The changing of the guard

  • PASSING THE TORCH: Paul Larmer and Ed Marston in Paonia

    JoAnn Kalenak
  • cartoon

    Diane Sylvain

Paul Larmer takes the helm of High Country News

For the past five months, the High Country Foundation board has been searching for the right person to lead this institution into the future. The board received about 40 applications, from the supremely qualified to the supremely unqualified. They were screened and winnowed and weighed, and on Friday, Nov. 7, the board gathered in Denver to interview the three finalists.

Paul Larmer, the new executive director of the High Country Foundation, was the unanimous choice of the 10 members present.

Paul began training for his new job in winter 1984, when he joined HCN as its second Paonia intern, entering what has been called "Betsy Marston's journalism boot camp." He went on to get a master's degree in natural resource policy from the University of Michigan, en route to a job with the Sierra Club in San Francisco.

In 1992, Betsy asked Paul to leave San Francisco and rejoin HCN, this time as staff. In addition to his talent, she says, "I recruited him because he was one of the most determined people I have ever met."

Paul climbed what editorial ranks we have here, and then, in 1997, he agreed to found Writers on the Range. We discovered then that he had a knack not just for publishing good op-ed pieces, and for pulling them together into an interesting book, but also for marketing; thanks to Paul and former HCN marketing director Steve Mandell, WOTR now goes out to 79 newspapers each week.

When Betsy and I were invited to teach at Berkeley in spring 2001, Paul agreed to become acting editor of the paper and to keep doing WOTR, while we were away. He and Betsy permanently traded jobs in fall 2001, when he became HCN's editor.

Now, he becomes the sixth or seventh person - depending on how you count leadership in an organization that at times was more communal than hierarchical - to run High Country News.What a long, strange and wonderful trip it has been, and will continue to be.

Rural roots

The story of High Country News is one of generations rooted in two small towns in the rural West.

The founder was Tom Bell. Coming from a family with deep roots in central Wyoming, he owned a small ranch and was a teacher and wildlife biologist in Lander.

Because of his memory and awareness of the land, he knew with Old Testament certainty that the natural world was being destroyed by neighboring ranchers and corporations. He founded High Country News in 1970 to carry word of that destruction to the nation.

Tom's fire burned too brightly to burn for long, and in 1974 he gave over his paper to a husband-wife team, Joan Nice and Bruce Hamilton, who had come to Lander to work with him. Bruce and Joan ran HCN together until 1977, when Bruce became regional director of the Sierra Club, based in Lander, while Joan stayed on at High Country News.

The paper gentled in their hands. It continued to fight against clear-cutting and overgrazing and open-pit mines. But it looked beyond immediate battles to underlying causes and long-term solutions. That led HCN to champion energy conservation and solar power.

Joan was succeeded in 1979 by Geoff O'Gara, who came West to make HCN the Atlantic Monthly of the Interior West. HCN became less homespun and more literary. There was more emphasis on formal journalistic standards. In the hands of designer Kathy Bogan, it also became beautiful.

O'Gara left the paper - he is still in Lander - in 1982, and Kathy Bogan and her husband, Dan Whipple, took over, with Jill Bamburg as chief administrator and fund raiser. High Country News had never looked better or been better written, but in 1983, the staff told the board that they were out of steam.

The Whipple-Bogan-Bamburg team left, as I see it now, because they'd just been ground down. High Country News was helping to change how the nation looked at the federal lands in the Interior West. The paper was fomenting a revolution. But unlike most of the environmental movement at that time, HCN was a voice from the rural heart of the region. It was hard work done out of a hard place.

The High Country Foundation Board of Directors searched hard, but no candidate wanted to move to Lander. So in May 1983, the board, by a one-vote margin, decided to move the paper to Paonia, Colo., for Betsy and myself to publish.

Nineteen incredible years

High Country New arrived in Paonia in the back of a pickup: worn-out chairs, a strong red dolly to move papers, a wonderful file of photos and a list of 3,300 subscribers.

Betsy and I had founded, and for six years ran, a local weekly in Paonia. We knew more about county commissions and ditch companies and chambers of commerce than we did about the Sierra Club and the Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act. But thanks to articles by freelance writers from around the West, and with the help of Mary Moran, our first intern, we began to learn.

The times were with us. James Watt was President Ronald Reagan's secretary of Interior, and environmentalism was booming. Development director Judy Moffatt insisted that we send direct mail letters seeking new subscribers first, and get paid second. The paper began to grow.

Nevertheless, we would have gone the way of the last Lander staff if not for Connie Harvey of Aspen and the late Ruth Hutchins of Fruita, Colo. These former college roommates and friends, acting in concert, each sent HCN a $10,000 check in response to the end-of-year Research Fund drive in 1984. Our budget at the time was a break-even $100,000, and the organization - if you can call three full-timers, an intern, and a part time typesetter and circulation manager an organization - was hand-to-mouth.

The $20,000 let us travel, send direct mail, and pay the freelancers and ourselves, all at the same time. We grew more rapidly, with circulation rising over 7,000 in 1990. (It is now 22,000.)

On the mast, I was publisher and Betsy was editor, but we shared most duties. She assigned stories and edited the interns and freelancers, and I came in at the end with my essays and proofread the stories and wrote the headlines and did whatever administrative duties I couldn't avoid. That burden was relieved when Linda Bacigalupi joined HCN, and turned it into a cohesive organization.

In 1997, we took a step into the broader world with Writers on the Range. Two years later, we jumped into radio with Radio High Country News. The new projects put HCN's journalism before many people who had never heard of us, and they forced HCN to become more professional in terms of management and fundraising.

The fact that we now reach several million people is satisfying (read more about our new media projects and our Spreading the News campaign in the special pullout in this issue). But personally, it is not as satisfying as putting together a good 1,000-word essay.

So after 19 years, it is time for a new leader, and it's time for me to focus back on writing. Thank you, readers, for your intelligence, your wisdom and, most of all, for your loyalty to this institution and the incredible region we all care about so much.

Our doors are open

The staff of High Country News cordially invites all readers and friends of HCN to an early Holiday Open House at our Paonia, Colo., office (119 Grand Avenue) on Tuesday, Dec. 3. Visit with our new executive director, Paul Larmer, and new senior journalist, former publisher Ed Marston, as well as newspaper editor Greg Hanscom and the entire HCN crew. The Open House runs from 5-7:30 p.m. Munchies and drinks will be provided.

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