From Oil and Gas to Biking and Hiking: How Western Towns Are Changing Their Fortunes

As resources like oil and gas run dry, many towns are capitalizing on their other natural resources.
Photo: Oliclimb/

For decades, small mountain and desert towns across the Western USA have been confronted with a harsh choice: adapt or die. Hundreds of towns have built their economies based on extracting raw materials and resources for the earth. Inevitably, the resources that these communities have been pulling from the ground are exhausted, or the price drops so far that the effort just isn’t worth it anymore. 

So what do you do in this situation? You adapt… or you die.

Mining is one of the oldest resource-extraction economies in the Mountain West, with silver mining predominating in the Rocky Mountains. It’s fascinating to consider the wide swath of silver mining towns in Utah and Colorado and the different fortunes that befell these mountain towns. Consider three classic silver mining towns spanning the entire spectrum: St. Elmo, Silverton, and Park City. You’ve undoubtedly heard of Park City, but have you heard of Silverton or St. Elmo?

In its heyday, St. Elmo was home to over 2,000 residents high in the mountains of Colorado—a boomtown that sprang up around the silver mining industry. Today, it’s a beautiful ghost town that serves as a tourist attraction. St. Elmo is still home to old buildings in varying states of preservation, stupendous mountain views, one bed and breakfast, and a tourist gift shop… and not much else.

In contrast, Utah’s Park City was also founded around the same time (as were most mining towns across the Central Rockies) thanks to rich silver lodes in the region, but today Park City is anything but a ghost town. It’s now one of the wealthiest and most famous mountain towns in North America.

In between these two we have the town of Silverton. While Silverton is still home to ~650 full-time residents, it has struggled to make a successful transition to a sustainable tourism economy. During the summertime, tourists visit downtown Silverton thanks to the popular train that runs from Durango. But those seasonal loads of tourists can only do so much to supply the town with both cash and community. 

While many factors play into the rise and fall of mining towns, Park City is a classic example of the end-stage transition from resource extraction to recreation. Today, Park City’s economy is built upon some of the most famous ski resorts in the world, as well as one of the best-developed mountain bike trail systems on the planet.

One of the interesting things about Park City is that while it’s a relatively pretty area, there’s nothing geographically significant about the region. The ski resorts in nearby Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood canyons have much more radical terrain and dramatically better snowfall than Park City. The views from town are decent, but you can imagine the town inhabiting any one of a thousand random valleys spread throughout the Rockies. In contrast, both of the other towns mentioned here—St. Elmo and Silverton—boast radically more beautiful mountain views and taller peaks than Park City. But because of Park City’s pivot from resource extraction to recreation and tourism at just the right time, it’s now an outdoor recreation mecca, and the other two currently are not.

This pattern has repeated across the West for decades. First mining disappeared, and then logging was shut down through much of the Pacific Northwest toward the end of the 1900s. And finally, today we’re facing the decline of oil and gas.

The Decline of Oil and Gas Extraction

Despite the global economy’s ongoing dependency on fossil fuels, the extraction of oil and natural gas on most public lands across the Western USA is declining. But as I learned while speaking with Ashley Korenblat, the Managing Director of Public Land Solutions, this isn’t due to a backlash from environmentalists. Rather, it’s simply due to the reserves in many areas running dry—just like the silver mines.

“We’ve been leasing public land for oil and gas drilling since 1920. So by definition, a lot of the land that’s available right now is kind of marginal,” said Korenblat. 

Oil and gas leases last for decades, so many wells that were drilled decades ago are still pumping oil. But eventually, every well runs dry. 

“The reality is, more and more investors don’t want to invest in oil, and some of these fields are getting played out. Like, oil will last 20 to 30 years,” said Korenblat. “When you drill for oil, you pay a royalty, and some of that royalty goes to the local community, to the county usually. Different states do it a little bit differently, but basically, oil and gas royalties fund local and state governments. If you’re looking down the road and each year that [the city] does their budget, who depends on some mineral royalties, you have to assume a lower price for oil and gas. That’s not pretty. A lot of communities are realizing that oil and gas is not going to be a very reliable source of funding going forward. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be some wells pumping along for the next 20 years in that community. It just means that it’s not going to grow,” Korenblat explained.

As communities are faced with these declining revenues, they’re forced to face the stark reality: they need to adapt, or their community might collapse. The elected officials are forced to examine what resources remain to build a new economy upon. If they’ve already been leasing public land for oil and gas drilling, that means that they definitely have public land available as a resource. And one major and sustainable source of industry and economic growth that has been proven over and over again across the Western USA is recreation and tourism.

File photo: Jeff Barber

The Strength of Recreation Economies

Moab, Utah, serves as the poster child of a strong recreation economy in a town that once served as a hub for oil and gas extraction. Even today, you can still spot plenty of oil wells pumping around the Moab area, but now the economy is unequivocally driven by recreation and tourism.

An article in The Salt Lake Tribune says, “Outdoor recreation went from adding $6.1 billion in value to Utah’s economy in 2022 to $8.1 billion last year (2023), according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.” That’s an astounding $2 billion increase year-over-year, driven in large part by hot spots such as Moab and Park City. 

Zooming out even further, Headwaters Economics calculated that “in 2022, the outdoor recreation economy generated $1.1 trillion dollars in economic output” nationally, representing 2.2% of the nation’s GDP. “This is more than three times the size of air transportation, two-and-a-half times the size of oil and gas development, and nearly three-and-a-half times the size of motor vehicle manufacturing and performing arts,” they write.

While Utah’s recreation economy is one of the largest in the nation, similar numbers and statistics from booming outdoor destinations have been studied and replicated in dozens of communities. Towns across the nation have proven that pivoting from resource extraction to a recreation economy is not only possible, but it’s sustainable and even more lucrative than the resource extraction economy that preceded it. 

Yes, the local economies in these towns do go through a transition phase. While a few of the somewhat high-paying jobs associated with oil fields might disappear, those jobs are replaced not just by tourism-related service industry jobs but also by high-paying full-time careers in other industries as well. “We’re seeing different types of companies and different types of professionals move to these smaller communities, and they hire people,” said Korenblat. If you consider healthcare alone, the change is astounding. “When I moved to Moab, there was one doctor,” she said. “I think now you could get knee surgery here.”

The Power of Mountain Biking and Hiking Trails

Public Land Solutions (PLS), the non-profit that Korenblat founded and runs, partners with local communities to do a deep analysis of the natural resources that they have available to identify what recreational opportunities those communities can market immediately and what they can go on to develop. While destinations like Park City have successfully transitioned thanks to sports like downhill skiing, building a ski resort is next to impossible these days due to permitting and the financial overhead. And while some towns might thrive on access to one of the nation’s most iconic rivers, not every town has a river running through it. 

But what almost every town can do is build a high-quality network of mountain biking and hiking trails. “The amazing thing is, for mountain biking especially, you can’t look up at the Grand Teton while you’re riding singletrack,” said Korenblat. “You’ve got to look at the trail. So you don’t need the Grand Teton looming in the background. You don’t necessarily need some giant canyon. The amazing thing is that you can provide a quality trail experience in a lot of places that are not iconic.”

This point is absolutely critical, and it’s difficult to overstate it: with entertaining mountain biking trails, it’s very possible to build a high-quality trail system that will attract visitors from around the country with even moderately interesting terrain. Bentonville, Arkansas, is ground-zero for this model. The rolling forested hills of Northwest Arkansas are almost entirely unremarkable from a natural resources perspective. But with enough investment in mountain biking infrastructure, Bentonville has transformed itself into one of the best places to ride singletrack in the nation.

Now, building a mountain bike trail system from scratch is no mean feat, but compared to the cost of other infrastructure investments, it’s actually relatively affordable. A high-caliber, professionally-built singletrack mountain biking trail starts at about $7.50 per foot. That’s about $40,000 per mile, and for a 20-mile trail network, it would cost about $800,000 to build. 

Sounds somewhat expensive, right? 

Now consider another form of recreational path that many communities invest in: shared-use paved paths, sometimes called greenway trails. While costs for these paths range dramatically, most sources (1, 2) cite the average cost per mile between $480,000 and $800,000. Rounding to the low end at $500,000 per mile, building a comparable 20-mile paved trail would cost at least $10 million to construct—and possibly much, much more. According to, the noted high cost for a single mile of paved shared-use trail was over $4.8 million dollars.

Singletrack doesn’t sound nearly so expensive anymore!

Of course, that’s not to say that paved paths are in any way “bad” or a bad investment. Korenblat notes that paved paths often lead to singletrack and form critical transportation conduits through urban areas. Rather, the point is that singletrack trails—even professionally built trails—are a reasonable economic investment that hundreds of communities can afford to make.

During the transition, it’s not an either/or proposition. 

As we talk about the switch from a resource extraction economy to a recreation-based economy, it sometimes sounds like a lightswitch that’s flipped, shutting off the oil wells and building the mountain bike trails. But the reality is very different. As mentioned above, some of the oil wells that have already been established will continue pumping for decades.

But that doesn’t mean that these communities can’t start building trails right now

New Mexico is a perfect example of this. In fact, one of PLS’s biggest projects ever was a comprehensive recreation review for the entire state of New Mexico. While New Mexico’s work is still in its infancy compared to states like Utah and Colorado, the public lands and natural resources are unbelievable—it’s probably the most underrated state in the Union for recreation and access to public lands.

While New Mexico is playing catch-up statewide, forward-thinking communities have already been striking out on their own to change their fortunes. While the story of how each trail system came to be is unique and different, as you ride mountain bike trails in many communities in northern New Mexico, you’ll find yourself pedaling past humming oil wells, climbing up pipeline grades, and connecting trails on dirt roads filled with rumbling oil field trucks. Yes, the noise of the oil field detracts from the natural beauty of the landscape, but as I’ve pedaled along fantastic, swooping trails with gorgeous views in places like Aztec, Placitas, and Farmington, I found myself marveling that recreation and resource extraction can so seamlessly coexist.

It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition while these communities transition. For now, it can be both.

The work might not be easy, but it’s definitely worth it.

There are inevitably hurdles and challenges to overcome with any project of this scale, especially if the entire community is slowly changing its economic focus. Other land users often take issue whenever the status quo changes. If your economy has been built on cattle grazing and oil wells for the past century, it’s no wonder that change is scary. But if the local government has already identified that they need to transition their community’s economy in order to survive, the doors that can be opened are incredible. “The power of local elected officials is often overlooked in the trail conversation,” said Korenblat. “When the mayor cares, that helps a lot. When your city council is paying attention to what your land manager is doing, that really helps.” 

It all comes down to the brutal choice: adapt or die. And frankly, due to their unwillingness to change, many local governments choose the latter option. But for many forward-thinking towns across the Western USA, their fortunes are changing, and biking trails are their ticket to a sustainable future for their vibrant communities.