Reporting on the West’s public lands and environment can be a gloomy task. The news from four decades of High Country News - battles over massive strip mines, ancient forests decimated by greedy timber companies, the sorry state of public grazing land, gas wells popping up like a pox and recreation enthusiasts trampling the land they love - can leave even the most optimistic person feeling a little grim. Readers often plead that we “find some good news to report.”
Former High Country News publisher Ed Marston says one of the job’s greatest challenges “was the emotional weight of being the undertaker of the West.”
To be sure, High Country News finds plenty of bright spots around the West - the success of wolves in the Northern Rockies, the signing of a wilderness or land-conservation bill, or the drama of a federal land management employee bucking the status quo.
Eight years into his 19-year tenure, Marston found a bright spot in an Eastern Oregon ranching couple, Doc and Connie Hatfield, whom he met in the summer of 1991. “I went there convinced that, perhaps over the medium term, but certainly over the long term, public-land ranching was doomed,” he wrote in the March 23, 1992, issue that featured the Hatfields (cover image of issue below left, or click here to download the entire package of grazing articles from this issue as a pdf; Note: download is 18Mb).
Marston told of the charismatic couple managing their cattle operation in concert with the wildlife on their ranch. They kept their cows away from a pond until nesting ducks had hatched their eggs and raised the young, and they had their calves born in the spring instead of in January to manage around a large population of coyotes. While neighboring ranchers who calved in January had to hire helicopters to kill coyotes who attacked the newborn calves, the Hatfield’s spring-born calves were left alone because the coyotes had plenty of rodents to eat.
The Hatfields organized neighboring ranchers, formed a profitable co-op to market and sell grass-fed hormone-free beef, invited adversaries to tour their ranch, and joined a working group comprised of ranchers, public land officials and environmentalists to address the political stalemate and bitter fights that had escalated over grazing and other resource issues.
Marston says that the Hatfields’ story was a turning point in his career and for High Country News. “It offered hope that the West could become both a better economic and ecological place to live.”
But his revelation didn’t happen overnight. Two years earlier in a special issue, titled “Bucking Tradition: Moving Toward Sustainable Ranching,” Marston asked “can ranchers change the way they do business?” (Cover image of issue at right, or click here to download the entire article as a pdf). At the time, “Cow-free in ’93!” was the rallying cry for many in the environmental community. Ranchers paid $1.81 per cow/calf unit per month to graze on public land, a pittance compared to grazing fees on private land. “The subsidy is in jeopardy because the politics are changing,” wrote Marston. “Grazing fees subsidies of a few dollars to $10 per animal grazed per month are not about to be abolished. But it is possible to foresee their end. (Twenty years later the fee is $1.35).
The collection of stories from freelancers around the region explored the possibility that public land ranchers and their century-old way of doing business could change. “Total eviction of the cattle and sheep would not be much of a victory,” wrote Marston. “The real victory will be reform of public land ranching so that it becomes an asset to the West rather than its present liability.”
Two months later, a sequel to the special issue appeared (cover image at left, or click here to download the article as a pdf). The work of publishing High Country News had moved him to tears twice, Marston wrote, “both times while compiling this grazing issue.” He described “a sense of profound relief because there is – at last – evidence of sustainable, unstoppable movement to recover a lost land.”
He found that evidence in two mid-level federal land management agents who took on powerful ranching interests in their districts. One was a Forest Service district ranger in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest named Don Oman. Oman, raised on a Montana ranch and educated at the University of Montana, confronted ranchers about grazing practices that violated their permits and were destroying rangeland and riparian areas. After ranchers complained to their U.S. senators and congressional representatives, Oman was strongly encouraged by his supervisors to transfer out of the district. As a result, Oman filed a whistleblower complaint with the federal government.
The second was Richard Kroger, a wetland-fishery biologist who had worked for ten years in the Bureau of Land Management in Worland, Wyo. Kroger wrote that the “Bucking Tradition” grazing issue had inspired him to write to High Country News. He wrote that the key to recovering the land was reforming the BLM and described the inner workings of the federal agencies managing the West’s public lands. “(New hires) are quickly presented with a choice between their commitment to natural resources and their drive to succeed within the agency (click here to download the article as a pdf).
“Young professionals begin their jobs by presenting biological data to their bosses in support of certain recommendations. They soon learn that if an issue is sensitive, data will be disregarded and final decisions made on the basis of politics. If new staff people oppose the politics, ask question or fight for biologically based decisions, they will be labeled troublemakers and shunted through or out of the system.”
The New York Times picked up the Don Oman story and People magazine followed with a lengthy article. Meanwhile other on-the-ground federal employees were coming forward with tales about the undue influence that both ranchers and the timber industry had on their jobs and the agencies.
One man in particular had empowered federal employees to speak out. Jeff DeBonis, an 11-year veteran of the Forest Service and a timber sales planner for the Willamette National Forest, first appeared in the pages of High Country News on the cover of the June 5, 1989 issue (cover image of issue at left, or click here to download the entire article as a pdf). Concerned with the northwest’s dwindling forests and that that the Forest Service’s top priority continued to be “to get the cut out”, DeBonis launched Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) to pressure the agencies from within to take land stewardship seriously and convince the public to demand the same.
By the time Don Oman filed his whistleblower complaint in 1990, DeBonis had quit his Forest Service job to direct his fledgling organization full-time, offering advice to Oman and others on the rules of free speech for agency employees and a network of support.
These signs of life from within the mid-ranks of the federal agencies coupled with Marston’s visit to the Hatfields’ Oregon ranch provided Marston with a sense that reform had taken root in the West. For the High Country News organization, it meant another step away from preaching to the choir and toward reaching a broader audience, an audience that continues to look to High Country News to debate the merits not only of cows in the West but the countless other issues, both bright and grim, that help define the region.