Call it divine justice. Last month, I missed my plane home from a High Country News board meeting in Missoula, Mont. (It’s a long story; suffice it to say that the Rattlesnake Wilderness is lovely this time of year.) On a flight early the next morning, I found myself sitting next to none other than Lynn Scarlett, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior.
I’d never met Scarlett in person, but I’d spoken to her on the phone a few years before, when I was working on a story about a team of Forest Service employees whose jobs had been outsourced to private contractors. In the story, I’d given Scarlett her say, but I’d also gone out of my way to expose what I believed to be her real agenda: emasculating federal environmental agencies in order to turn their duties over to corporations.
There I was — a guy who had done my best, for almost a decade, to force HCN readers into some pretty agonizing conversations about the West — caught in a surprise encounter with a woman I believed to be my nemesis. And I had not yet had a drop of coffee. I would have killed to be able to call the office and have somebody beam me back.
Scarlett asked that I not share the conversation with readers, and admittedly, it was too early in the morning for official quotes. But I will say that, as we jetted over the vast gas fields of western Wyoming, we found more areas of agreement than I ever would have imagined.
And as I caught my connecting flight to Grand Junction, the conversation set me to reflecting on this institution, and its role in fostering discussion about the West.
My early days at HCN were heady times. Bill Clinton was in the White House and Bruce Babbitt, a conservationist and a Westerner, was in charge of the Interior Department. The political and economic tides seemed to have turned against the mining, timber and agricultural interests — Charles Wilkinson’s "lords of yesterday" — that had long ruled the region. The mood here was ebullient. We were journalists, but HCN’s roots are in the environmental movement, and we still had the well-being of the land at heart.
In the late 1990s, we blazed headlines across the cover such as "The Old West is Going Under" and "A New Road for the Public Lands." We proclaimed the end of the Age of Dams and a truce in the Timber Wars. Sure, there were still bad things afoot: Motorheads tore up the deserts, condos sprawled through the high country, and we were seeing the pesky beginnings of a natural gas boom. But we dared to dream that, having dispensed with the old fights, we could begin putting our ravaged region back together.
We ran stories about efforts to restore forests and rangelands, heal the scars left by mining, and bring back wolves and other native wildlife. Most dramatic were the stories about reviving rivers: With a friendly administration in Washington, proposals to drain Lake Powell and tear out dams on the Snake River didn’t seem all that far-fetched.
It was telling, though, that unlike much of the environmental movement, which was doing its best to pound the final nails in the Old West’s coffin, HCN paused and took a thoughtful step back. We asked whether the New West was such a great thing after all. And we looked at the conservation coup with questioning, critical eyes.
Part of our coverage of the effort to drain Lake Powell was a long essay about why Glen Canyon Dam — that great icon of evil for environmentalists — had saved the Interior West from rapid development. And when Paul Larmer, now HCN’s publisher, wrote about Clinton’s surprise declaration of the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, we asked the locals to tell us their side of the story. Many conservationists were furious.
Part of our reasoning was that Ed and Betsy Marston, HCN’s longtime publisher-editor team, had seen the winds of Washington change before. They believed that if Westerners didn’t buy into conservation, it would be short-lived. The old fights would flare up again as soon as the winds turned. Besides, it just seemed right to give local people a say.
We also believed that the environmental movement had become a strong and lasting presence in the region. It no longer needed a cheerleader. More than anything, the movement, and the West, needed clear-eyed honesty.
So even as we covered the big conservation victories — the national monuments and the roadless area protections — we also turned our attention to small-scale, local efforts to find compromise. In 1996, staff writer Lisa Jones kicked off HCN’s pioneering coverage of collaborative land management with her cover story, "Howdy, Neighbor!" What followed was a long string of stories about ranchers, loggers, environmentalists and developers sitting down together to find common ground. These were not sexy stories — it’s tough to make cooperation sound exciting — but we believed that inclusive, on-the-ground solutions were, in many ways, more important to the West.