Ed Marston’s fierce love transformed the West

How the man who ‘just wanted to write’ created an institution.

 

Michael Brands

It wasn’t until late in his 1995 fellowship that Rick Keister summoned the courage to step into Ed Marston’s office. Keister, a former Interior Department staffer, chafed at the headline the longtime publisher of High Country News had attached to his story on the Newt Gingrich-led House of Representatives. “U.S. House to the Environment: Drop Dead” was too harsh, he thought, but he hesitated at the door.

“I finally went in with my arms crossed,” Keister recalled recently, “and Ed walked over to me and uncrossed them. Then, after listening to me, he said, ‘You need to stand up for what you think.’ ” Ed changed the headline to “U.S. Congress to the Environment: Die.”

“I felt strangely as if I had achieved something,” Keister said.

Keister’s experience was not unusual for anyone who worked with Ed Marston, who died in August. Just spending time around Ed left people feeling strangely affected by his probing, infinitely curious mind. The former physics professor — who moved from New York City to western Colorado with his wife, Betsy, in the early 1970s and became publisher of HCN (with Betsy as editor) in 1983 — loved to test his ideas against all comers and see whatever shook out. He was a great counter-puncher, ducking under hooks to deliver unexpected body blows.

HCN gets its first Macintosh computers, c. 1989
HCN Files

And, no doubt, he was a headline wizard. In 1997, Ed sent me to southern Utah to cover the brand-new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created by President Bill Clinton. I returned with dozens of bitter quotes from the small, largely Mormon communities around the 1.8 million-acre monument (which President Donald Trump is trying to reduce by almost half). Yet I lacked a clear understanding of the story. Then Ed came up with the headline: “Beauty and the Beast: The president’s new monument forces southern Utah to face its tourism future.” Of course! That was it all along.

When Ed started running High Country News, he had no intention of creating an institution. On numerous occasions, he said, “I just wanted to write.” But even more than that, he yearned to do intellectual battle with the other people and institutions shaping the modern-day West. His writings, a selection of which we’ve included here, still bristle with contentious eloquence.

And he did create an institution, despite himself. Former board member Mike Clark remembered, “In his first board meeting, he showed up with … only one piece of paper — a crumpled sheet that contained his draft budget for the next year. He hoarded that single page of financial data and only reluctantly surrendered its details and implications.” The board was outraged, Clarks wrote in Mountain Journal, “but Ed … was a quick study and by the next board meeting he met our needs with ample plans, budgets and papers. We began a mutual exploration of what a small regional print newspaper could do in covering communities across the vastness of the West.”

Ed and Betsy Marston featured in the May 17th, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.
Jeffrey Aaronson/Rolling Stone

Over the next two decades, Ed and Betsy and a small team of employees built HCN from a shaky operation with 3,000 subscribers, to a solid organization with 20,000 subscribers, and a website and syndication service reaching hundreds of thousands more. What drove the growth were the stories — investigations of the West’s overused river systems, its hamstrung and ineffective land agencies, the beleaguered rural communities still reeling from the demise of extractive industries or the invasion of wealthy recreationists. HCN won national awards, and, in 1990, Ed and Betsy were profiled in Rolling Stone, People magazine and a dozen other national, regional and local outlets. The nerds from New York were suddenly New West chic!

Ed in his office after moving into the new building in 1992.
Cindy Wehling
Because the Marstons were not card-carrying environmentalists, HCN published stories the conservation community might not have wanted but needed to hear — stories about its own arrogance and occasional over-reach. Ed’s late-career dive into progressive ranching raised the hackles of some activists. But it also made them realize the need to reach out to unlikely allies to achieve lasting reform. That’s an insight needed more than ever today.

When I took on Ed’s job in 2002, I did not attempt to fill his shoes. Who could? But I did try to retain the DNA he and Betsy infused into HCN — a commitment to deep thinking, surprising storytelling and unwavering service to the readers who fund this whole shebang. Ed was a gracious publisher emeritus, giving me, and a new generation of journalists, the space to create anew, even as we occasionally fell on our faces. He stayed in Paonia, and Betsy continued to work. But over the last couple of years, our coffee meetings veered away from HCN and issues to more personal topics — the importance of friends and family, and the amazing, often humbling things we learn about ourselves and the world as time goes by.

I’ve struggled to come up with a headline right for Ed. Former Editor Lisa Jones came close when she wrote around Ed’s retirement in 2002: “Ed Marston to the West: Grow up!” Two of my favorites are attached to essays laced with his sardonic humor: “If politics is a baseball game, I don’t even own a bat,” and “In the New West, we are all tourists.”

You were never just a tourist, Ed, and your fierce love imbued your bat, borrowed or not, with extraordinary power. Thank you.

 

WRITING BY ED

Can Edward Abbey learn to love Glen Canyon Dam? 
Published July 9, 1984.

Raising a ranch from the dead
Published April 15, 1996.

Dollars no longer flow uphill
Published September 5, 1983.

Floyd Dominy: An encounter with the West's undaunted dam-builder
Published August 28, 2000.

Western Water Made Simple
Published September 29, 1986.

 

WRITING ABOUT ED

Rolling Stone

Christian Science Monitor

The Boston Globe

USA Today

Editor & Publisher

People Magazine