Pack the truck.....we're headed to Colorado

 

A rather unimpressive photo of former Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart accompanies the headline "You gotta have Hart" in the July 8, 1983 issue of High Country News.

Reported by then-editor Dan Whipple, the article is set in Snowmass, Colo., at the Sierra Club's First International Assembly where presidential candidates and environmentalists mingled to talk about the environment.

"If the gathering could be said to have had a unifying theme," wrote Whipple, "it would have been 'Daffy Duck is preferable to four more years of Reagan,' Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) said in his opening remarks to the 800 assembled Sierra Club members."

As it turns out, the bigger news reported in that issue was on the second page.  "Big changes are in the works for HCN.  Effective September 2, the paper will be published by a new team, Ed and Betsy Marston, from a new location, Paonia, Colorado," wrote the staff in "Dear Friends."

The paper's 13-year stint in Lander, Wyo., was coming to a close. Whipple and two other senior staffers, Production Manager Kathy Bogan and Director and fundraiser Jill Bamburg, were headed farther West to follow new pursuits.

The three-person team had taken the paper over 14 months earlier from Geoffrey O'Gara who in 1979 arrived in Lander from Washington, D.C., wearing wool slacks and a tie.  O'Gara completed the organization's transformation into a non-profit overseen by a board of directors and hired Kathy Bogan to redesign the paper. O'Gara also strived to attract a more literary audience.

Under Whipple, Bogan & Bamburg, the writing, design, fundraising and journalistic standards reached a new level, but eventually they ran out of juice.

During a 12-hour long meeting in Lander, High Country News board members weighed the options. Two strong contenders had proposed running the organization from locations other than Lander - the Marstons from Colorado and another, writer Don Snow, from Montana.  O'Gara was a board member at the time and later wrote that the change "was undoubtedly the most difficult transition in HCN's history since Tom Bell's sudden departure.

By a one-vote margin, the board decided to move the paper to Colorado. That July, boxes of business files, a few office chairs and a large and impressive photo collection headed south in the back of a pickup.

An excerpt from the Marstons' proposal printed in the "Dear Friends" that announced the paper's move explained to readers what they were getting.

"Our strategy would be to cover the environmental community in some of the ways a traditional weekly covers its town, using people to dramatize and explain issues.  But the environmental community, of course, is not a typical community, it is a geographically dispersed community and can – without too much exaggeration – be compared to the knights errant of the Middle Ages – always riding off in search of interesting situations that concern the region.  A newspaper that covers environmentalists is automatically led to the hottest issues.

"An environmental community approach doesn't mean we see HCN as a cheerleader.  Good weeklies go to war with their communities when the issue arises.  We would prize and defend the journalistic integrity HCN has achieved."

The Marstons moved to Paonia in 1974 from New York and founded a community newspaper, the North Fork Times, before turning to regional journalism and producing the Western Colorado Report, a biweekly that covered Western Colorado's natural resources, water and industry.  Ed had been a physics professor and Betsy an Emmy Award winning producer for a New York public television station before coming to Colorado.

As O'Gara – who still lives in Lander – explained in the Sept. 29, 1989, issue celebrating the organization's 20th anniversary, "despite their East Coast resumes, the Marstons had worked for years as community journalists in Paonia, and there is no better way to get to know (rural) people than to typeset their classifieds." (Cover image at left, or click here to download the entire article as a pdf.)

Paonia is even smaller than Lander, yet both depended on agriculture and mining at the time (the ore mine near Lander has since closed, but the coal mines outside of Paonia still operate).  "But in comparison with Wyoming, Colorado is a mega-state and even small, rural towns in Colorado are less wild, less Western, less isolated," wrote Ed Marston in the 20th anniversary issue.

"We've enjoyed the fact that it's tough to be an environmental newspaper in Wyoming – it's sharpened our questions and made us more sensitive to other points of view," wrote the Lander staff as they prepared for the organization's departure.

The West didn't get Hart – or Daffy Duck – in 1983.  But High Country News got a new home and two new personalities to carry on the tradition that had rooted 13 years earlier thanks to the unyielding work of founder Tom Bell.  In the first issue published from Paonia, the staff described the enormity of their task "to be a newspaper that both describes the West as it is and points the direction toward what it can be," a task that depends then as it does now on the loyal community of readers.