High Times

A paper with a big voice hails from one of the state's tinier towns.

Paonia, about seventy miles from Grand Junction, is no one's idea of a metropolis: All 1,800 of the town's citizens could fit into Denver's Paramount Theatre with room to spare, and its downtown, spread out along the optimistically named Grand Avenue, is two blocks in length, no doubt making parades rather short-lived. As such, it's hardly a place most people would expect to find a burgeoning multimedia enterprise. But while High Country News, located in a converted auto parts store that can be found, appropriately enough, on Grand's left side, may not be much of a threat to Scripps-Howard or Hearst, the venture is impressive nevertheless, encompassing a biweekly, nationally distributed newspaper celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, as well as growing Internet, radio, news service and book-publishing projects. And that's not bad considering that even HCN's publisher, Ed Marston, describes the environmentally focused paper as "a difficult read."

Of course, Marston, who's been running HCN alongside his wife, editor Betsy Marston, since 1983, doesn't mean that as a pejorative critique of the paper, which is among the most literate of all advocacy publications. Rather, he's simply suggesting that it is written for a very specific audience. "It requires that people think of themselves as citizens of the West, not just citizens of Colorado or Wyoming or wherever," he says. "They have to care about the federal estate and how it transcends a particular boundary. And they also have to be fairly sophisticated about natural-resource issues. They've got to care about who runs the Bureau of Land Management and who's the chief of the Forest Service."

On the surface, a readership this specialized wouldn't seem large enough to pay HCN's light bills, let alone support numerous spinoffs. But the paper's subscription base is 22,000 strong and includes government types, lobbyists and big-city journalists who prize the publication for its ability to spot environmental issues that have not yet popped up on the national radar screen. A USA Today piece about the biweekly that appeared in May quoted Mark Rey, a Republican aide working on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, declaring HCN to be "a pretty good barometer of the thinking of environmental groups in the intermountain West," while a more recent piece in SEJournal, a quarterly put out by the Society of Environmental Journalists, noted that outgoing Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt peruses it regularly. Babbitt has also been a guest on HCN's weekly radio program, heard locally on Boulder's KGNU-FM/88.5 Mondays at 4 p.m., as have heavy hitters such as writer John McPhee and Idaho senator Larry Craig. Moreover, reporters at publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post often use HCN as an idea mine. Read a story in HCN one month, and odds are good that versions on the same subject will turn up in other newspapers the next.

Home on the range: Ed and Betsy Marston have run the High Country News since 1983.
Cindy Wehling
Home on the range: Ed and Betsy Marston have run the High Country News since 1983.

This state of affairs doesn't appear to bother Ed, a crusading type who's more concerned with the word getting out than in receiving credit for spreading it; although he's pleased whenever HCN is referenced in articles that build upon his paper's work, he says the message is what matters most. But at the same time, he admits that the publication has become increasingly pragmatic over the years, concentrating less on convincing the masses that environmentalism isn't some sort of strange nature cult and more on finding ways to get better rules and regulations implemented. This hasn't pleased the movement's greenest zealots, who tend to see any willingness to compromise as a fatal flaw, nor has it necessarily reassured conservative types convinced that HCN remains inveterately liberal. Yet Ed insists that the less doctrinaire approach pays dividends through greater objectivity. "We are activists, but we always try to respectfully present the other side's point of view," he says. "And we try not to demonize people just because they disagree with us -- except, I must admit, off-road-vehicle people." Laughing, he adds, "We think riding through forests and grasslands on motorized buggies is too destructive an activity. But who knows -- maybe someday we'll mellow on that, too."

In the beginning, HCN was anything but laid-back. It was founded in 1970 by Tom Bell, a Wyoming rancher and wildlife biologist who was mad as hell about what was happening to the natural wonders of his state. To that end, he purchased a benign existing publication -- Camping News Weekly, which Ed describes as "the kind of paper that used to run the 'trailer of the week' on its cover" -- and transformed it into the crusading voice for environmentalism in the Rockies. After three years of chest-thumping, Bell grew disillusioned and sold HCN to a handful of true believers.

The sheet changed hands a few more times during the next decade, becoming a nonprofit along the way, and by 1983, the shoestring operation, then headquartered in Lander, Wyoming, was fraying -- a not-uncommon fate among such publications. For instance, the indiosyncratic Mountain Gazette died in 1979 despite an active cult of fans, only to reappear this month as a magazine helmed by Sol Day News vet Curtis Robinson. HCN's saviours, as it turned out, were the Marstons, a couple with East Coast roots (Ed had been an associate professor of physics at New Jersey's Ramapo College, whereas Betsy was best known as a producer, filmmaker and sometime anchor for a public-TV station in New York) who in 1974 had chucked big-city life in favor of Paonia, close to where they'd built a summer cabin. Following their arrival in Colorado, they had started a newspaper, the North Fork Times, and after selling it, they created another, the Western Colorado Report. Still, they were uncertain about their future when they learned that HCN was on the market. "It was a wonderful opportunity for us to stay in the West," Betsy points out, "but we told them we were only interested if we could move the paper to where we were." After the board of directors agreed, HCN's assets were made ready for transport to Paonia. "They came here in a pickup," Betsy remembers. "We got a great photo file, a list of, I think, 3,400 subscribers, and a couple of chairs."

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