Dear Friends

  • HCN board members, staff and visitors in Tucson

    Ed Curley photo
 

A landmark potluck

Three times a year, High Country News holds a board meeting and potluck somewhere in its 1 million square-mile territory. The potlucks especially always have lots of good company and good food. But - and this is no reflection on Socorro or Bozeman or Seattle or Salt Lake City or Cheyenne or Grand Junction - the recent potluck at Tucson was over the top.

Usually, 60 or so subscribers show up. Only in Carson City, Nev., and in Santa Fe, N.M., did we hit 100. But at Tucson, 200 people came, all bearing dishes - so many dishes that we ran out of tables to pile them on.

Another crisis was created by Coloradans' sense of temperature. The Tucsonians at our potluck were mostly desert rats, happiest in the summer, when they can bask in the 110 degree heat. January, to them, is winter, so they were taken aback when we pitched the potluck out of doors, in the courtyard next to the Tucson Audubon Society offices downtown. But they were good sports, and kept themselves warm with wine and food, in approximately that order.

Lots of people were helpful, but we especially want to thank Kevin Dahl, who heads the Tucson Audubon chapter, for his help.

18,500 readers

At the Saturday meeting, held at the Phantom Ranch Lodge, staff reported mixed results to the board. For the first time in many years, High Country News' circulation stayed flat throughout the year, at 18,500, but the paper ended up about $9,394 in the black on $1,083,000 in revenues.

The flatness in circulation represented a decline in direct mail responses. For years, High Country News grew by sending out appeals to members of major environmental groups and to readers of magazines like Utne Reader. But the response rate from those lists has dropped over the past 18 months from 1.1 percent or so to 0.8 percent. The decline has forced the paper to do something it would never have dreamt of two years ago: conduct market research. Consultant Rebecca Sterner has been telling us what other publications do to attract subscribers - things like blow-in cards and extensive newsstand sales - and consultant Steve Mandell has been calling present and lapsed subscribers to find out how they see the paper.

What they are telling us is fascinating but frightening. The challenge will be to use the skills and information to enhance High Country News, rather than to turn it into a creature that sacrifices its values to the pursuit of numbers.

Mandell's research has helped us understand that High Country News isn't so much a newspaper as it is a contract, in which readers agree to subscribe and perhaps contribute to the Research Fund, in exchange for dependable, balanced information delivered in a style that is lively but not sensational or derogatory toward those we disagree with.

Mandell also discovered that readers use the paper in a variety of ways: for technical information, to aid them in their activism, to experience the West from a distance, to learn about emerging issues, and to learn about people who are fighting fights that the readers might wish they were fighting.

One surprise, at least to staff, was that both the people who renew their subscriptions and those who let them lapse had thought deeply about the decision. It may not have been in the same class as, let's say, deciding whether to have a child. But it seemed to get at least as much thought as deciding what car to buy.

How will High Country News use this research? We hope it shows us how to become less dependent on direct mail. Even more important, we hope it will help us better understand and then strengthen the unwritten but binding contract the paper has with its readers.

Up from the border

Although the discussion about budgets and marketing was interesting, the day-long meeting was stolen by three visitors - Wendy and Warner Glenn and Joe Austin - from the Malpai Borderlands Group, an association of ranchers from southern Arizona.

Warner is best known for spotting the first jaguar seen in the United States in decades, but it was Wendy who did much of the talking. (The group said that they had made a deal: Joe paid for the gas, Warner drove, and Wendy spoke.) She described how the ranchers who make up the Malpai group had felt increasingly frustrated over what they saw as a loss of control to federal agencies and environmentalists.

Anger and fulmination, she said, got them nowhere, so they decided to organize and sit down with the enemies. Now, several years later, the enemies, in at least some cases, have become allies, and the group has become famous as a symbol of cooperation.

The visit was supposed to last half an hour. After an hour or more, board president Tom France ended it when board member (and rancher) Farwell Smith veered the discussion toward the differences between Mexican cattle carcasses and U.S. cattle carcasses. The latter are more robust, he says.

In other business, the board elected two new members. Tony Skrelunas, who lives in Flagstaff and Window Rock, Ariz., directs a commission that is helping to reorganize the governance of the Navajo Nation. He formerly worked for the Grand Canyon Trust. The other new member is Brad Little, who runs a large livestock operation outside of Boise, Idaho. He is a past president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association.

High Country News is owned and operated by the High Country Foundation. The foundation's board sets broad policy, oversees finances, and hires the publisher. But editorial policy is set by staff.

Calling all newsletters

We learned at the Tucson board meeting that there are an enormous number of small groups in the West, and that many of them publish newsletters. We'd like to let our readers know about as many of these groups as possible. So if your organization has a newsletter, send a couple of recent samples to Ed Marston, High Country News, P.O. Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428.

Freelancer doings

Wyoming photographer Dewey Vanderhoff says he went on his first road trip in 10 years. It was a gift from his landlord, who leased "my building out from under me." The 75-day, 8,100-mile trip took him (among other places) to the winter home of monarch butterflies, a mountain sanctuary in Mexico.

"Try to imagine millions of butterflies huddled on a 100-foot-tall pine tree, turning it orange, then slowly coming awake in the morning sun and flying off." But while the butterflies are protected in a bioreserve, mule deer are not, he says, and the rise of American factories at the border has affected herds so much that Yaqui Indians are hard put to find the animal that means the most to them.

Congratulations to Steve Stuebner and Amy Stahl of Boise, Idaho, on the birth of their first child, Quinn, who arrived weighing a substantial 9 pounds and measuring exactly two feet long. Freelancer Steve says his other birth was Idaho Impressions, a coffee-table book with a foreword by former Idaho governor Cecil Andrus and photos by Mark List.

Former intern Shara Rutberg stopped by from Crested Butte, Colo., where she works as a reporter for the Chronicle and Pilot. She was just in time to pick up a check for $100 to deliver to the subject of a recent story. She'd written about anti-logging activist Joni Clark, who delayed a logging operation by sitting in a tree (HCN, 1/19/98). A reader sent the money to help Clark "offset the ridiculous charge of $25/day for her board while in jail ... We certainly need more people like her in this world."

Correction

In the article titled "On a Montana ranch, big game and big problems' (HCN, 11/10/97), about the Big Velvet Elk Ranch owned by Leonard and Pamela Wallace, High Country News wishes to correct the following errors:

The ranch home was described as "bright pink." According to Leonard Wallace, the color is peach blush and it is not along Rye Creek.

The story said that Leonard Wallace clear-cut 640 acres, but according to Wallace, "No clear-cuts have been done on the ranch while I owned it."

The fence surrounding the ranch is not barbed wire; Wallace writes: "It is a high-tensile mesh wire or netting fence. A single strand of barbed wire is sometimes used along the bottom of the fence for predator control." The signs on the fence saying "No Stopping On Roadway" were not put up by the ranch. They "were put up by the Ravalli County Road department, apparently to reduce the danger to passing traffic caused by so many cars stopping along the narrow Rye Creek Road," according to Wallace.

The photo of former foreman Earl Butler was provided to HCN by Earl Butler. The caption stated that the photo came from the Big Velvet Elk Ranch.

The article reported that an epidemic of bovine tuberculosis occurred among elk on game farms in Alberta, Canada, in 1994. The epidemic actually ended in March 1993.

High Country News regrets the above errors.

* Ed Marston for the staff

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