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A Brief History of High Country News

High Country News traces its roots back to August of 1969 when Tom Bell, a native of Lander, Wyo., bought Camping News Weekly, a small outdoor recreation publication geared toward anglers and hunters. Bell, a World War II veteran, wildlife biologist and high school teacher, wanted to provide more than just fishing tips and camping hotspots. He was eager to inform people about what saw as an impending environmental crisis in his beloved West, one that was largely being ignored by the region’s newspapers.

In 1970, he rechristened his publication High Country News and began to focus exclusively on environmental issues. The bi-weekly attracted a small, loyal following, but it soon became clear that subscriptions and local advertising wouldn’t support it. So Bell decided to make his fledgling publication a nonprofit. Still, by early 1973, High Country News faced mounting financial difficulties, and Bell announced to his readers that it would cease publication. He wrote: “We have done our best. It was not good enough.” The next day, dozens of envelopes began appearing in the mail, filled with cash, checks and encouraging notes begging Bell and his team not to quit.

In the next issue, Bell wrote: “Each day the letters come pouring in and, as you read them, you alternate between humbly crying and joyfully cheering. People whom we have never met except through the pages of a little paper write us as they would a long-lost friend. Somehow we have created another bond between people across a far-flung land.”

Financial challenges

At the time, his readers probably didn’t know of Bell’s sacrifices to keep the paper alive. He sold his ranch, and he spent all of his savings. He also was working for almost nothing, surviving on money from uranium stock he acquired when he was a teacher. “He even hopes that one day, the paper will earn enough so that he can collect an annual salary of around $6,000 and can take an occasional vacation,” a 1973 Los Angeles Times piece reported.

Once High Country News regained its financial footing, the stress of putting out the paper became too much for Bell and his family. In 1974, he turned it over to 23-year-old Bruce Hamilton and 24-year-old Joan Nice Hamilton, who were the paper’s staff writers. They ably kept the flame alive, covering issues as varied as ski resort development in Colorado, the plight of the Yellowstone grizzly bear, and the prospects for widespread use of solar energy in the West. High Country News faced another financial emergency in the late 1970s, when a devastating car accident took the life of one staffer and injured three others. But again, devoted readers donated $32,000 to keep it going.

Enter the Marstons

In 1983, with the Hamiltons and the other editors – Dan Whipple and Geoff O’Gara – ready to move on, the board of directors voted 5-to-4 to hire Ed and Betsy Marston, two transplanted New Yorkers who had moved to Paonia, Colo., in the 1970s to run a local newspaper. The paper migrated from Lander to Paonia in the back of a pickup truck, and it proved to be a wise move; under the Marstons, who were intensely curious about their new home, the paper grew into the West’s leading independent publication, expanding its scope beyond traditional environmental issues and attracting a broader audience. It became essential reading for Westerners and lawmakers concerned with the region’s cultural, economic and political landscapes. A 1988 Rocky Mountain News article reported that former Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth read it cover to cover. And aides to then Sen. Alan Simpson, a conservative from Wyoming, clipped stories from the newspaper. Circulation grew rapidly, too, from 3,000 in 1984 to 20,000 in 2001, when Ed Marston stepped down after 19 years as the publisher.

In 1990, a Rolling Stone magazine profile reported that the paper was read by reporters who regularly appropriated stories for their own urban dailies. “(Its) clear, balanced writing, a nuts-and-bolts understanding of the issues, and a freedom from the reproves of advertisers” helped the paper to become “a center for provocative thought on ecological issues,” the magazine said almost 20 years ago.

Finding a niche

In the 1990s, as the human population of the West rapidly expanded, High Country News broke new ground with its coverage of land-use planning and a nascent collaborative wing of the environmental movement that sought common ground, rather than lawsuits, with traditional Western powers; it reported on progressive ranchers who were committed to ecological restoration and maintaining open spaces adjacent to public lands. This stirred up heated debate among activists who wanted to curtail livestock grazing across the region, and clearly heralded that High Country News had grown to be an independent voice apart from the environmental movement itself.

The publication also began looking at the changing social dynamics brought about by the population boom. Its coverage of African workers serving the rich in Vail, Colo.; of a growing methamphetamine epidemic in the rural West; and of the deadly work conditions faced by oil and gas workers caught the attention of leaders and other journalists in the late 1990s and 2000s. It also produced the first substantial series in the country on the impacts of climate change on a region that has always been challenged by drought.

The 2000s were marked by a transition to new leadership; in 2002, the board of directors hired long-time editorial staffer Paul Larmer to become the executive director and publisher. He and the team transformed the newspaper into a four-color magazine and revamped the Web site (originally launched in 1995) to become a more nimble and active daily source of Western news.

Now celebrating its 40th year, High Country News remains true to its mission – to produce compelling and ground-breaking reporting that informs and inspires people to take action. And it’s touching more lives than ever through its magazine, Web site and syndication services.

Amid the current economic downturn, which has severely impacted journalism, High Country News is more valuable than ever, as regional newspapers and magazines slash environmental and natural resource coverage or fold up shop altogether. It is an example of how nonprofit journalism can flourish if it remains true to its mission and, most importantly, to the loyal and smart readers who have always kept it going.