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Know the West

Dear Friends



The crew at High Country News extends a hearty welcome to the newest member of the clan: Paolo Bacigalupi and his wife, Anjula Jalan, arrived in the world at 3:24 a.m. on Jan. 25 — and has hardly allowed his parents a wink of sleep since. Paolo reports that Arjun set a record a few nights back, when he slept for five hours straight.

The little guy has a few other tricks, as well. "Anjula insists that he smiles at her," says dad. "I think it's gas." Paolo, who writes science fiction when he's not working at HCN or remodeling his house in town, says he's already coaching the youngster to find a more profitable line of work than his own: "Anything but a writer, for God's sake."

We're secretly campaigning to sign up Arjun as an intern. Do you think next summer is too soon?

A new business plan

The High Country News board of directors met in Sedona, Ariz., in early February to talk about finances and a new business plan.

HCN ended 2003 on a high note: We finished the year with 23,663 subscribers, up 4 percent following three years of no growth. Your contributions to the Research Fund, which helps pay the staff and freelance writers who put the words on these pages, hit $85,544 in December — well above what we'd expected. Many thanks to all of you who gave in 2003, and to those who are getting us off to a great start in 2004.

Overall, however, funding continues to be a challenge. In the late 1990s, we expanded from a newspaper that broke even at about $1 million a year, to a multimedia organization with a Web site, a weekly radio show, and news and opinion syndication services. Soon, we were spending roughly $1.5 million each year, with no noticeable increase in income. We made up the $500,000 difference with the special Spreading the News fund-raising campaign, with additional grant money, and by dipping into our reserves.

But last year, it became increasingly clear that we would have to get smarter if we wanted to keep this boat afloat. We had assumed that our new media projects would convince more people to subscribe to the newspaper, which is the money-making engine — but they didn't. As a result, Radio High Country News, our most expensive "new media" project, fell silent after five years on the air. We also cut back our marketing department.

We're now turning back to our core, the written word, and moving forward with a slimmer staff and stronger focus. Our goal, over the coming three years, is to reduce our "operating deficit" to $250,000 a year. (Among other things, this should free up our executive director, Paul Larmer, to take a more active role in the newspaper, rather than having to spend most of his time fund raising.) We'll do this by putting more effort into finding new subscribers, slightly increasing the amount of advertising in the paper (20-page issues will still have just two pages of ads, while 24-page issues will have up to four), and by selling books and other merchandise.

So far, the strategy seems to be paying off, if we can judge by the rising number of subscriptions — and your enthusiasm for and generosity to the paper. Members of both the board and the staff left the meeting in Sedona feeling that HCN has never been stronger.

New board members

The board bid farewell to two of its members: Mark Gordon of Buffalo, Wyo., and Terry Janis, who recently moved from Clancy, Mont., to the Twin Cities. We're grateful to both of them for their time, commitment and help through a challenging transition at HCN.

The board also elected two new members. John Heyneman joins us from Dayton, Wyo., where he is manager of the Padlock Ranch, a large, family-owned cow-calf operation. With degrees from Carleton College and Montana State University, John has broad experience, ranging from a stint as manager of a Venezuelan dairy and fruit farm, to involvement with a Wyoming governor's race, the Powder River Basin Resource Council and the Yellowstone Art Museum. He lists among his favorite pastimes backcountry skiing and piloting small airplanes.

From Albuquerque, N.M., Annette Aguayo is a longtime employee of the Southwest Research and Information Center, an environmental and social justice group. Aguayo is editor of the group's quarterly publication, Voices of the Earth, and also manages the group's Web site, supervises volunteers and keeps up the office computers. Annette's educational background includes political science and chemical engineering. She has also worked with the New Mexico Conservation Voters Alliance.

Muchas gracias

Thanks to all who contributed to the potluck buffet following our board meeting in Sedona. The food was fantastic, and we've rarely had such a great suite of story ideas. (See page 5 for the first piece of follow-up work.)

Thanks also to author and ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, who took a few hours to speak to the board and staff over Saturday lunch. Nabhan, who is the first director of Northern Arizona University's Center for Sustainable Environments, spoke about his work on issues of food security and sustainability. In the pit of the worst drought in 1,400 years, Arizona is losing its farmers and ranchers, he said.

When a staffer suggested that perhaps this isn't such a bad thing in a desert state that imports massive amounts of water from the Colorado River, Nabhan begged to differ. Droughts such as these inevitably lead to the fragmentation of rural landscapes, he said, as farms give way to urban sprawl. And contrary to popular belief, transfers of water from farms to cities do not necessarily mean that there's more water left over for the West's overtapped rivers. In Phoenix, urbanites use more water per acre than farmers do, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon, said Nabhan. "Only 15 percent of residents in Phoenix and Tucson are even aware that we're in a drought."

Nabhan also insists that there is such thing as sustainable agriculture in the desert, and that people should eat more food grown locally. "Even in the driest part of the Sonoran Desert, we probably use fewer resources to produce our food than we do in the global system," once you factor in the hidden costs of producing food and transporting it world-wide, he said.

Nabhan also had some kind words about High Country News, where he first published his articles and cartoons in the 1970s. "A lot of us cut our teeth in environmental journalism and environmental writing at HCN," he said. "A lot of us have a tremendous debt to HCN for giving us our first place (to publish stories), and our first set of colleagues. All us writers have this loose network, across the vast distances, that has been vital to us."

Familiar Faces

It would be a huge understatement to say that the writer of our cover story, Geoff O'Gara, is a friend of HCN. Geoff worked as an editor of the newspaper back in our pioneer days, 1979 to 1982, when the headquarters was two crowded, messy rooms above a hardware store in downtown Lander, Wyo.

Since then, the newspaper has moved to Colorado, of course, but Geoff has stayed put in Lander. He's kept going with freelance journalism, book writing, and lately, TV reporting. Now 53 years old, he likes to dive back into in-depth writing every so often: "I like the privacy of writing," he says. "I like being alone with my imagination." It shows in his thoughtful story exploring the many angles of fences.

Another longtime friend of HCN, Mike McClure, contributed photos for the story.