HCN's tough underbelly

  • Interns won the 1988 Paonia Chili Cookoff

    Betsy Marston
  • Mary Moran came to Paonia in 1983

    HCN staff photos
  • Pam Ostermiller and Bob Wilson were interns in summer 1994

    HCN staff photos
  • Intern Julie Nelson, summer"93, at a refurbished Intern Acres

    Cindy Wehling

The first intern landed on the paper's doorstep sometime in the mid-70s, starting a train of 117 short-timers now scattered throughout the West and beyond. The intern program came with the paper from Lander - literally. It was an intern who drove the truck from Wyoming and helped haul boxes into the cramped Paonia office.

High Country News couldn't have made it this far without interns. In the early days, they were scut workers; like duct tape on an old engine, they kept operations running when budgets were slim to nonexistent. Now they are scut workers who write. Despite any gains, the intern gig remains a labor of love - and for many, a rite of passage.

We recently sent letters to former interns asking them to share stories from their time at HCN. Here's a sample of what trickled in:

Heather McGregor, summer '77, says she learned go-get-'em environmental reporting from HCN editors Joan Nice and Marjane Ambler. Her best memories: collecting wild edibles during a backpacking trip above Atlantic City, Wyo., and living in a VW bus at Sinks Canyon. She's now the Glenwood Springs reporter for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel; Heather also manages to fill only one garbage bag a year by diligent recycling.

Interns past and present should thank Susan Tweit, January-May '82, for convincing the Lander staff they did need underlings.

"I wrote to Geoff O'Gara, then publisher of HCN. His charming letter in return said HCN didn't have an intern program anymore. Interns just weren't worth the trouble."

Undaunted, Susan drove to Lander: "I sorted tons of mail, learned how to feed the clackety-clack trays of metal labels into the ancient address-label printing machine and mastered the waxer for paste-up."

Once, substituting for the janitor who was let go during a fiscal crisis, Susan hauled away hefty bags of treasures from underneath one desk, including a grimy sherry glass. "I keep that sherry glass still, a memento of what may have been my best work at HCN." Susan is now a nature writer and radio commentator in Las Cruces, N.M.

Jeff Stern, fall '82, remembers "the decrepit, barely functional, manual typewriter I used to pound out articles on" at the HCN office in Lander. Jeff now lives in Monte Vista, Colo., owns an environmental consulting business and writes part time for the Arkansas Valley Journal, a Colorado agricultural newspaper.

Mary Moran, '83 and staff '83-'86, recounts the lean first years in Paonia, how it seemed all the freelancers took a break after the move from Lander and how "Ed wrote, and wrote, and received complaints that he was trying to take over the paper. He started to sign his stories 'the staff.' "

As for her time in Paonia: "I had arrived with a little knowledge of, and feeling for, the West, but no experience with journalism. The rate of learning was exponential. It changed my head and my heart."

Florence Williams, '87, staff '89-'92, freelancing in Steamboat Springs, Colo., remembers skiing and rollerblading to work, picking apricots behind the old office, potlucks, dancing at the West Elk Inn, local public radio station KVNF, great assignments, a paycheck.

Tara Lumpkin, spring '88, described her duties at HCN as writer, canoer, camper. After a year of fieldwork in Namibia, Africa, she now lives in El Prado, N.M., where she is finishing a Ph.D. in anthropology.

Kate Gunness Williams, fall '89, writes that she's been running an outdoor education program at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico, for the past five years. This fall, she moves back East to study systems dynamics at M.I.T. Her best memories: "Riding my bike to the office and being stopped by a flock of sheep, laughing with fellow interns over the weird little stories you begin to follow in your daily newspaper, feeling engaged in a lively, real and powerful debate just being part of HCN. I even remember some of the writing pointers Betsy gave so freely."

Gingy Anderson, spring '89, just finished a master's in education and is looking for a teaching job where she can work on public school reform.

Her legacy: "Up until the time I was an intern, we were expected to help with the mailing. I think I did it once or twice and then protested so much that Ed and Betsy stopped asking interns to participate in that process on a bi-weekly basis. Past and present interns, thank me!'

Steve Ryder, intern '89, staff '89-'90, is now working on a doctorate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and teaching natural resources policy.

Matt Klingle, summer '89, remembers "writing my first Roundup seven times for Betsy, drinking Yukon Jack with Steve Hinchman, Richard and Don (fellow interns Hicks and Mitchell) on Lamborn Mesa, playing amateur DJ at KVNF where my radio moniker was the "Red Herring" for my big mouth and red hair.

"In Paonia, I learned to write to read, write, and think in novel and exciting ways," writes Klingle. "I committed myself to a career of inquiry in and about the West, a commitment that I continue to this day." Matt is currently a Ph.D. candidate in American environmental history at the University of Washington.

Diane Grauer, fall '90, remembers reading a past anniversary issue in which Lander staffer Hannah Hinchman wrote something about her time at HCN. "I read it and thought, "I hope it's like that for me." " It was: "The mountains played a big role in the wonder of my experience, but truly it is the people I met that I'll never forget. I felt welcomed and taken in by Paonia."

After a brief stint with a Bay Area environmental group called Greenbelt Alliance, Diane now works in marketing for a software company in San Francisco.

Kristin Howse, fall '91, who's in law school at the University of Colorado, clerked last summer at an Aspen water law firm. While in Paonia, she became fast friends with her octogenarian landlady and still visits whenever she gets the chance.

Jeff Hanissian, spring '91, is now in the hospital part of medical school. He remembers, fondly, twigs in his hair and yoga with Tony (Bogart) and Emily (Jackson).

Ann Vileisis, HCN groupie fall '91, intern spring '92, marvels at the community that High Country News creates: "It's much better than a baseball or football team in the loyalty of its fans." She's currently traveling around the country with her husband, writer Tim Palmer, researching and writing a book about the history of wetlands in the United States.

Peter Mali, summer '93, is halfway through a master's in natural resource policy at the University of Michigan. Recently, Peter teamed up with another former HCN intern, Rob Bleiberg, summer "90, to write a term paper on the Bureau of Land Management. He called Ed to get his thoughts on the agency, but Peter says they were also visited by the "spirit of Betsy, the ruthless editor."

"I had started one paragraph with the clause, 'The germinal phase of this organizational change at the BLM...' Rob grimaced. As I started to defend my word choice, Rob said, 'Peter, what would Betsy say about that sentence?' I laughed and immediately changed the clause."

Caroline Byrd, spring '92, hopes to start a non-profit environmental law firm after clerking this coming year for the Montana Supreme Court.

While in Ladakh, India, working with a local "counter-development" group as part of an M.A. in applied anthropology, Ernie Atencio, winter '93, met another former intern, Mark Dooley, summer '92. They wanted to write a Hotline about the chance encounter, but decided the postage for rewrites would break their meager traveling budget.

Back at home in Flagstaff, Ariz., Ernie still writes some, teaches Elderhostel courses, brews beer and lives happily with his wife Elsbeth and daughter Eden. As for anecdotes: "Ask Adam Duerk, winter '93, about Betsy's reaction to a photo of our two naked behinds taken by Lisa Jones on a mountain biking trip."

Some now get paid

Sometimes interns, bruised by rewrites, swear off journalism after their tenure at HCN. But a fair number have either forgotten the torture or just plain persevered:

In Glenwood Springs, Colo., David Frey, fall '93, writes for the Glenwood Post. Dan Gorham, spring '83, is editor and general manager of the Wood River Journal in Hailey, Idaho, a "politically independent newspaper" that traces roots back to 1881. Dan Egan, fall '91, covers politics and the environment for the Idaho Post-Register in Idaho Falls. Katharine Collins, summer '86, reports for the Southwestern Wyoming Bureau of the Casper Star-Tribune in Casper, Wyo. Anders Halverson, winter '94, covers environment for the Idaho Mountain Express in Ketchum, Idaho. Becky Rumsey, winter '87, staff '87-'90, is a program director for KDUR in Durango, Colo., and freelances for the High Plains News Service and National Public Radio.

After a brief stint at Cascadia Times, a monthly Pacific Northwest tabloid based on the regional HCN model, Chip Giller, fall '94, has just started as a staff reporter at Greenwire, a national environmental wire service based in Falls Church, Va. Jane Bailie, summer '90, works for a business magazine in San Francisco. Zaz Hollander, fall '92, reports for Oregon's Daily Astorian. Chris Eldridge, fall '94, came from the South and returned there to work as a staff reporter at the Eesely Progress in Eesely, S.C.

Vying for the same job, former HCN interns Shara Rutberg, fall "94, and Shea Andersen, summer '95, so impressed the editor of the Crested Butte Mountain Sun that he hired them both Aug. 9.

Pam Ostermiller, summer '94, sells flowers first, then words. A full-time florist in Salt Lake City, Utah, she writes when she can for the city's two competing weeklies.

Several former interns have broken way out of the Hotline mold to write books. Susan Tweit has two new books due out this fall - Barren, Wild and Worthless: Living in the Chihuahuan Desert and, for kids, Meet the Wild Southwest. Ken Wright, summer '90, recently celebrated the publication of his first book, A Wilder Life. He also helped found a regional newspaper in Durango, Colo.

Clay Fong, summer '90, now studying environmental law at the University of Colorado, is the co-author of The Community Energy Workbook, just published by the Rocky Mountain Institute.

HCN has trained not only writers, but environmental leaders as well. Louisa Willcox, an intern sometime in the '70s, went on to become program director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and is now working on her own. John Horning, winter '90, works for the Forest Guardians in Santa Fe, N.M.; Bruce Farling, winter '85, directs the Montana office of Trout Unlimited. Lisa Lombardi, summer '84, is on the board of Idaho's Clearwater Forest Watch Coalition and the steering committee of the Northern Rockies Campaign.

In Colorado, Michael Robinson, spring '88, founded SINAPU, a Boulder, Colo., group that aims to put gray wolves back in the Colorado wilderness. Lynda Alfred, winter '85, works for Western Colorado Congress. Steve Hinchman, '86, staff '87-'94, is a Paonia organizer for one of WCC's regional groups, the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council.

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