee who was plowing, and a few days later, Johnson slammed Meeker against a fence after the two got into an argument at Meeker’s home. Frightened, Meeker called for troops to protect himself and his employees. When four companies under Maj. Thomas Thornburgh entered the reservation near Milk Creek on September 29, 1879, they were met by Ute gunfire. The Utes kept federal troops pinned down for several days. Meanwhile, hearing that federal troops had been halted at Milk Creek, Utes at the agency turned on the staff, killing Meeker, nine employees, and a peddler. Meeker’s family was taken captive, not to be released until October 21.
The Meeker Massacre, as it eventually became known, terrified whites all over Colorado and prompted swift retaliation by the US government. More troops were sent in. A new treaty in 1880 took nearly all of the Utes’ land in Colorado, leaving a small strip of land along the New Mexico border to the Southern Ute bands. By 1882 the army forced most of the remaining Northern Ute bands onto a new reservation in Utah.
Fast on the heels of the displaced Utes were white settlers, who claimed former Ute land for ranches, farms, and towns. The first irrigation ditch for the town of Meeker was completed in 1884, and the town was incorporated a year later.
Utes continued to range into the Rio Blanco area until 1887, when a Ute was allegedly murdered near Rangely. Ute protestors in Colorado then sparked the ire of local whites, and a battle near Meeker ended with federal troops and angry whites forcing the Utes back to Utah. In 1889 Rio Blanco County was carved out of the northern half of Garfield County.
White River National Forest
With the creation of a new county came controversies over land management. The White River Plateau Timberland Reserve was created in 1891 in response to exploitation by timber cutters and cattle ranchers. It was the first national forest in Colorado and the second in the nation, covering more than a million acres. As with similar proposals during this time, communities that relied on forest resources railed against the proposed White River Reserve. Newspapers such as the Herald in Meeker suggested that if the government wanted to prevent unnecessary destruction of forest resources, it should clamp down on fire-starting campers and game-killing hunters and Indians rather than shut down sawmills. After the forest reserve was established, Rio Blanco settlers complained that its boundaries infringed on lands needed for agriculture and ranching.
In August 1897, Charles W. Ramer became the reserve’s first supervisor, and in 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt came to the forest to hunt mountain lion. Over the next four years, his administration cut the size of the forest by 227,200 acres and changed the name to the White River Forest Reserve. An act of Congress in 1907 then changed the names of all forest reserves to national forests. The Taft and Wilson administrations continued to reduce the size of the forest, paring it to 895,339 acres by 1941. However, the additions of the Blue River Corridor and the Green Mountain Reservoir areas in the 1970s brought the White River National Forest up to its current area of more than 2.2 million acres.
Like most land in northwest Colorado, Rio Blanco County sits over large deposits of oil shale, sheets of rock that release oil if exposed to enough heat. In the late 1910s, 250 companies sold stock in oil shale developments in Rio Blanco County. Only about a dozen actually began the process of heating the shale, but it was complicated and expensive, and after 1925, shale developers could not compete with cheap oil from Texas.
The next oil shale boom came in the aftermath of oil shortages in the early 1970s. In that decade, the fields near Rangely accounted for about 76 percent of the state’s oil production. Extraction technologies had vastly improved, but the process again proved too costly. On Sunday, May 2, 1982—a day known to locals as “Black Sunday”—Exxon abandoned its development of Western Slope oil shale and put thousands out of work.
Oil shale was not the only energy interest in northwest Colorado during the twentieth century. In 1973 the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) detonated three nuclear devices 6,689 feet below the surface of a remote site about twenty-five miles southwest of Meeker. The blasts were engineered to release natural gas into a large subterranean cavity that could then be tapped by energy companies. The detonations succeeded in releasing a large amount of natural gas, but testing indicated the gas was radioactive and therefore unusable. The site was decommissioned in 1975. Testing by the AEC during site cleanup and subsequent annual testing by the US Environmental Protection Agency revealed no contamination of soil, groundwater, or surface water. However, because radioactivity undoubtedly persists deeper in the ground, the US government retains ownership of land surrounding the site and prohibits drilling to depths of between 1,500 and 7,500 feet.
A similar blast occurred in Garfield County in 1969 and has generated considerable controversy on account of the site’s proximity to roads and residential developments. The remoteness of the Rio Blanco site allowed it to avoid such controversy, but the expansion of natural gas drilling throughout the region in the early 2000s has generated mild concern about rigs accidentally tapping radioactive gas from the blast site.
Although the coal, oil, and natural gas industries remain extremely important to the local economy, they have not turned Rio Blanco County into the booming energy hub that many have expected. The county currently has only two active coal mines, and although it sits atop rich deposits of oil and natural gas, a glut of natural gas on the world market and easier-to-develop crude oil in other states have drawn the attention of energy companies and driven down the price of both oil and gas. In March 2016, ExxonMobil again retreated from the area, relinquishing a federal lease for research, development, and demonstration on land southeast of Meeker. As of March 2017, Rio Blanco County had thirty-three operators producing oil and natural gas out of 2,245 wells, but production of both commodities has steadily declined since 2012.
In addition to the challenges posed by market forces and geology, energy developers in Rio Blanco County have come under fire for pollution. In 2013 data from a monitoring station in Rangely showed local ozone levels to be 40 percent higher than the federal limit. This data was released after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leased 3,000 acres of coal-rich public lands to Blue Mountain Energy, the owner of the Deserado Mine near Rangely.
Each year, the Deserado Mine produces between 2.5 and 3 million tons of coal, and its vent shafts blow about 23,000 tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Methane from the mine, carbon dioxide from a nearby coal plant in Utah, and emissions from oil and gas drilling rigs in Rio Blanco and other counties have combined to create some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country.
Much like the Los Angeles Basin in California, the bowl-like geography of the Piceance and Uinta basins in northwestern Colorado allows greenhouse gases to accumulate and produce smog. Around the same time the pollution data was released, several environmental groups, including WildEarth Guardians and the Western Colorado Congress, petitioned the EPA to designate the Uinta Basin a nonattainment zone, or one that has failed to meet EPA standards for air pollution. In May 2014, WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit against the BLM for allowing the expansion of Deserado Mine.
Even as energy companies deal with criticism for their environmental impacts and lost profits from geology and market forces, they continue to be major contributors to the county economy. In 2010, for instance, oil and natural gas operations in Rio Blanco County employed 889 people, or about 23.4 percent of the county workforce. That year, the industries combined to pay nearly 37 percent of wages in the county. Yet county officials acknowledge that the local economy is diversifying; a market analysis in the 2015 Rio Blanco County Economic Development Strategy concluded that aviation, niche manufacturing, and tourism are all areas of economic opportunity. The 2015 report deemed the oil and gas industries’ vulnerability to market fluctuations as “the largest external threat the local economy faces.” For better or worse, those industries will likely continue to shape the future of Rio Blanco County.