Still evolving 40 years later

  • Paul Larmer


"The Shame of It!" That was the front-page headline of High Country News on Nov. 24, 1972. It was accompanied by a grim photo of a golden eagle that had been killed by sheep carcasses laced with poison by a rancher who was after coyotes. The stark headline proclaimed HCN founder Tom Bell's unabashed alliance with the fledgling environmental movement. Bell waged war not only against careless ranching, mining and logging, but also against the politicians who gave those interests carte blanche in the West.

Today, HCN continues to cover the critical issues facing the American West's environment, such as water, energy development, climate change and endangered wildlife. But we've also broadened our view of what "the environment" means. It is, of course, the Western landscape, but it's also the people who shape and are shaped by that landscape. It even includes those who are shaped by their separation from the landscape -- people who live in polluted urban neighborhoods, or at the end of cul-de-sacs amid paved-over suburban sprawl.

Environmental progress in the West can only be achieved by an informed citizenry that cares about the society it is creating as well as about the planet on which it lives. Today, environmentalists often work hand-in-hand with labor and other progressive interests on a wide range of issues at the national level. Western activists collaborate with loggers, ranchers and other folks they wouldn't have said "howdy" to 10 years ago. We've learned to work together when we can, trying to create conservation measures that also provide jobs and other benefits.

Despite some progress, however, the environmental community remains predominantly white and affluent. Twenty years ago, the Albuquerque-based SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP), a small, Chicano-led activist group, co-wrote an in-your-face letter challenging the leaders of the Big 10 environmental groups to address institutional racism in their own ranks and to tackle a broader range of issues important to people of color. That letter landed like a bomb, according to one of the recipients, and stirred up fierce debate. In this issue, we want to continue that debate by asking: What has happened in the two decades since the SWOP letter? Has the struggle for environmental justice become integrated into the larger environmental movement?

Some changes have been made; groups like the Sierra Club have created environmental justice programs that work closely with communities fighting for cleaner and healthier neighborhoods. But many environmental justice battles look like the ongoing struggles of Mountain View, a highly polluted neighborhood/industrial park just south of Albuquerque and not far from SWOP's office. As Arla Shephard and Ray Ring report, mainstream environmental groups are nowhere to be found in beleaguered communities like this one, and local activists struggle with inadequate resources and debilitating infighting often fueled by racial and economic divisions.

We view these stories as opening lines in a longer, and much needed, dialogue on environmental justice in the West. In addition to future magazine stories on the topic, we have lined up a half-dozen writers and activists to blog on our Web site -- -- about their experiences and thoughts in this area. We hope you will join the conversation.

We also hope you will help us celebrate High Country News' 40th Anniversary. Forty is nearly middle-aged by most standards, though we still feel young and eager. Perhaps 40 is the new 30. In any event, we're glad to be alive, and thank you for making it possible. Please see details at

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