From prom queens to dam dialogue


“She kept us out of trouble,” is how former High Country News publisher Ed Marston describes the first intern to take up the post in Paonia. Mary Moran arrived in the fall of 1983, just a month after the organization moved from rural Wyoming to rural Colorado and Ed and Betsy Marston took over as publisher and editor.

Mary had worked as a geologist, knew biology, and had traveled by bicycle around the Rocky Mountain West. She wrote and proofread articles, researched stories, spent every other Saturday in the darkroom. Her broad knowledge proved indispensable to the Marstons.

Transplanted from New York, Ed had worked as a physics professor and Betsy as a television news journalist before moving to Colorado in 1974. Once settled in Paonia (and bored), they founded and ran the North Fork Times, a community newspaper that covered school board meetings, prom queens, and potlucks.

After six years, they sold it and started Western Colorado Report, a publication that covered land, water and resource issues and reached a broader audience.  But when they took the helm of High Country News and merged the two publications, the Marstons found they still had a lot to learn about the West.

“We knew more about county commissions and ditch companies and chambers of commerce than we did about the Sierra Club and the Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act,” Ed is quoted as saying in the November 25, 2002 issue.

The Marstons embarked on a steep learning curve and quickly discovered that they had inherited a hand-to-mouth operation sustained by its close-knit relationship with readers, and their generosity.  But the in-depth news that appeared in each issue reported by the Marston team and the organization’s network of freelance writers gave the 13-year-old newspaper the appearance of solidity.

Behind the scenes, the Marstons struggled with what had plagued it from the beginning – and destroyed many other worthy publications:  how to reach enough subscribers to pay the bills.

In early 1984 the pressure mounted when former High Country News staffers - editor Dan Whipple and designer Kathy Bogan - joined with Don Snow and created a Western magazine dubbed Northern Lights. Snow had been a writer for High Country News and was the Marstons’ rival the previous year, when the HCN board was deciding who would take over the organization.  The beautifully designed magazine tapped High Country News writers for content and subscribers for funding contributions.

But the Marstons plowed ahead, setting what would eventually become a 19-year course for the organization. (Ed retired in 2002, while Betsy still edits Writers on the Range.)  Initially Ed augmented his High Country News salary with a stipend earned as a board member of the local electric co-op, which also offered Ed insight into the workings of the West. Betsy worked unpaid her first year.  The Marstons’ two children and their friends, paid in hamburgers and sodas, often acted as mail-crew, stuffing donation appeals into envelopes and licking stamps.

At the request of the High Country News board, Northern Lights headed in a less-news-more-literary direction, but after nearly a 20-year run, the quarterly magazine flickered out.

High Country News subscriber numbers grew steadily – from 3,300 to around 22,000 when Ed retired - while Ed and Betsy grappled with understanding their enormous Western news beat. For several summers after taking the helm, the Marstons traveled around the West to explore small towns, Indian Country, cities and national forests.

After one such trip, when the Bureau of Reclamation let them hitch a ride on a plane carrying their officials to tour Glen Canyon Dam, Ed pondered in the July 9, 1984 issue, “Can Edward Abbey learn to love Glen Canyon Dam?” (Cover image at left, or click here to download the two-page article as a pdf.)

It’s a preposterous question, but quintessential Ed Marston, whose tenure at High Country News encouraged the West to examine itself from improbable angles.

The story speculated about what would happen if Glen Canyon Dam operator Tom Gamble, “an easy-going and friendly man who epitomizes open, can-do America,” and who likes big structures and machines toured  “destructive, fulminating, impractical Abbey through his dam.”

From Gamble’s perch, “Abbey is a potential convert—a man who can be brought to see the benefits of the dam and the beauty of the 2500-square-mile lake it creates—a lake used by 83,000 people Memorial Day alone, more than rafted it the entire time it was a canyon,” wrote Marston.

But Marston believed the philosophical gap between the two men – “as big as the dam” – was too large.  Gamble viewed the dam’s 400,000 annual tourists as validating the massive structure and the lake it backs up while Abbey would see “these same mildly curious, polite, clean visitors as the scum of the earth -  ‘slobivius americanus’.”

Marston marveled at the dam’s work crew – many of whom were Navajo - drilling blast holes and pouring concrete in the giant spillway tunnels to repair damage following the 1983 flood that nearly caused the dam to self-destruct.   He questioned whether, after a tour, Abbey would “see Glen Canyon Dam as a challenge such as that which faced Powell and his crew in the same place?

“Would he be interested in quirks of the project, such as the “Navajo Navy”- the barges built to gain access to the flooded spillway tunnels?”  He concluded, “probably not.”

Responding to a letter from a subscriber disappointed with his “attack” of Abbey, Ed wrote that the article’s purpose wasn’t to “make HCN’s readers comfortable.  The purpose was to get (the two men) in a conversation-at-a-distance.

“The danger is that those within a movement will turn their opponents into dehumanized comic strip villains and ignore the fact that they may be dedicated to what they do, and may adhere to a value system they believe is high-minded and altruistic.  Unless we understand those opponent and their values, and test our arguments and values against theirs, we are bound to lose.”

The unlikely comparison between dam manager and dam hater is Marston prodding the West to think, to probe and to feel uncomfortable, and as High Country News contributor Lisa Jones wrote in 2002, “to grow up.”

In an effort to help build a more tolerant and prosperous society, both ecologically and economically, Marston wanted the West’s residents to sit down and talk to one another.  It’s an agenda that still guides the organization today. “Sharing was the Western way, especially if mining and grazing and recreation could be done responsibly,” explains Betsy. “We saw the West as a big place with room for all.”