Over the past months, High Country News has received a number of letters and e-mails from readers upset about the tone of an article or an opinion expressed in one of the Writers on the Range columns. You'll find one such letter below from a Bozeman, Mont., reader blasting Writers on the Range for running columns that go against the grain of mainstream environmentalism.
These letters are part of a struggle that has been ongoing here at High Country News for more than a decade. In its early years, HCN walked lockstep with the fledgling environmental movement, reporting on its every move and speaking out for the West's land, air and water. Nowhere will you find a more fierce defender of the region's wildlands than Tom Bell, the Wyoming rancher and biologist who founded HCN in 1970.
The land, air and water still come first here, and we hope that shines through in the paper, the radio show, the Web site and Writers on the Range. At the same time, HCN has become a very different beast than Sierra Magazine or Audubon or the newsletters you receive from your local conservation groups. We look at the overall context in which environmental issues play out. We stand on the fringe. We're a wallflower at the environmental movement's dance. High Country News is engaged in journalism, and it's our job to present opposing viewpoints fairly and with respect. Our bias comes through in the stories we choose to run, and the way we tell them. But we do our best to report what we find, rather than trying to fit what's happening on the ground into some ultimate truth.
Our goal is to help people understand the West and the characters who populate it. And nowhere do we do that better than with Writers on the Range, which each week sends three columns to 65 Western newspapers with a combined circulation of 1.9 million readers.
As with the newspaper and radio show, Writers on the Range presents a variety of viewpoints, including some on which environmentalists can reasonably (and passionately) disagree. But because Writers on the Range columns appear outside of the context of High Country News, readers don't always get all sides of the story all at once.
The occasional columns by cowboys and loggers rankle some readers. But Writers on the Range serves the same purpose HCN does: It raises tough questions and gets people talking about how best to care for this colorful, changing region. We don't agree with every word that flies out of the office, and we make mistakes. But we think it's important to get opinions out in the open.
And truth be told, we like a good argument.
We're also wary of making the same mistakes as the West's rural cowboy culture. When Tom Bell first started speaking out against predator poisoning and oil and gas development, he was dismissed as an obstructionist, a Luddite. "Tree-huggers" and "newcomers" are still marginalized in small towns such as Paonia, Colo., HCN's home base. But we don't think the answer is to marginalize the rest of the West in response.
We're confident that environmentalism has taken root in the West. It will continue to shape the region as powerfully as any movement that came before it. It must work within a larger political and social structure, however. So rather than out-shouting our opponents, we intend to listen and learn from them.
Environmental groups are always told: "Don't just sing to the choir. Talk to a broad public." HCN is learning why so few groups follow that advice. It's hard to talk to a general audience from inside a movement. And if you figure out how to do it, you get a lot of grief.
Nevertheless, we intend to continue on this path. And we hope that you, our readers, will continue to be as energetically engaged in HCN and its mission as the letter-writer below. If we inform and involve readers, if we argue hard, but treat each other civilly, then High Country News has served its purpose.
Greg Hanscom is associate publisher of High Country News. Read letter (HCN, 10/22/01: WOTR columns are propaganda).