A small Colorado town gets Trumped
Plus: Congress reinstates an Obama-era methane rule
THE NEWS: The U.S. House of Representatives voted Friday to reinstate methane emissions rules that had been rescinded by the Trump administration.
THE CONTEXT: In 2016 the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency implemented a rule requiring oil and gas companies to reduce methane and volatile organic compound emissions. The Trump administration turned around and eviscerated the rule, as it did with dozens of measures protecting the environment and public health, finalizing the rollback in 2020.
The Democratic-majority Senate in April used the Congressional Review Act to begin the process of rolling back the rollback, and yesterday’s vote—with 12 Republicans voting in favor—finalized the rule’s reinstatement.
The rule only applies to new and modified facilities, not to the hundreds of thousands of existing oil and gas wells. Oil and gas companies must now look for and fix leaks, use the best technology, and reduce venting and flaring. For more on methane read our ongoing series, Methane Madness:
THE NEWS: Silverton, Colorado, makes national headlines for its bitter battle over the Pledge of Allegiance, providing evidence that Trump-esque corrosive polarization, trolling, and ignorance can survive and even thrive at 9,318 feet.
Or, to quote a Silverton old-timer whom I ran into a couple of months ago: “Silverton is the most f*$%ed up place in the universe right now.”
THE CONTEXT (okay, THE RANT): Twenty-five years ago this spring—egad—I rolled into the small mountain town of Silverton to be the reporter-photographer at the weekly newspaper. The sky was gray, the place was quiet, and the streets somehow managed to be both muddy and dusty at the same time. It was awesome.
The mining industry had abandoned the region several years earlier and the community was still smarting, economically. Enrollment at the school was dropping. The tourism industry did pretty well from July 4 to Labor Day, but was virtually non-existent for the remaining nine months. Year-round work was hard to come by and the wages generally low: My pay was $275 per week, or less than $5 an hour, but in a town where rents were all below $300 per month, and where for a hundred thousand you could get a castle—with a foundation, even—it was enough to get by.
There was also a great little coffee shop, The Avalanche. Wiley Carmack, an outspoken, rabid conservative known for his acerbic and vitriolic letters to the editor, held court there almost every morning, alongside a handful of others who leaned leftward politically. The shop was tiny and on cold days—which is to say, always—was shoulder to shoulder with a diverse mix of folks getting jacked up on coffee. That inevitably led to spirited discussions about politics which inevitably led to outright screaming matches. I’m pretty sure Wiley called me a pinko commie leftist idiot at least once and I probably had some choice words for him, too.
Town board meetings were often just as raucous and joint town-county budget meetings resembled a multi-badger cage fight—in Silverton, politics are a blood-sport, sometimes literally.
But once the fights—or meetings or caffeine-addled debates—ended, something else always took hold, something like Community. Bitter adversaries would sit side by side at the Miners Tavern without killing each other. Wiley came to our potlucks and we went to his Christmas party and, yeah, he got a little mad when we drank his high-shelf liquor, but we were still friends. The 400 or so year-round residents were like a big, quarrelsome, dysfunctional family. Maybe we didn’t always like each other, but in the end we had one another’s backs, just like the people working underground in the mines.
I am sure that this spirit still exists in Silverton, but judging by the latest fracas it has worn rather thin and has been tainted by the same anger and just downright meanness that seems to have infected our nation as a whole.
The ruckus over the pledge is just the most visible manifestation of a battle that’s been building in Silverton for years, a sort of political and social Gold King Mine blowout, if you will. It began back in 2014, when the town voted to allow off-highway vehicles to ply select town streets, creating an enforcement nightmare along with a situation in which some residents were subjected daily to the off-roader roar and dust, while others were not. The tension flared up in 2017 when community members tried to re-ban OHVs, and then again when Shane Fuhrman ran for mayor last year.
During the campaign, Fuhrman’s critics portrayed him as a wealthy, big-city outsider who was intent on turning Silverton into the next Aspen or Telluride. Originally from Evergreen, Colorado, Fuhrman—an attorney and businessperson—moved to Silverton from Brooklyn a decade ago and purchased the historic Wyman hotel. Judging by social media bile, Fuhrman’s big crime was to update the hotel to a mid-century modern style, which turns out to be more attractive to the clientele of Silverton Mountain Ski Area than the faux-Victorian decor found in other local lodging establishments.
He won the election, nonetheless, and began the thankless and virtually unpaid job as the town’s mayor. Along with dealing with a pandemic and then the flood of tourists that followed, Fuhrman and his fellow trustees also explored the idea of expanding the small, town-owned ski area onto surrounding BLM land to give a boost to the still-struggling winter economy. They also wanted to add a riverside path, trails, a bike park, and other multi-season amenities. That further fueled the become-another-Aspen fears. (Interestingly, the fact that Silverton Mountain Ski Area operates a heli-skiing operation out of the Aspen airport, ferrying the wealthy to the mountains around Silverton for $17,990 a pop, doesn’t seem to elicit the same reaction.)
But Silverton doesn’t need to become Aspen to have some of the same problems. Despite its grunginess and lack of a major ski resort or airport or reliable high-speed internet, the town has fallen victim to the housing affordability crisis that has pervaded nearly every corner of the West, in part because so much of the housing stock is made up of second homes that are often unoccupied or rented out on the short-term but aren’t available as long-term rentals. In that respect, things have changed dramatically since I arrived in Silverton so many years ago.
As the Silverton newspaper guy for a total of seven years between 1996 and 2006, I attended literally hundreds of community meetings—town board, county commissioners, school board, planning commission, and so on—and I can’t recall ever hearing anyone recite the Pledge of Allegiance at any of these meetings. Even in the wake of 9/11, when American jingoism oozed across the land there was no pledge at meetings. And I’m sure I would have noticed because I would have chosen to sit quietly and respectfully during the pledge, not because I hate America—I don’t—but because I don’t appreciate the “under God” part, added during the McCarthy era, and because the “liberty and justice for all” part is still aspirational, only, and little progress is being made to realize that so the pledge rings false.
Several years ago, for whatever reason, the town board decided to break with the non-pledge tradition and begin opening meetings with the pledge. One town trustee opted to sit the pledge out, which in 2018 sent one townsperson into a blustery rage, but otherwise drew little notice. After he was elected, Fuhrman, too, chose not to say the pledge during Zoom meetings and, later, at in-person meetings.
Again, it went by without much fanfare, except from a Qanon-esque, conspiracy theory-laden, anonymously authored blog known as the Silverton Porcupine, which went online early this year to “disrupt … childish, cartoonist agendas.” The author regularly refers to COVID-19 as “a plandemic of control and enslavement by ruling elite masters” and bashes local health officials for trying to keep the community, well, healthy. In another post from early this year, the Porcupine notes that during a Zoom meeting, some town trustees turned off their cameras when the pledge was said. But far more egregious, they go on to claim, was that Interim Town Administrator Anthony Edwards, by pledging to a gold-fringed American flag, was actually declaring his loyalty to the British admiralty.
Once upon a time you could write this off as simple batshit craziness. But in these days of demagoguery and of public officials inciting mobs to violence, not so much.
In May, the Silverton Town Board of Trustees voted 4-3 to ban OHVs from town streets. The pro-OHV crowd was lathered into a rage, once again threatening to boycott anti-OHV businesses and the whole stinking town, for that matter. If anyone dared stick their neck out on social media to thank the trustees for actually doing something about the OHV-problem, they were attacked. While all four trustees were blasted for the decision, Fuhrman—perhaps because he’s the mayor or maybe because he’s an easy target—drew most of the ire. Once again he was pilloried for being an East Coaster trying to overrun the town, with his most vocal critic being, well, an East Coaster.
The pledge hadn’t yet figured into the public discussion. Then, just as the OHV-related fire was blowing up, one of Fuhrman’s online detractors threw gasoline on the flames by bringing up the fact that Fuhrman did not stand for the pledge before meetings.
This not only riled up the angry so-called patriots and flag-fetishists, but it also gave the OHV crowd more fodder for conflating a love of America with the unfettered combustion of fossil fuels. Fuhrman and friends, by restricting OHVs and refusing to say the pledge, were thus doubly un-American. Social media erupted with threats, anger, and multiple calls for Fuhrman to go to: a) China; b) Russia; c) back to his own country to ride camels (whatever the f*&# that means). Some folks called him a socialist (the pledge of allegiance was written by a socialist minister); others claimed that he was disrupting a Silverton tradition that dates back to 1885 (the pledge wasn’t written until 1892, and was not recited at Silverton meetings until recently). Outside of social media Fuhrman was threatened directly and personally—a victim, one might say, of cancel culture, simply for quietly exercising his First Amendment rights.
And so, he made the decision to stop the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of town board meetings, apparently in the hopes of defusing tension. Whoops. And when some meeting audience members stood to say it nonetheless, he shut them down, telling them he would eject them from the chambers if they did it again. That didn’t help matters, obviously.
Now the hateful McCarthy-esque rhetoric has blown up as news of the pledge “ban” spreads far and wide. Even Franklin Graham, the evangelical hypocrite, has gotten into the mix, along with Silverton’s representative in Congress, Rep. Lauren Boebert, who seems to think that asking people not to disrupt a town board meeting by belting out the pledge is more of an assault on the nation than hundreds of insurgents invading the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
I’ve never met Mayor Fuhrman. But I have read what he has to say about Silverton, about the ski area expansion, and about being bullied, and it seems to me that he has the community’s best interests in mind. Like all public officials, he deserves to have his feet held to the fire. But even if he doesn’t quite get Silverton, neither he nor anyone else deserves to be treated with such anger and hate, whether they’re from Brooklyn or Butte, whether they belt out the pledge or sit silently for it, whether they decorate their property gaudily or with impeccable taste.
I do know some of the other people who have been attacked directly for their stance on OHVs, the ski area expansion, or for simply being associated with Fuhrman, and others who have been caught in the crossfire for reasons unknown. They are teachers, public servants, old-timers, and newcomers, folks who have devoted time and energy and their lives to the community of Silverton. These people have been harassed and bullied on social media and in person because they deigned to try to improve the community where they live, work, and raised kids. It’s great to disagree with them and even to give them a piece of your mind in a town board meeting. But afterwards, you should buy them a beer and thank them for their service, not lambaste or threaten them.
Sadly, Wiley Carmack died recently. If he were still around I’m sure that he would have been right in the thick of this brouhaha. He and I may have shared some harsh words with one another; I suspect he might have even called me a “leftist bug” or a “commie idiot.” But I’m also sure that afterwards we’d still be able to sit down and drink a cup of coffee together like civil human beings. I do hope the denizens of the fine town of Silverton one day can do the same.