Asking hard questions

  • ON THE ROAD: Two Whitman College students cook up some grub

    (photo courtesy Whitman College)
  • TOUGH COOKIES: Gretchen Nicholoff and Rita Murphy, ready for action

    (JoAnn Kalenak photo)

The cool, crystal-blue autumn days have brought a flurry of visitors to High Country News headquarters. Most recently, a posse from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., stopped by, midway through a new environmental studies field program. The "Whitman College Semester in the West" is the brainchild of professor Phil Brick, who won a Mellon grant to fund the program; he had in tow 23 students and a souped-up horse trailer, replete with laptop computers and a solar-powered satellite uplink to the Internet.

In a few short months, the students have taken a firsthand look at efforts to protect wilderness in Hells Canyon on the Snake River, plans to bring back grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border, and the controversy over water and salmon in the Klamath River Basin on the Oregon-California line. They'd met a wild cast of Western characters, including anti-ranching activist Jon Marvel, county-rights crusader T. Wright Dickinson, and Carrie and Mary Dann, who are fighting to win back Western Shoshone tribal lands.

By the time they arrived in Paonia, the Whitman students had some tough questions for High Country News: Is it hard for a group of "pretty crunchy" New West journalists to relate to ranchers and miners and the like? (Yes, sometimes, but that's also the best part of this job - we have an excuse to get to know all kinds of people.) Isn't it strange that your staff is really young, but many of your readers are middle-aged or older? (A little, but here's hoping that the Whitman students represent the seeds of a new generation of HCN readers.)

Perhaps the most pointed question went something like this: You guys talk a lot about even-handed journalism, but isn't High Country News itself a work of activism? Absolutely. Circulation staffer Rita Murphy said it best, though she was talking about starting a grassroots environmental group, not working for HCN: "We believed, perhaps naively, that if people were armed with good information, they would make the right decisions - i.e., not let the bastards come in and just rape the place."

Naively or not, we still believe that good information is one of the most powerful tools for protecting the West and its communities.

More visitors

Another college student, Abby McFlynn, and her father, Tim, stopped in to check out the intern program. Abby was on her way back to the University of Oregon, where she's majoring in journalism and tackling weighty issues, such as the plan to store nuclear waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Tim is a mediator and board member of Public Counsel of the Rockies, a low-overhead, "virtual" advocacy group that, among other things, is working to resolve conflicts over access to public lands.

Subscribers Bill Blake of Overland Park, Kan., and Mike Robers of Lee's Summit, Mo., also stopped by. They said they were out West with no purpose except to be "disgustingly lazy" at the most beautiful time of the year. Bill says he has climbed 21 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, back before the "Fourteeners" became "celebrities."

Jack Seileman from San Diego, Calif., came by while enjoying the fresh air of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. He's in the crystal and mineral rock business, and performs "earth rituals" in celebration of marriages and births.

Eric Rush and Barbara Comer of Sequim, Wash., swung by the office. Eric, who went to college in Grand Junction, told us that he "didn't remember seeing so many yellow leaves" during autumn. The couple was heading to Boulder and then Eric was going elk hunting.

Carol and Chuck Bayens from Houston, Texas, stopped en route to visit their son, Scott, who is the news director at KSNO, a "smooth jazz" radio station in Snowmass, Colo. Mark and Bonnie Thompson of Custer, S.D., stopped by during the peak fall color season on a trip through the Rockies. Mark manages a Lutheran Bible camp and Bonnie works for the post office.

Larry White from Evergreen, Colo., found us on his annual tour of Colorado's fall foliage. He said he was looking for a place to retire with his two llamas. John and Heather Sterling had just quit their jobs in Bend, Ore., to move to Boulder, when they stopped in. They were staying with Paonia residents Jeff and Tracey Schwartz, and their new baby, Dagan.

Judith Hildinger and Eric Meader visited from San Luis Obispo, Calif., in time to see the first snow on the peaks of the West Elk Mountains.

We had a visit from Peter Schertz and Andrea Avantaggio and their kids Lydia and Evan. Peter and Andrea own Maria's Bookshop in Durango, Colo., and picked up a few copies of Ray Ring's cover story about the fight against coalbed methane development for their county commissioners.

New subscribers Fred and Dottie McCaleb stopped by for a tour of the office and to find out when Radio High Country News airs around western Colorado on KVNF. Living in Maryland now, they're planning to build a retirement home near Crawford, Colo.

Norma Cady, with the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture, came by to talk about our article on Navajo grazing (HCN, 8/19/02: Corruption and tragic history paralyze range reform on the Navajo reservation). She told us about a new collaboration project among the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni tribes, aimed at using oral histories to create a common vision for forest and range lands.

Readers Rob Earle and Jeff Pierce dropped in from Santa Fe, N.M., to check in on their former neighbor and fellow card shark, HCN Senior Editor Lolly Merrell. Pierce is an artist and Earle is a "gardener extraordinaire," trying to survive the Southwest's extended drought.

Andrew and Kelly Bogardus said hello on their way home from a backpacking trip in Canyonlands and Zion national parks. The Bogarduses are both teachers and were hoping to be back to school in Waterbury, Conn., for the first day of classes.

Longtime subscriber Lisa Braddock found us en route to Illinois following a summer stint in Moab, Utah. Tom Hepner, director of the Colorado School Medicaid Administration, stopped by on his travels around the state. And Mary Cooper dropped in from her cabin in Crested Butte, Colo., before returning to her permanent home in the Washington, D.C., area, where she is a writer for Congressional Quarterly.


The Ford Foundation has awarded subscriber Don Sampson a $100,000 Leadership for a Changing World Award. Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission and an Umatilla Indian, once called his grandfather a "700th generation fisherman" (HCN, 12/20/99: Tribes cast for tradition, catch controversy). He has been a champion for both tribal fishing rights and river restoration.

Former HCN editor Rebecca Clarren just landed a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, D.C. Rebecca, who lives in Portland, Ore., will use the money to research the growing salmon-farming industry and its impacts on wild fish.

And congratulations to two longtime High Country News staffers, recently recognized for their work with our local environmental group, the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council, better known as "WSERC" (which rhymes, much to the glee of its detractors, with "berserk").

Circulation staffer Rita Murphy, whom you may have spoken with if you've ever placed an ad in HCN, helped start WSERC 25 years ago. Rita and a few other North Fork Valley residents, including a World War II conscientious objector, first organized the group in response to proposals to expand the nearby coal mines and build a coal-fired power plant in the valley.

"I just decided, goddammit, this is my home and my community, this is where I take a stand," she says.

Taking a stand for the environment wasn't any way to make friends in the late '70s in western Colorado. Rita remembers waiting tables one night, when a miner called her over and asked if she'd ever seen the bumper sticker that read, "If you're hungry and out of work, eat an environmentalist."

Our circulation manager Gretchen Nicholoff and her husband, Robin - who have tag-teamed on WSERC's board since the late 1970s - also received an award.

"It was dangerous to oppose the opening of a new mine or the expansion of a mine," she says. Back then, there were far more miners working in the valley and the mines would often stack public hearings by busing workers in from neighboring communities.

Two and a half decades later, tensions still flare over timber sales and coal mines. But WSERC now has a paid staff and clout with the Forest Service, the BLM and the managers of the coal mines (HCN, 7/31/00: Rural Green: A new shade of activism). All this is thanks to folks such as Rita and Gretchen, who fought a long line of boondoggles - from a dam proposed for the Gunnison River, to a Louisiana-Pacific wafer-board plant that dumped cancer-causing poisons into the air.

"If you actually believe something - if you care - you need to do something about it," says Gretchen, who is as fierce and active as ever. She was recently elected president of a regional coalition of environmental groups, the Western Colorado Congress.

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