A look back on 45 years of HCN

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To celebrate HCN's 45th anniversary, we asked former and current editors to nominate articles that highlight their time at HCN. Those stories are listed here, along with links to others that shine a light on HCN's history — its roots, its tragedies and good times, its survival against the odds because of a committed family of readers and writers. We hope you will come away feeling some of that connection, with a glimpse of the decades that continue to shape HCN's mission today. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we unfold more of the magazine's history. 


Origins and early years 

Tom Bell, whose life "coincides with the rise of the modern environmental movement," purchased Camping News Weekly — a small publicationgeared toward hunters and anglers — in 1969 and renamed it High Country News. Bell was a firebrand and a "quiet revolutionary" who transformed the paper into a hard-hitting environmental news biweekly. When a cadre of young editors took Bell's seat in 1974, they gave the publication a more newsy voice and expanded its reach across the Rocky Mountain West.

  • Tom Bell didn't shy from confronting eagle poachers and others whom he viewed as hell-bent on environmental destruction. In this issue's editorial, he writes: "I repeat ... when will justice be served?" These days, still living in Lander, he's riled up about human-caused climate change.
    Read "The Shame of It!" by Tom Bell, November 24, 1972.
  • Joan Nice Hamilton, HCN editor from 1973 to 1981, recalls this article (written by her husband Bruce Hamilton, HCN editor from 1973 to 1977) as an example of the local perspective that HCN brought to the 1970s energy crisis, a national issue that was one of HCN's staple topics. Many ranchers in the Tongue River area continue to fight coal mines, which are looking to Asia to expand their market.
    Read "Coal Conflict on Tongue River" by Bruce Hamilton, August 30, 1974
  • Much of HCN's reporting in the '70s fit squarely in a growing environmental awareness, but achieved an uncommon level of detail and analysis. This investigative article into the side effects of the herbicide 2,4,5-T (a component of the military exfoliant Agent Orange) "was really groundbreaking for 1978," says Marjane Ambler, who was associate editor from 1974 to 1980. News coverage like this likely played a role in the EPA's 1985 decision to terminate all use of the herbicide. 
    Read "Side Effects of Herbicide Shake EPA" by Justas Bavarskis, February 24, 1978.
  • HCN made an early effort to give voice to those often left out of other forums, says Joan Nice Hamilton, citing this article about a Montana tribe's fight against coal strip mining on their land — an example of the struggle that many Western tribes continue to face while balancing traditional values with development of natural resources.
    Read "Northern Cheyenne Fight Again for Land" by Marjane Ambler, October 11, 1974

High Country News founder Tom Bell in 1984 and his article about eagle poachers from 1972.
Mike McClure/HCN Archives

Tragedy and transition

When four HCN staff members were returning to Lander, Wyoming, in August 1978 following a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the driver, Justas Bavarskis, swerved to miss a horse on the road. The car careened into the ditch, killing Bavarskis and seriously injuring the others. The tragedy — made bittersweet when readers donated $30,000 to cover medical bills — marked a period of transition for HCN. Many of the West's daily newspapers were now covering environmental issues, and as HCN editors strove to find a niche, they pushed for a redesign of the newspaper's format and emphasized more literary writing.

Justas Bavarskis, former HCN editor, taking a break.
Lorna Wilkes

HCN staff in the early ’80s, from left, Jill Bamberg, Carol Jones, designer Kathy Bogan, who redesigned the newspaper, and Dan Whipple.
Mike McClure

  • Geoffrey O'Gara, HCN editor from 1979 to 1982, broadened the scope of HCN writing to include in-depth, personal essays like this one, in which author Don Snow reflects on his roots in Utah — "the most painfully beautiful place in the world." HCN revisited the central theme — the relationship between Utah's Mormon culture and its economy — in a 2012 cover story by Jonathan Thompson, "Red State Rising."
    "Squeezing the daylights out of Zion" by Don Snow, July 25, 1980

  • Dan Whipple, who served as HCN editor in 1982-83 and was on the staff from the late '70s, recalls the importance of HCN's coverage of the West's nuclear issues — something few other publications were covering at the time. Here, he writes about the proposal to house 100 MX nuclear missiles at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Although international treaties lead to retirement of the powerful MX missiles by 2005, other Western communities continue to live alongside nuclear weapons, and perhaps still fit Whipple's description of having "a pronounced indifference to the destructive potential in their midst."
    "All MXed up in Cheyenne" by Dan Whipple, December 10, 1982

  • Whipple also points to a 1982 issue about bioregionalism, which posits that society, at various levels, could structure itself around characteristics of the natural landscape. The concept has faded somewhat over the decades, but still shapes attitudes toward the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for instance. C.L. Rawlins writes in one essay: "I can barely comprehend the world as an entirety ... But, at the very least, this place and my acceptance of it give me some firm ground for my feet."
    "Everybody has to be someplace" by C.L. Rawlins, December 24, 1982

The reopening

 In 1983, HCN moved to Paonia, Colorado from Lander, Wyoming, in the back of a pickup. The board of directors had handed the newspaper over to Ed Marston, a former college physics professor, and wife Betsy, a former TV journalist, both New York City transplants. The Marstons were fascinated with the West's landscape and culture, and they quickly set to tackling the region's complex issues, aided by a growing cadre of freelance and staff writers. The '80s marked a period of crisis and deindustrialization for the West's traditional economy — a development that Ed Marston called the "reopening" of the Western frontier.

Ed and Betsy Marston outside the High Country News office in Paonia, Colorado in 1990.

  • In the early '90s, HCN turned its attention to public lands grazing. Environmental groups tended to favor reducing or eliminating grazing on Forest Service and BLM lands, because of the harm to watersheds, the spread of weeds and the reduction in forage for other wildlife. When Ed Marston met Doc and Connie Hatfield — ranchers who were using progressive techniques in an attempt to restore watersheds — he and other HCN writers explored and advocated this approach as a way of protecting ecologically valuable private and public lands while keeping rural communities intact.
    Read "A neighborly approach to sustainable public-land grazing," by Ed Marston, March 23, 1992
  • These stories appeared just as the friction between ranchers and environmentalists was reignited by the Clinton Administration, whose Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, sought to give citizens outside the ranching business more say over grazing management and to increase the fees ranchers pay to lease forage on the public lands. HCN covered Babbitt's contentious meetings in the West, and his retreat from some of the reforms.
    "Babbitt cedes grazing reform to Congress," by Tony Davis, January 23, 1995
  • Toward the end of the Clinton administration, HCN covered the President's bold use of the 1906 Antiquities Act to administratively create tens of millions of acres of protected national monuments in the West – moves which pleased environmentalists struggling to get an increasingly reluctant Congress to create new wilderness areas, and angered local leaders who saw them as federally imposed land grabs.
    Read "Beauty and the Beast: The President's new monument forces Utah to face its tourism future," by Paul Larmer, April 14, 1997

Branching out

HCN Archives

In the summer of 2003, new publisher Paul Larmer, a 10-year veteran of the editorial department, and a new generation of HCN staffers turned the black-and-white newspaper into a full-color magazine and expanded the HCN website. The 2005 cover story "Gangs of Zion" showed HCN branching in new directions as it explored the West's diverse communities. In 2006, HCN published its first fictional cover story, "The Tamarisk Hunter." And, of course, many articles — including an award-winner feature about pronghorn migration, "Perilous Passages" and classic water stories like "New Hope for the Delta" — centered on HCN's most enduring themes: the West's public land, water and wildlife.

  • In 2004, human-caused climate change wasn't yet making daily headlines, but its global significance was beginning to be realized. Michelle Nijhuis remembers discussions among fellow editors: could HCN find a Western angle into this massive topic, even though many scientists were hesitant to link local phenomena like bark beetle outbreaks to the bigger warming trend? She found several scientists willing to take the risk, and their predictions have proven prescient. (In addition to the main link below, the series included "Written in the Rings," "What happened to winter?" "The Ghosts of Yosemite," and "Save Our Snow."
    Read "Global Warming's Unlikely Harbingers" by Michelle Nijhuis,  July 19, 2004
  • The 2000s also brought an unprecedented oil and gas boom, spurred by $100/barrel oil prices and new hydro-fracking technology that allowed producers to tap new reservoirs of hydrocarbons. HCN found new angles into the story, including profiles of the Ute Indian tribe, whose investments in energy development has made it one of the richest tribes in the nation, and the mixed fortunes of the three tribes that sit near the center of North Dakota's Bakken fields.
    Read "The Other Bakken Boom" by Sierra Crane Murdoch, April 23, 2012
  • As HCN branched into new subjects, it also expanded its geographic scope, documenting an increasingly globalized West. The region, long regarded as a resource colony for the rest of the county, had become a resource colony for the world, as well as a new home for displaced people from around the globe.
    Read "The Global West" by Jonathan Thompson, July 24, 2011

Staff members editing pages in 2001.
Michael Brands