High Country News marks 4 decades informing debate on Western issues

A collection of High Country News covers sit on display at the magazine’s office in Paonia.

Contributing editor Michelle Nijhuis, left, and editor Jonathan Thompson confer on pages being finalized at the High Country News office in Paonia.

High Country News staffers, Betsey Marston, Paul Larmer and Sarah Gilman talk in the newsroom of the High Country News in Paonia.

PAONIA — If you’re looking for insight into the western institution known as High Country News, neighboring businesses on Grand Avenue in Paonia may not be the best places to get it.

“I’m not even really familiar with the paper,” said Mark Ramsey, owner of Nelle’s coffee shop.

“I don’t know anything about them. I really don’t,” said Chad Campbell as he manned the counter at the Homestead Market natural-beef cooperative, which is co-owned by Campbell’s family ranch.

But others far from Paonia are much more familiar with this nonprofit magazine that has reached its 40th year of covering environmental and other issues of the West. Its readers range from a core of conservationists, to policymakers, to traditional Westerners interested in tracking different points of view.

“It’s always nice to see what the other side’s thinking,” said Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little, a Republican and a rancher.

Suzanne Jones, regional director in Denver for the Wilderness Society, said the magazine occupies “a unique niche in both covering Western issues from a western perspective and doing in-depth environmental reporting.”

“They’ve been a very useful voice. I don’t think anybody ever agrees with them all the time, but they provide a very useful discussion and debate and I hope they’ll be around for another 40 years,” Jones said.

At one time, it was questionable if High Country News would survive for four more years, much less 40.

It had its beginnings not in Paonia, but in Lander, Wyo., after Lander native Tom Bell bought Camping News Weekly in 1969. The next year, he renamed it, shifted its focus from outdoor recreation to the environment, and began covering the nascent environmental movement.

Bell soon made the publication a nonprofit. However, by 1973, he decided to close it because of financial difficulties. Within a day of announcing his decision to readers, dozens of donations poured in. Bell decided to press on, but a year later retired and handed over editorial duties to others.

The move to Paonia came when the High Country News board decided in 1983 to hire Paonia residents Ed and Betsy Marston to run the magazine. The Marstons moved in the 1970s from New York to run a paper in Paonia, following careers as a television producer (Betsy) and physics professor (Ed).

Ed Marston’s run as publisher of the High Country News lasted 19 years. After serving as editor, Betsy Marston continues to work there part-time.

During Ed Marston’s tenure, the publication’s circulation grew from 3,000 to 20,000. Perhaps as important, the Marstons helped the High Country News shift its editorial approach away from straightforward environmental advocacy.

The current publisher, Paul Larmer, says the High Country News initially gave voice to environmental organizations at a time when they didn’t carry much clout. As those organizations have grown more powerful, the publication has also tried to report on other points of view, such as those of loggers, small-town business owners and ranchers.

“Occasionally, we write stories that take a harder look at the environmental tactics environmentalists use. Is a string of lawsuits really the best way to effect change in the West, or is working more collaboratively more effective?” Larmer said.

Having the magazine in Paonia, where staff rub shoulders with ranchers and coal miners, provides a broader perspective than if the publication was in an urban area, Larmer said.

Under the magazine’s more nuanced approach, for example, ranchers — long criticized by environmentalists as a threat to public land because of grazing — also have been portrayed as players in helping to save valleys from development.

“A lot of our readers still expect us to advocate for environmentalism. Sometimes they’re disappointed that we don’t. That’s not our job anymore, I think,” Editor Jonathan Thompson said.

He said the High Country News still usually advocates for the environment, but that doesn’t always match the goals of environmentalism or environmental groups. It might mean encouraging ranching, or creating jobs by thinning a forest.

“I think the environment includes people as an integral part,” Thompson said. “If we’re just preaching to the choir, then only the choir’s going to listen to us. That’s not going to change anything. If we can be a credible organization that communicates accurate information, people are going to listen and then they can make up their own minds what to think.”

Jones, of the Wilderness Society, said the High Country News has evolved to a point where it asks tougher questions of environmental organizations, and, like a lot of news outlets, it looks for controversy or sometimes even helps create it.

“I think sometimes folks like to go after the environmental community to build their own credibility, and I don’t always appreciate that. But I think it’s useful for everyone to have to justify their positions. ... There’s nothing wrong with asking tough questions, so I think that that’s fine.

“I also think that they’ve become a spokesperson for collaboration, which can be a really good thing, but not at the expense of having strong environmental laws that bring people to the table,” Jones said.

The High Country News also seeks to cover issues beyond strictly environmental ones.

Larmer is proud of the magazine’s writing on the use of West African migrant labor in Colorado ski resorts, and the fact that it has reported not only on environmental impacts of oil and gas drilling, but on rig worker safety concerns.

Little appreciates that frequently the magazine’s pro-environmental centerpiece articles have included side stories about the potential impacts to people on the land should certain environmental preservation efforts succeed.

“I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to the publication and probably convinced me to accept the invitation to serve on the board,” Little said.

In the late 1990s, Little joined the publication’s board as what he called its token “middle-aged, Anglo-Saxon male Republican.”

He said there were times High Country News did stories that drove him crazy, but it’s important the publication be an environmental magazine, given its target audience.

The magazine’s dedicated readership is a key to its success. It has about 24,000 paid subscribers, Larmer said, and subscriptions and donations make up about 70 percent of its income.

The publication has more than 20 full- and part-time employees, making it a major Paonia employer, and it has a budget of about $2 million.

Stephanie La Tourette, owner of Expressions Bookstore in Paonia, has been amazed over the years to see readers “from all over the place” come looking for the High Country News office to pay a visit.

“They’ve got this incredible readership,” she said. “I know they have a lot of people that drop by there.”

She also has enjoyed meeting some of the many interns who have rotated through the magazine’s office over the years, just as the interns have enjoyed the experience of working and living in an intimately small, western town.

“Everyone knows your name,” said Lisa Song, a current intern.

Many of the publication’s interns have gone on to do accomplished work in writing and editing, Larmer being one of them.

A former online editor, Paulo Bacigalupi, now enjoys a successful science fiction writing career, which he pursues from an office above La Tourette’s bookstore.

At a time when many newspapers are struggling, Bacigalupi wonders if the nonprofit approach of his former employer may be a promising one for the future of journalism.

“It’s really neat to see the High Country News model seems to be a stable one,” he said.


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