Readers wield their fiery pens


High Country News readers have always been an opinionated bunch.  You weigh in on whether you agree or disagree with what's been reported, provide unique perspectives and often set us straight with additional facts and details about complicated issues.  For 40 years, your letters have encouraged and inspired the staff, connected the far-flung community of people who care about the West, and provided news tips for our writers to dig into.

Lately I've been perusing musty copies of High Country News from the mid 70's to get a feel for what got readers riled up during that first decade.

A front-page feature about the conflict between grizzly bears and Idaho sheep ranchers just outside of Yellowstone was an especially hot topic in 1977. The story reported that for years, Frank DeShon, a game biologist for the Idaho Fish and Game Department had been trying to solve the conflict that was having a devastating effect on these charismatic creatures.  The previous year, 28 grizzly bears on the Targhee National Forest had been killed because they'd been identified as eating livestock.

"I'm tired of being nice," Deshon was quoted as saying. "Getting the goddamn sheep out is the only answer.  There ought to be one place in Idaho where a grizzly could be safe from sheep grazing.  Right now, there isn't.  The grizzly needs more help than any other animal on the Targhee."

For four months, dozens of readers responded.  "The article was insensitive and most inflammatory, presenting sheep producers as modern-day Stone Age characters," wrote one reader.

"Do I eat sheep or use wool? No," wrote another. "I stopped eating mutton and lamb and buying wool products during the big sheepmen-shooting-eagles fiasco, and have continued that boycott ever since.  In sum – WHO NEEDS SHEEP?

Another charismatic, yet curmudgeonly, creature provoked an exceptional number of readers to take up their pens and typewriters during the 70's – writer Edward Abbey.  Abbey was a fan and contributing writer of High Country News.  "Yours is the best little paper north of the San Juan River," he wrote in the fall of 1974.  "Carry on lads."

A less than flattering review of The Monkey Wrench Gang by Arizona poet and English professor Peter Wild inspired several months of lively debate in 1975. Wild wondered whether Abbey had bowed to commercial publishing houses looking to turn a fast profit with "easy-to-read books laced with porno-violence."

"People may find delight in racing through The Monkey Wrench Gang once; few, if any, will bother to read it twice," he wrote.

Abbey responded:

Dear HCN:

Please tell Mr. Peter Wild* to add a cupful of sugar to his sour grape juice each morning.  That should help his colic.

Yours, Ed Abbey, Wolf Hole, Ariz.     *Is that really his name?

For months, dozens of readers weighed in.

Dear Editors:

Peter Wild is right.  Abbey's "Monkey" book is an obscene, reckless, and irresponsible piece of trash which will set the conservation movement back about 50 years.

And sexist besides. Ban it!

D.R. Schoenfeld, Los Angeles, Calif.

"It seems to me quite false for Peter Wild to call Abbey's novel the Monkey Wrench Gang an example of "porno-violence.  There is much love, some of it erotic, in the book, but certainly nothing pornographic," wrote another reader. " In my opinion The Monkey Wrench Gang will someday be recognized as a comic masterpiece."

Several issues later an essay by Abbey, Telluride blues, a hatchet job, appeared on the cover in which Abbey bemoaned the "Californication" of Telluride, Colo. "Formerly an honest, decayed little mining town of about 300 souls, it is now a bustling whore of a ski resort with a population of 1,500 and many more to come," he groused.  Classic Abbey.

Again readers' opinions ran the gamut.  Some skewered him for his "salty" language, while others lauded his "straight talk" and "tremendous" prose.

One thing hasn't changed in forty years:  High Country News readers are still not afraid to share their opinions.  It's something that keeps both the institution and the West on its toes. To let us know what you think, click "Add Comment" at the end of any story, or send e-mail to: editor at