A decade of difficult questions
Reflections on a cantankerous, contrarian Western newsmagazine
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.
And we ran stories that were skeptical — sometimes critical — of the environmental movement. I wrote a cover story about the visionary Wildlands Project, which was inspiring a new generation of conservationists — and sparking fear, loathing and downright hatred from many rural residents. HCN Northern Rockies Editor Ray Ring wrote about Montana enviros who had become separated from the diverse allies that once made them a powerful, progressive force.
We lost readers for telling these stories, but we were determined to ask the tough questions.
The winds in Washington did change, of course — though it took us a while to realize just how dramatically. The wholesale rollbacks of environmental rules and the large-scale leasing of the landscape for energy development made the Clinton days seem like a romantic dream. By 2003, HCN was running regular stories about the Bush administration’s meddling with science and natural resource policy.
Our readers reacted strongly to our early coverage of the administration, some complaining that we’d become too "lefty" and biased. A brief mention of this reaction in the "Dear Friends" column elicited a blizzard of letters — some supportive, some biting. The message came through loud and clear: Our readers wanted solid, accurate reporting above all else, and they didn’t want us to lose track of the grassroots efforts that had inspired so many hopes.
We continued to watch Washington, but we tried to do it in a smarter and sharper way. Freelance writer Kathie Durbin’s cover story about the Biscuit Fire salvage project in Oregon showed that the Forest Service had tried to act responsibly, but that field staffers had been steamrolled by vengeful higher-ups. Her story about Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative again called into question the sincerity of officials in Washington, pointing out that they were crediting their new "streamlined" rules with progress that had been made under the old ones.
With conservationists once more on the defensive, we refused to give up our role as their fiercest friend. We celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, not with a dewy-eyed remembrance of the brave wilderness warriors of the past, but with a hard-nosed essay by Associate Editor Matt Jenkins laying out the real political compromises needed to protect wilderness.
At times, it must seem like our sole purpose is to make our readers uncomfortable. But we do it for a reason: We want to understand the path the West is on, and do our part to help the region find its way to a better future. We want to help the West thrive in the long term, less vulnerable to economic booms and busts and changing political winds. And we believe that this will only happen if we continue to think hard, ask difficult questions, and foster energetic and honest discussion with people we don’t necessarily agree with.
Lynn Scarlett did agree to talk with me "on the record" a few weeks after our surprise encounter. And while she wasn’t half as candid as she’d been that morning on the plane, there were a few things that we could agree on publicly. One of those things is the importance of local solutions: She’s pushed hard in the past few years to force federal employees to work more productively with local people.
I told her that I had a hard time taking the talk of cooperation seriously when the administration had so clearly put energy development ahead of all else, including public opinion. We’d flown over the physical manifestation of this policy in western Wyoming, which is riddled with roads and well pads.
She gave me the party line about balancing development with conservation, and "ensuring that we can warm our homes, drive our cars to go see our grandmothers and grandfathers …" I wanted to gag. But then she let her guard down, for just a moment.
Much of the energy development now under way is the result of leases sold under previous administrations, she said; the real implications of the Bush administration’s leasing spree have yet to be realized. "We’re concerned," she said. And I believe she meant it.
No, the Old West isn’t dead. Energy markets have given it a new lease on life, and the Bush administration has accelerated and extended it, ensuring that the boom will continue for decades to come. But I found a little consolation in the fact that even some within the administration realize that their "winner takes all" attitude hasn’t been the best thing for the region. Perhaps there’s some hope that we will be able to cushion the impact of the growing energy boom, and that, some day, we’ll be able to set our differences aside and work together for a saner, more sustainable West.