High Country News in the ’80s

Resentment from environmental regulations and the Sagebrush rebels ramped up in the ‘decade of greed.’

 

THE ANTI-ENVIRONMENTAL BACKLASH
The 1980s witnessed a fierce anti-environmental backlash from industries and politicians, who resented the new regulations brought by the landmark laws of the 1970s. The movement was personified by James Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s Interior secretary, a longtime advocate of unfettered mining, grazing, drilling and logging on public lands. Environmental groups lawyered up to fight back.

THE SAGEBRUSH REBELLION GETS POLITICAL BACKING
President Reagan openly allied with the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” a conservative Western movement spearheaded by ranchers and backed by industry. Supporters demanded that federal lands be ceded to Western states, but such legislation failed to gain traction.

ENDURING LEADERSHIP
In 1983, High Country News, now a nonprofit, hired Ed Marston, a former physics professor, and his wife, Betsy, an Emmy-winning TV journalist, both New York City transplants, to run the newspaper out of Paonia, Colorado. By that time, the paper had a circulation of 4,000 stalwart subscribers. With fresh eyes, the Marstons fearlessly tackled the region’s complex issues.

 In 1986, the paper published “Western Water Made Simple,” a four-part series on issues facing the West’s major watersheds — the Colorado, Columbia, Missouri and Rio Grande. The series won the prestigious George Polk Award for environmental reporting.   

Betsy and Ed Marston pose with the George Polk Award they received for High Country News’ groundbreaking 1986 series, “Western Water Made Simple,” which was later published as a book.
HCN photo

Reflecting on the 1980s

“I’ve always thought that one of HCN’s best, most ambitious and informative projects was its 1986 four-part series ‘Western Water Made Simple,’ which lays out the history of water development in the West, the big players and the small, and the state of affairs in the mid-1980s. It sweeps from the Colorado River Delta in Mexico and Imperial Valley in California to the remote upper reaches of the Missouri River in North Dakota. The fourth issue focused on the Colorado River and led off with some of the most interesting graphics, ‘The Colorado River as Plumbing.’ The series was later published as a book that I still have.” —Dan Luecke, HCN board member, 1994-2010

“Ed Quillen’s glossary of water terms ‘What size shoe does an acre-foot wear’ still makes me laugh out loud. To point:

‘ACRE-FOOT: The amount of water required to cover one acre, which is about the size of a football field, or 0.40468564 hectare, to the depth of one foot, about the length of a football shoe, or 30.48 centimeters — that is, about 325,848.882718339 gallons or 1,233.43773084702 steres. Most popularly explained as the amount of water an average family of four uses in one year, but this definition is too fluid; only in desert regions is it appropriate.’ ” —Betsy Marston, HCN editor since 1983, who now writes “Heard around the West”

“Reading the 1987 story ‘Two views of Allan Savory’ — about an outspoken proponent of public lands grazing, known as the ‘Guru of Grass’ — showed me that High Country News wasn’t afraid to challenge orthodoxies. It made me want to read HCN and to be a part of it. ” —Florence Williams, Former HCN intern and current board member

“I remember the story about Lake Powell and how it almost broke free of the Glen Canyon Dam. It was a big scoop for Ed and Betsy, who had just taken the reins in 1983, and just a terrifying and amazingly well-told tale.” —Greg Hanscom, Current HCN executive director and publisher

“Jim Robbins’ article ‘Crying Wolf: Restoring the “Rapacious Predator” to the Rockies’ was written 14 years before the wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone. As is usual in a HCN article, it was substantive, interesting and ultimately effective. We can’t point to it alone for the successful reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, but it is that sort of in-depth reporting that educates a public still fuzzy on the actual issues. Armed with the sort of information HCN provides, the public can make much better policy decisions for its public lands.” —Mark Harvey, Former HCN intern and board member

In celebration of HCN’s 50th anniversary, we’re looking  back through the decades, one issue at a time. To scroll through HCN’s full timeline, visit our webpage: hcn.org/events/50-years-timeline

Krystal Quiles/High Country News

TAKE US HIGHER
From its inception as a rare environmental voice in an ecologically fragile region, to its increasingly nuanced coverage of the country’s most rapidly growing and diverse populations, High Country News has, story by story, unveiled the real and complex West behind the beautiful scenery. Now we’re raising $10 million to spread the news and launch HCN into the next half-century. Please make a pledge or contribution today: hcn.org/support50more

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