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Know the West

Dear Friends


In a union town

It was probably the wrong place to hold the annual High Country Foundation budget meeting, if only because it led to so many bad jokes about balancing the budget at the craps table. Nevertheless, approximately 25 board members and staff of this organization converged on the San Remo Hotel, just off the Las Vegas Strip, to set a course for the next year.

We began with a potluck in Las Vegas with readers - several of whom drove over from Kingman, Ariz., about 80 miles away. And photographer Kit Miller came from the Reno area. But they were trumped by Tory and Meredith Taylor of Dubois, Wyo., who were in Las Vegas because Tory had been named "Budweiser Outdoorsman of the Year," and the ceremony was held in that outdoor capital of the world: Las Vegas.

The award came with a $50,000 grant from Budweiser and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for Tory to distribute among conservation organizations. He was voted the award for his work on behalf of wildlife in Wyoming, where he is a guide and outfitter, the originator of the "Ride for Wildlife" benefit in Wyoming and Colorado, and a former instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyo.

Tory, who is apparently not good at resting on his laurels, spent little time at the potluck talking about his award, and a lot of time describing the scurrilous way some hunters use salt to bait elk in the Jackson area (see essay page 16). It is his current crusade, and he says he has never seen people more outraged over an issue than they are over salt baiting.

The immersion in Las Vegas continued at lunch the next day, when historian Hal Rothman and Culinary Workers Union organizer Glen Arnodo gave board and staff a 45-minute primer on the city. Rothman, who teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said that Las Vegas is one of the few places in America where a maid or waitress can afford a house.

This is due in large part to the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, whose members and their families make up one out of 13 residents of Clark County. "I call our workers the coal miners of the service industry," said Arnodo.

The union is doing well, Arnodo said, but he is nostalgic for the old days, when the mob ran Las Vegas; while there were employer-union battles over wages, the battles were more benign. Since corporations took over from the mob, Arnodo said, there have been several fierce, city-wide strikes, as the corporate owners strive to eliminate unions and get wages down to where they are in Santa Fe, Sun Valley, Snowmass and the West's other tourist towns.

There was one irony to the meeting. Although 90 percent of the city's workers are union members, the hotel we happened to choose, the San Remo, is a non-union hotel.

Thanks to the people who helped find us places to meet, eat and sleep, including Hal Rothman, Jeff van Ee, and Pat Mulroy of the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

The budget

In between potlucks and talks and explorations of casinos, the board and staff struggled with the financial results of 1999 and a budget for the year 2000. Due to the expense of starting up Radio High Country News, a revamped Web site and the continuing costs of the Writers on the Range op-ed syndicate, we had expected to lose $157,000 in 1999. We were pleased to lose only $76,000.

The reduced loss was due to lower expenses, a very strong response to the December Research Fund appeal, and a spectacular response to last summer's 30 issues for $30 sale, which brought in $180,000 in the space of a few weeks. For 2000, we are projecting a loss of $34,000 on revenues of $1.3 million.

These are big numbers for a newspaper that within memory of current staff and some board members had a budget of $100,000 per year. But it's a tiny budget, given the High Country Foundation's audacious attempt to reach and influence several million Westerners through the paper, radio, the syndicate, the Web site, and the three books we expect to publish this year.

A key part of only losing $34,000 in 2000 will be fund raising. Until recently, our fund raising consisted of sending out a Research Fund letter. But the roughly $200,000/year costs of the new media require a more energetic effort.

To help board and staff, HCN's development director from the 1980s, Judy Moffatt, attended the meeting as a consultant. While we hope radio and the other media will quickly become self supporting, our experience with High Country News indicates otherwise. The paper, founded in 1970 by rancher Tom Bell, struggled for almost 20 years. It was always a useful publication, but it wasn't until the late 1980s that it began to support itself.

One of the attractions of the new media is the hope that they will bring new subscribers to High Country News. That may be happening. We started 1999 with 18,970 subscribers and ended it with 20,727, for a gain of 9 percent. That's almost double the average gain from December 1995 to December 1999. Direct mail letters - 400,000 of them - brought in most of the subscribers, but we believe that some of them were primed to subscribe by HCN's new West-wide exposure.

Writers on the Range also showed healthy gains. Two years ago, it was a startup. Today, there are 47 subscribing newspapers around the West, with more than 2 million readers.

Radio High Country News, a weekly half-hour show, began life about six months ago and today is on 10 stations. And the Web site, which a year ago was basically an archive, is now a colorful on-line newspaper, which serves 1,000 visitors per day.

Goodbyes and hellos

The Las Vegas meeting turned out to be the farewell meeting for two long-time board members. Dan Luecke, a former board president and the head of the Rocky Mountain office of the Environmental Defense Fund, said goodbye. And so did Maria Mondragon-Valdez, a very active citizen of Colorado's San Luis Valley. We will miss both of them.

Attending their first meeting were Terry Janis, a staff member with the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont., and Michael Fischer, a program officer with the Hewlett Foundation.