ARUN RATH, HOST:
Mining for metals like copper, gold and platinum has long been a story of boom and bust, and it's busting in the U.S. right now. Metals prices are the lowest they've been in years. In states like Montana, that means small towns with their futures tied to mining are looking for other options. Montana Public Radio's Eric Whitney reports they're hard to find.
ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: Buddy Hanrahan runs a one-man computer services business in White Sulphur Springs, Mont., population 900.
BUDDY HANRAHAN: Bring 'em over. They can come down...
WHITNEY: Hanrahan's also president of the local chamber of commerce. He's trying to stay on good terms with other local businesses. So when I ask him how the local economy's doing...
HANRAHAN: Oh boy, I've got to be careful what I say just 'cause I don't want to offend - steady, level, but at a very low level.
WHITNEY: Way lower than when Hanrahan was in high school. Back then, White Sulphur Springs still had three thriving timber mills. But when federal forest management policies changed in the '90s, the mills closed, and two-thirds of the town's residents moved away. That's why Hanrahan and a lot of other Main Street businesses here now have signs in their windows saying they support opening a new copper mine nearby.
HANRAHAN: Any industry right now is an improvement. I mean, agriculture's great, and tourism is great, but it's - it's tough. It's a hard road to hoe when you just have that.
WHITNEY: When a Canadian mining company set up a storefront here about four years ago, copper prices were up, and prospects looked good for it to open the mine and create about 200 good-paying jobs. Kim Deal, who's been here 41 years, would love to see that happen.
KIM DEAL: I moved away after I graduated out of high school, was gone for nine years, and I come back. It's home.
WHITNEY: Deal spent 31 years tending bar in White Sulphur Springs because she says it's one of the few steady jobs available here. But she just bought a property management business and is hoping something will come along so her family can stay, too.
DEAL: There's just nothing here for people to do. There's no work. You know, and it's sad when your kids don't have the option to graduate and say, oh, you know, I'm going to stay at home for the summer and work, or, you know, I don't want to go to college so I want to get a job, and they can't do that here. There's nothing here for them to do that with.
RATH: The proposed copper mine is near the Smith River, one of Montana's most prized boating and fishing experiences. Environmental groups are trying to stop the mine, but a pretty effective barrier right now could be that the price of copper is only about half of what it was in 2011. K.C. Chang, an economist with the financial research firm IHS Global Insight, says that's mostly because of China's economy. It's shifting away from the rapid industrialization that caused a spike in prices for raw materials.
K.C. CHANG: That shift towards a market that's more driven by their domestic consumer means that there's going to be an overall lower copper demand in terms of the global picture.
WHITNEY: A weak forecast for rising copper prices means hopes for another natural resources boom in towns like White Sulphur Springs are fading.
HANRAHAN: Yeah, that three screens really does people in sometimes.
WHITNEY: Back in Buddy Hanrahan's computer shop, he says local leaders have no choice but to keep looking for other economic options.
HANRAHAN: The mine is a possibility. It may never happen. So we're just rolling the way things need to roll to survive, not necessarily depending on the mine. It'd be great if it happened, but we're not going to rely on it.
WHITNEY: Right now, Hanrahan thinks his town's best hope still lies underground - but not in copper ore. Federal subsidies helped lay fiber-optic Internet cable to White Sulphur Springs, and Hanrahan's trying to lure some telecommuters who want to be surrounded by the great outdoors. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Missoula.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MINING ALL DAY LONG")
MIRACLE OF SOUND: (Singing) And I feel good 'cause I've been mining all day long. Hey, hey, hey, I've been mining all day long. I feel... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.