Dear Friends

  • A sculpture from Mark Matthew's former life

    photo courtesy Mark Matthews

A community of readers

We like to say that High Country News is driven as much by its readers as it is by the ever-changing news. Our letters to the editor are often more entertaining and informative than anything else in the paper. And many a time we have answered the office phone and listened to the impassioned appeal of a reader who wants us to cover an issue in his or her backyard, or who has a tip on a story that has yet to see the light of day.

To the editorial staff, these communications are like small bites of mocha powerbars; they rev us up, yet keep us hungrily digging for more stories about the West. More importantly, they remind us of the incredibly wise and dedicated people we serve.

Every spring, we get more food for thought when our Reader's Surveys start pouring in. Here we get the kind of passion and thoughtfulness we hope to offer in our pages. We also get a few complaints. A common one is that we don't cover enough issues in a particular state - the state the reader lives in. Some readers tell us that our stories are too balanced; others lament that they are hopelessly biased.

One reader complimented us on listening to advice from a previous year. "I asked for more stories on the National Park Service. Since then I've noticed many more than in the past. Coincidence?" Maybe not. We do pay attention to readers' suggestions, though we can't turn all of them into stories.

We also eagerly listen to comments on our format. "Have you ever thought of going to one, even if a bit thicker, paper per month? I get to feeling so guilty when the paper piles up unread," wrote a reader from Fort Collins, Colo. "Love your paper; it could be much longer, or weekly," wrote another from Austin, Texas.

Once in a while we get a comment that puts a spring in our step for weeks: "HCN is the market square, the agora, the coffee house, the neighborhood bar, the student union, the plaza bench, the village green, the book club, the town meeting, the quilting and knitting circle of the West." We thank this reader and all the others.

An apology

Jon Margolis, our intrepid Washington reporter, says he is sorry if he misled readers in his March 26 column, "The environmental movement is a-muddle." He writes:

"Carelessly and foolishly, I deleted the vote total from a sentence, making it seem that Wilderness Society President William Meadows had call(ed) Gale Norton's confirmation as Interior Secretary 'a victory for all environmentalists.' What Meadows said was that the 75-24 confirmation vote was such a victory. My point, that describing a 3-1 defeat as a victory borders on the delusional, stands, but I regret that I made President Meadows appear to have crossed that border."

A journalist from the ground up

Reading through Mark Matthews' cover story in this issue, one section might strike you as unusually vivid. Writing about work crews thinning doghair thickets on the Lolo National Forest, Mark describes a tree crashing to the ground so close to a worker "it blew the dust off his boot tops."

Mark was that worker.

The path leading Mark to that dusty forest stand was circuitous. In a previous life, he'd been a sculptor, living in a shack on a dock at South Freeport Harbor, Maine, carving dancing figures out of wood and making occasional forays out West. Following a stint as a Montana ranch hand, he moved West permanently, but soon realized sculpture wasn't going to keep him alive.

"I found myself living in my truck one winter, and decided I needed a new career," he recalls.

That career would be journalism, and to put himself through J-school at the University of Montana in Missoula, Mark worked summers on the Lolo. His first summer, he worked on the "project crew" he describes in the story, thinning logged-over and overgrown woods. "It rained every day," he says. "It was just horrible." In addition to dodging falling trees, he says, workers had to keep their eyes out for "slippery sticks" that could send them tumbling on top of their chainsaws.

But Mark stuck with it. He worked on the Lolo for five summers. During the flammable summer of 1994, he worked on an initial attack crew, digging fire lines with a pulaski. It wasn't glamorous work, he says. "The worst part was the full body cramps after four hours of digging."

It paid off. Mark earned his degree and now writes for the Washington Post, Newsweek and Wildland Firefighter, among others. He's written a book about the "Peace Jumpers," World War II conscientious objectors who helped start the Forest Service's smokejumper program. He's now working on a second book - this one historical fiction - that culminates in the Great Fires of 1910 (HCN, 4/23/01: The Big Blowup). Mark is also one of HCN's most prolific freelancers. It's a rare week that he doesn't call with a story idea or an essay for Writers on the Range. His topics range from wildlife photography to cowboy poetry to Indian sovereignty to his own love life.

Would he consider going back to work on a fire crew?

"I loved firefighting work," he says. "But I'm very content with going to the fireline, watching them work and asking questions, rather than doing it."

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