Ron Little nestles into a familiar seat aboard a train locomotive and slides the window open, leaning out to get a better view of dozens of rail cars that stretch for a mile behind and the landscape he knows so well.
The heavy steel wheels roll along a dizzying pattern of concrete railroad ties that snake through sandstone formations, boulder-laden arroyos and grasslands. Little points to a rock formation named for the reddish dirt that Navajos use to dye wool for rugs and another with a cutout like the handle of a milk jug.
“It’s beautiful scenery you just go live with every day,” he said. Every day until recently, when the last of the trains he’s operated for more than half his life pulled up to a power plant with thousands of tons of coal.
Before the year ends, the Navajo Generating Station near the Arizona-Utah border will close and others in the region are on track to shut down or reduce their output in the next few years. Its owners are turning to cheaper power produced by natural gas as they and other coal-fired plants in the U.S. face growing pressure over contributing to climate change.
Those shifts are upending people’s livelihoods, including hundreds of mostly Native American workers who mined the coal on tribal land, loaded it from a roadside silo and helped produce the electricity that has powered the American Southwest since the 1970s.
Two tribes each will lose millions of dollars in income, while workers like Little are forced into early retirement. Some employees will stay on to restore the land, while others aren’t sure what’s next.