High Country News: The reopening

The third in a series celebrating our 45th anniversary.


“Today, the rural West is as wide open as any 19th century mining or ranching town ... in precisely the sense of those old movie-set towns: Law and order have been broken down. Because this is the late 20th century, people are not shot in the streets. ... Today’s West is wide open in ways too subtle for an episode of Gunsmoke.”

Ed Marston wrote this in 1988 to introduce a four-part HCN series called “The Reopening of the Western Frontier.” Five years previously, there was a different kind of reopening, when the HCN board of directors hired Ed and his wife, Betsy, to run the paper, and High Country News moved from Lander, Wyoming, to Paonia, Colorado (the Marstons’ home) in the back of a pickup truck.

The West’s traditional economy was in crisis in the early ’80s. Oil prices tumbled, and Denver office towers hollowed out. Beef prices slumped. Even Paonia dwindled, as two nearby coal mines closed.

The “reopening” involved the idea of a New West, based on the non-extractive values of the public land. The Marstons were intrigued by the region’s vast public lands, perhaps because they saw the West with fresh eyes. Ed had been a college physics professor and Betsy a TV journalist in New York City, before they moved to Colorado in 1974.

Ed and Betsy Marston outside the High Country News office in Paonia, Colorado in 1990.

At first, HCN struggled, but as the Marstons gained understanding of Western issues and recruited freelance and staff writers from across the region, the paper grew stronger. Its circulation climbed; it even created a financial reserve.

A four-part HCN series in 1986, called “Western Water Made Simple,” untangled the subtleties of water management in the West’s three major river basins, winning a prestigious national prize. HCN sought middle ground in the grazing conflict, profiling progressive ranchers. Ed Marston could be provocative, too, saying the Forest Service should be abolished because it refused to adapt to a world beyond tree-cutting. By 1990, HCN had become almost cool, with Rolling Stone and People magazine touting the little paper with the large ambitions.

As HCN entered the digital age, Marston’s ’88 intro remained relevant. He’d warned readers not to expect a Gunsmoke-style dramatic ending. “The outcome of the reopening,” as he said, “will not be known for decades.”

Read from “The Reopening of the Western Frontier,” plus other articles highlighting this era.