He sees the society behind the scenery

  • BACK TO THE BASICS: Outgoing publisher Ed Marston will spend a year as senior journalist for High Country News

    HCN file photo
 

I first met Ed Marston when I was a wet-behind-the-ears, wannabe journalist starting an internship at the funky little newspaper called High Country News. It was January 1984, less than a year after the paper had moved to Paonia, Colo., from its birthplace in Lander, Wyo. I arrived fresh from the nation's capital, where I had quickly learned that, despite my college ambitions, I was not cut out for the grinding life of an environmental lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

Paonia, with its orchards and mountains and partially boarded-up two-block downtown, seemed the perfect antidote to Washington, D.C. So did a job working on an environmental newspaper that covered the most blood-stirring wildlands left in the country.

My first impression of Ed Marston was this: How can this man be the publisher of a Western environmental rag? Ed was quiet-spoken, bookish and clearly from the East Coast, despite the sideburns and unruly hair. But after a few days working in the dingy, creaky-floored rooms of HCN's downtown office, my perception began to change. The man possessed a quiet intelligence and a razor-sharp editing pen. He also seemed to know how to operate the paper's only computer. Editor Betsy Marston - Ed's wife - and I pounded out copy on typewriters.

Ed worked that Radio Shack computer hard. Issue after issue, he wrote long articles and essays, tackling everything from wilderness and water to mining and logging. He admitted that he was plunging in where he ought to fear to tread; he lacked the background of HCN's earlier generation of environmentalist editors. Yet the growing power of his words showed he was a very quick study.

It also became apparent that Ed's interests were far broader than the public-lands issues that had long been the paper's meat and potatoes. One of my first assignments was to find out how rural hospitals were faring in the grim energy bust that had settled on the region's rural communities. I thought it was an odd story for HCN. I had come to write about the environment, not health care.

Yet the story was interesting, and it opened my eyes to the people and communities that live next door to the public lands. The land has a human context that cannot be ignored even if you care more about the wild than about humanity. That lesson stuck with me long after I left Paonia in late May. I carried it, and the memory of mountain air thickened with the smell of blossoming cherry trees, through graduate school and even through a stint at the Sierra Club in San Francisco.

And I still had it when I returned to Paonia in 1992, this time as a husband, father and assistant editor, with a desk in HCN's new office, across the street from the old one.

The paper's circulation had grown - from a hard-core 3,000 subscribers to nearly 10,000 - and it was more sophisticated. Ed no longer wrote every other cover story; he had help from an extensive network of freelance writers and photographers.

Yet Ed's ever-expanding vision of the region remained central to the operation. Environmental issues remained at the core of HCN's coverage - stories about lawsuit-wielding activists and right-wing, anti-government conservatives continued. But a more diverse menagerie of Westerners started appearing in these pages: green-hearted ranchers and blue-collar environmentalists, hotel workers, economists, historians, and scientists of all stripes.

Since then, Ed's expanded vision of environmentalism in the West has become embedded in this place. High Country News' editors and writers now look for the story beyond the story, for the strings that bind the West to itself and to the world, as a matter of course. I can hardly talk about any event without asking: "So what does this mean for the West?"

That may make for dull conversation around the family dinner table, but it nurtures an important dialogue for those of us who live in this unique and rapidly changing part of the country. For this, and many other fine things not mentioned here, I thank Ed Marston.

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