We’re not an environmental magazine

A deeper look at the way we cover the lands and communities of the American West.

 

High Country News is sometimes called an “environmental” magazine, even by folks within our walls. As the editor, though, I humbly disagree. HCN is a magazine of the American West, helping the region tell its own story, of its people and places, through several important lenses. One of those lenses is the West’s fragile, beautiful environment. Another is closely related: its natural resources, from coal, oil and gas, to timber, ranching and recreation. But a third is through the region’s communities — communities shaped by history and heritage, for better or worse.

In this issue, we explore one such community — the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The FLDS, dwindling in membership and with several of its leaders in jail or on the lam, constitutes a small corner of the modern West, but it represents an important aspect of the past. The sect is famous for its polygamy, an aspect of Utah life that is so important that the Salt Lake Tribune has a reporter essentially dedicated to covering it. Television shows have been made about it; Jon Krakauer even wrote a book. But while it is easy to caricature the faith’s adherents, it’s more instructive to look at how such legacy systems affect the people within them.

That’s what writer Sarah Scoles has done in her cover story. Through her on-the-ground reporting, we learn how the basic tenets of the FLDS faith ripple through the community, even as the modern world presses in. Members who find themselves on the wrong side of the powerful patriarchy can lose everything — even their children. They find themselves on the outside of their own lives, betrayed by their beliefs, and by the beliefs of their loved ones. This can be devastating for families, and it makes for heartbreaking reading. Scoles follows one father in his struggle to recover his children.

Editor-in-Chief Brian Calvert
Brooke Warren/High Country News

There is more to the story, though, than the exposure of fundamentalist church practices. Scoles reveals a dark kind of exploitation, particularly by church leaders who want multiple wives, including teenagers. But such exploitation is not unique to polygamy. Rather, it’s just another manifestation of a kind of greed, the rapaciousness that is at the root of many a Western problem.

The truth is that greed and exploitation underpin a lot of what we examine at High Country News. To me, that’s important, because the exploitation of human beings is wrong, whether they are followers of a controversial faith, undocumented workers, low-wage earners, the poor, gay, queer or transgendered, or any other group. The same person who would eagerly exploit a human being will just as easily exploit a landscape. Exploring these underpinning systems, those that have degraded the people and places of the West, is one of the magazine’s fundamental missions. Because once a thing is understood, it’s easier to beat.