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Know the West

The time is right for new leadership at HCN

As the organization enters its 50th year, we prepare for the future.


“On the Road to 50” is an ongoing series of the publisher's notes to our readers, as he travels the region and plans for our 50th anniversary – through community gatherings, individual meetings, and other listening sessions.

In mid-September, with summer tenaciously holding on in Paonia, Colorado, I aimed my Toyota toward Salt Lake City, Utah, for my 51st board meeting as executive director of High Country News. My eyes bathed in the rich colors of the desert outside Moab, and I marveled that the aspen trees and oak brush near Soldier Summit had yet to turn color — surely a result of this year’s abundant moisture and very warm temperatures.

Still, I couldn’t suppress a feeling of excitement and anxiety as I careened into thick 80-mile-an-hour traffic heading up I-15. This board meeting would be different; it would confirm a new direction for myself and for High Country News.

I often find it hard to believe that I have worked here for 27 years now and served as director for 17. It has been — and still is — an amazing journey, but the time is ripe for a change. Earlier this year, I told the board that I was ready to step down as executive director, and concentrate instead on doing what I do best (and enjoy the most) — working with HCN’s generous donors and doing more writing of my own. The board agreed in June, and in Salt Lake it officially began the search for a new director. You can find an ad for the job in this issue of the magazine as well as on our website.

In today’s rapidly changing media and information landscape, HCN needs acute editorial vision, creative marketing, robust executive-level management and the capacity to raise millions of dollars every year to sustain its world-class journalism. The 50th Anniversary in 2020 is a unique opportunity for the organization to realize all four of these goals.

The time is right to bring on a new leader, with the skills, energy and ideas to help HCN navigate the unprecedented environmental, social and communication challenges of our times. And by staying on in a modified role, I can fulfill my own desire for change, while working to provide long-term support for a remarkable organization. Once the new director is hired, I’ll shift over to fundraising for our 50th Anniversary Campaign and continue my adventures with HCN.

Under a fogbow, Bob Boekelheide, former director of the Dungeness River Audubon Center, and Betsy Carlson, coordinator for the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, set their course on a bird counting expedition on the Straits of Juan de Fuca outside Seattle.
Paul Larmer

SPEAKING OF ADVENTURES, just days before the board meeting, I completed a 3,000-mile trip that took me to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and included visits with dozens of readers and supporters.

Wisps of fog, but no rain, greeted my son (who had driven up from Portland) and me at Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rain Forest, which receives up to 170 inches of rain a year. We walked under ancient Sitka spruce, eight arm-spans around, and big-leafed maples clothed in moss like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ents. The air felt deliciously moist, though we discovered that even this forest can burn, as it did in 2015. That fire followed one of the driest years on record, and climate change is likely to guarantee an even drier future.

On mile-high Hurricane Ridge the next day, we crossed dun-colored meadows speckled with purple asters; two black-tailed deer bucks huffed at each other, while a doe grazed peacefully nearby. Beyond gleamed a few of the famed glaciers of Mount Olympus. Here we saw climate change in action. The glaciers are disappearing rapidly: In 1982, the park had 266 glaciers; in 2009 there were 184.


I headed next to Port Townsend, a rapidly growing exurblet of Seattle in the Olympics’ rain shadow that receives just 17 inches of rain a year. Writer Annie Proulx, a longtime HCN reader, put me in touch with Betsy Carlson, the citizen science coordinator for the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Soon I was heading onto the Salish Sea on board Ross Anderson’s boat with a crack team of naturalists, all interested in how this cold-water ecosystem’s denizens are faring in the warming Anthropocene. We focused on birds as Ross, a former Seattle Times reporter who won the 1990 Pulitzer for his coverage of Alaska’s Exxon Valdez oil spill, guided the boat toward the Smith and Minor Islands Aquatic Reserve, designated in 2010.

“Six rhinoceros auklets at 2 (o’clock),” local birding legend Bob Boekelheide called out. By late morning, with the help of naturalist-writer Steve Grace, we’d identified more than a dozen species, including tufted puffins, red-necked phalarope and several gulls and cormorants. In patchy fog, hundreds of doe-eyed harbor seals gazed at us out from the rocky shores of the tiny islands. Birdie Davenport, who manages Washington’s aquatic reserves, told me the state hoped to create more reserves like this one to sustain essential wildlife breeding and feeding grounds. Funding and staffing are tight, however, so she relies on citizens. Heading back, we dodged a giant red container ship bound for Seattle, reminding me that millions of citizens now crowd around these waters, consuming goods from around the world.

I love this complicated, ever-changing place we call the West. I love my colleagues, too, and I love all of you, the amazing readers who keep us on our toes and keep us going. I hope to see you on the road sometime soon.  

Paul Larmer is executive director/publisher of High Country NewsEmail him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.