High Country News: Branching out

The fourth in a series celebrating our 45th Anniversary.


“The Gangs of Zion” was the first issue of HCN as a full-color magazine.
HCN Archives

“The show was a reunion of sorts for young Pacific Islanders. ... Famously large, and often tattooed, the young men and women had roots in Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii and other Pacific Island groups. They crowded in with brothers, sisters and cousins, amping up for Dube’s outspoken lyrics and mellow backbeats.”

When HCN’s Aug. 8, 2005, cover story, “The Gangs of Zion,” described how a concert at Club Suede disintegrated into a brawl between two rival Salt Lake City gangs, some readers might have briefly imagined that they’d accidentally grabbed The New Yorker.

The story was something of a test, remembers publisher Paul Larmer, with its unusual subject and striking full-color photos of Polynesian gang members. It came not long after he and a new generation of staffers, including editor Greg Hanscom, turned the black-and-white newspaper into a full-color magazine. Could HCN stay true to itself, while evolving and expanding?

The year before, HCN took a similar risk, recalls contributing editor Michelle Nijhuis. In the early 2000s, scientists were increasingly sounding the alarm about human-caused climate change. Could HCN bring this abstract topic down to (Western) earth, even as most scientists were only beginning to link it to bark beetle invasions and deepening drought? Yes: Nijhuis wrote an award-winning series of science-based features that gave Westerners an unprecedented look at the already present and predicted effects of climate change on the region.

Staff members editing pages in 2001.
Michael Brands

HCN’s environmental coverage also branched out, tackling not only on-the-ground issues but the larger movement itself, with contrarian headlines like: “Where were the environmentalists when Libby (Montana) needed them most?” And HCN added firepower to our website in 2003, when we hired our first Web master, future bestselling science fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi. Paolo started HCN’s first blog and later penned our first fictional cover story — a futuristic tale of bounty hunters who slash tamarisk from riverbanks to survive in a water-strapped West.

The West’s public land, water and wildlife remained HCN’s main focus, but after “The Gangs of Zion” hit the newsstands, readers no longer were startled to find profiles of anarchistic RV communities in the Arizona desert, billboard corporations in Salt Lake City, or Muslim meatpackers in Colorado. These stories grapple with the ways that the West’s diverse communities — including the Polynesian immigrants lured to Utah by Mormon missionaries — confront, again and again, the question of how to live in an ever-changing region.

Read “The Gangs of Zion,” plus other articles highlighting this era of HCN.