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Know the West

Dear Friends


"Momentous" is often used inappropriately, but when Maggie Coon used it at a meeting in Park City, Utah, on Saturday morning, June 15, it seemed perfectly scaled.

The High Country Foundation board president was describing the task her fellow board members faced in choosing a new leader for the organization that publishes this newspaper; publishes Writers on the Range, with 77 subscribing newspapers; produces Radio High Country News, heard weekly on 27 radio stations; and runs a Web site that attracts about 100,000 visitors a month to current issues and nine years of archives.

Ed Marston, who has been publisher since August 1983, told the board that he wishes to leave that position by early 2003, but to continue as a writer/editor for a year after. Betsy Marston, who was editor of HCN until last year, intends to continue as editor of Writers on the Range.

The organization has evolved beyond what founder Tom Bell imagined in 1970, when he had the vision and courage to transform Camping News Weekly, with its front-page photos of Winnebagos and pretty vistas, into High Country News, with its stories about the destruction of the landscapes and wildlife of the Northern Rockies in the name of economic development.

Despite the expansion in media and audience, the High Country Foundation remains what it was when Bell founded it in Lander, Wyo.: an operation based in a small mining and agricultural community in the Interior West, focused on the region's public lands and communities. Then, as now, it serves a community of people who care about the West. It is the place, as staffer Paul Larmer says, where the region comes to argue, and to shape a vision and solutions.

The board's job in Park City was to create a framework for the search and to define the skills and values the next leader of the High Country Foundation will need. Despite several months of preceding work by a transition committee, it took an exhausting day to decide the following:

To create the position of executive director, and name publisher Ed Marston to that position.

To name editor Paul Larmer as publisher, to work collaboratively with Ed on management, strategy and fundraising through February 2003.

To name in February 2003 a new executive director, and abolish the position of publisher, symbolic of the fact that the new person will have to lead several media, rather than a newspaper alone.

The deadline for applications is Sept. 1. The board will review applications at its Sept. 20-21 meeting in Seattle, interview candidates in the fall and winter, and make a decision at the Denver meeting in February.

The job opening is advertised on page 14 of this issue.

The first call about the change was made to Tom Bell in Lander, who last edited the paper in 1974. We wanted to know if he might be interested in the job. Tom, who works at the Fremont County Pioneer Museum, said he'd pass, at least on this round.

The timing of the transition is good. Ed and Betsy Marston took over High Country News almost two decades ago. The "paper" arrived in Paonia on a hot August day in 1983 from Lander, Wyo., in a pickup driven by an intern whose name we apologize for having forgotten. Possessions consisted of a file cabinet full of photos, bound volumes of the papers' first 12 years of life, lots of stationery we couldn't use, broken-backed chairs, a device for sticking labels on newspapers, $12,000 in a checking account, $5,000 in accounts payable, and - best of all - a list of 3,300 of the world's most perceptive and loyal subscribers and a reputation for courage and outstanding journalism.

Today it would take more than a pickup to move the operation, and the board has made it clear that a move is not on the table. In addition to a 3,600-square-foot building the foundation owns (first-time visitors are sometimes disappointed to discover that we're not in a log cabin on a dirt road a few miles out of town), the organization has about 20 staff and a $2 million budget.

For several years, as the Marstons and the paper's then-development director, Judy Moffatt, struggled to learn who was the governor of Wyoming and how to attract new subscribers, the effort looked as if it could capsize at any moment. But after an initial drop in subscribers, it began to gain momentum. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it had achieved stability and steady growth, with circulation at about 15,000 and the budget nudging $1 million.

But it was clear to board and staff that HCN would never reach millions of people with its perspective and information. In an age of diminishing attention span and noisier and noisier graphics, a low-key newspaper with often dismaying stories about the most wonderful land in the nation was not mass-market material. So one by one, the paper established outreach media: first the Web site, then Writers on the Range, then Radio High Country News, and then a news syndicate that sends out edited versions of our articles.

Until these media arrived, fundraising at High Country News was two or three Research Fund letters a year. The organization depended on subscriptions (60 percent of income) and RF gifts (30 percent of income). Foundation grants, interest on savings, and T-shirt sales made up the last 10 percent.

The outreach media required fundraising on a much more ambitious scale. Ed Marston's departure will coincide with the completion of a $2 million fund-raising campaign called Spreading the News, which will endow the paper's intern program and underwrite the creation of the outreach media. The campaign has thus far raised $1.25 million.

Marston says he loves the transformed organization. "It's more fun. It's more powerful. It has attracted an extraordinary staff. And it can do more for the West than a newspaper alone." But he also says, "Almost 20 years of rolling a rock uphill, even with wonderful colleagues, is enough. It's time to hand the rock over to someone else."

He adds, "Transitions can be treacherous. But they are also a time for an organization to take a fresh look at itself. High Country News is like the public land: owned by those who care about us, and this search process is meant to be an open one.

"We look forward to hearing from everyone who cares about this organization and the role it plays."

The Park City meeting concluded with an outdoor potluck that brought out 60 Park City and Salt Lake City residents to meet the staff and board and to eat some excellent food. The board meeting had been held a block away, in a beautiful building built as a hospital in 1904 by the Western Federation of Miners for $5,000. The miners got their money's worth. In its first year, the hospital treated 6,000 miners for miner's consumption, a lung disease like silicosis.

Associate Publisher Greg Hanscom's father, Dave, spent the evening flipping burgers for the crowd with subscriber Pete Dunmire. Unfortunately, Greg was laid low by a mysterious fever, which wouldn't let him attend the meeting. Fortunately, after a month, it vanished as mysteriously as it came, leaving the long-distance, high-altitude runner only a little gaunt, and knowing the names of scores of diseases he didn't have.

We are also grateful to the community of Park City for its hospitality and to the Wasatch Brewery for the keg of beer.

Board members at the meeting were President Maggie Coon of Seattle, Emily Stonington of Bozeman, Mont., Terry Janis of Helena, Mont., Felix Magowan of Boulder, Colo., Luis Torres of Santa Cruz, N.M., Caroline Byrd of Norwood, Colo., Michele Barlow of Laramie, Wyo., Rick Swanson of Flagstaff, Ariz., Andy Wiessner of Vail, Colo., Andy Hays of Chicago, Bill Mitchell of Seattle, Michael Fischer of Mill Valley, Calif., and John McBrideof Old Snowmass, Colo.

We're sorry

High Country News apologizes to the Wyoming Outdoor Council for not mentioning it among its list of resources on coal-bed methane in our special report, Coalbed Methane Boom, distributed to residents of Delta County, Colo. WOC, which has fought destructive energy development for decades, has produced, along with the Durango, Colo.-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a new citizen's guide to oil and gas development on public lands: Preserving our Public Lands. You can contact WOC's Bonnie Hofbauer at 307/332-7031 or www.wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org.