A little paper with clout

How High Country News evolved.


The legacy of Tom Bell, the founder of High Country News, looms large over the magazine’s history. And yet, he only ran HCN for about five of the 13 years that it was published in Lander, Wyoming. When Bell stepped back from managing its day-to-day operations, “the newspaper evolved into a more objective, less strident publication that focused on the environment,” Marjane Ambler, a former editor, said, writing for the Wyoming State Historical Society. Once Ambler, Joan Nice and Bruce Hamilton took over the magazine in 1974, its circulation increased and its scope broadened. Recognition from Western icons like Robert Redford and Edward Abbey introduced HCN to a wider audience.

A series of setbacks and schisms beset the editorial staff in the late 1970s, however, culminating in the tragic car accident in 1978 that killed news editor Justas Bavarskis and seriously injured three staffers. By 1983, HCN’s board of directors sought new leadership and agreed to hire Ed and Betsy Marston, who relocated the newspaper to Paonia, Colorado, where much of the staff remains today. Under the Marstons, the newspaper continued to expand its coverage, readership and influence. By 2002, when Ed Marston stepped down as publisher, the paper’s circulation had grown from 3,000 to 20,000 readers.

Paul Larmer, one of the Marstons’ first editorial interns, became publisher in 2003. Larmer brought a fresh vision to the organization, and the black-and-white tabloid evolved into a magazine, gradually becoming a full-color publication. The coverage expanded even further, taking a broader look at the West’s unique cultures and how growth and migration was changing the face of the region. Larmer stepped down in March 2020, and Greg Hanscom took his place. Like Larmer, Hanscom had worked as an intern and editor. As HCN celebrates its 50th anniversary, we checked in with Betsy Marston and Paul Larmer to chat about the magazine’s more recent history and future prospects. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Betsy Marston.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

High Country News: What was it like when you and your husband, Ed Marston, brought High Country News to Paonia, Colorado, in 1983?

Betsy Marston: The paper came to Paonia in a truck. The paper — and it was called a newspaper then, not a magazine — was black-and-white. The prized possession of the paper was its photo collection.

We quickly found out that folding in Western Colorado Report, our paper, into High Country News was a disaster. We were alienating everybody. Wyoming people thought Colorado was too full of itself, and Wyoming was the real West. And then the 1,000 Colorado readers we had weren’t interested in the rest of the West, so we started to lose them.

We had a big learning curve. Neither one of us was an environmentalist: Ed was a physicist; I was a TV producer. We weren’t members of a cause. But it didn’t take long to feel pretty passionate about the West and about the delusions so many people — including us — had when we first came to the West.

It’s like that Matthew Arnold poem, “Dover Beach”: “So various, so beautiful, so new.” So perfect. Then you realize: Under that is destructive forces — exploiters, from the hardrock miners to the dam builders to rapacious ranchers, who had it all their own way in the high country. So, pretty soon, you realize everybody’s here to make a buck on this gorgeous place — and wildlife suffers, water suffers, the air suffers. So you begin to get angry and indignant, and you want to expose this to the world. It was a pretty exciting beat.

HCN: As you settled into running the magazine and weathering the initial financial challenges, how did HCN evolve, and what role did you see for it in covering the Western U.S.?

Marston: We’re “a little paper with clout” was what people said about us. We were getting at stories that nobody else was covering, like the dam-building era and the way fish were ignored and how Native Americans were removed to make way for some dams. I think what we were doing — and that’s what the heritage from Wyoming was: We tell stories about a region of America that you may not know about because you don’t live there, but you visit. And if you do live there, you want to know more.

I got the idea early on that we had a lot of smart readers. These are not normal people. These are people who are experts in their fields, whether they’re professors or people who work for the BLM or the Forest Service or worked for their county. A lot of them were rural-based. They know their world, but they don’t know the wider world of the region. So we were able to tell them stories that they were interested in, but they didn’t really know that much about. Our readership was pretty high-level in terms of smarts, so you couldn’t write down to them; you could only write up and be inclusive.

HCN: You were the second intern after HCN moved to Paonia in 1983. What was your experience coming to HCN, Paul?

Paul Larmer: Betsy and Ed had such an incredible curiosity. And they asked the right questions — questions that weren’t necessarily asked — about the Forest Service and how it does its plans and getting beneath the surface.

I remember my first two assignments from Ed and Betsy. One was to go cover one of the local coal mines that closed in Paonia here in 1984. The county was hurting, so Ed sent me down to the county hospital to see what’s going on with patients and how many people are there and is there a mental health problem. It was looking beyond the environment to actually the socioeconomics of it.

Ed and Betsy would sound naive in their questioning, but they were just really getting people to talk. It was amazing.

Ed and Betsy would sound naive in their questioning, but they were just really getting people to talk. It was amazing.

HCN: Can you talk about the different phases and evolution of HCN’s coverage?

Marston: “Cattle-free by ’93” was a whole movement, where the Sierra Club and other environmental groups wanted to get the cows off the high country and create more collaboration or more multiple use. There was “dams are destructive and need to come down,” and we got to knock back every dam proposal that comes up. Part of that was really discovering the Northwest; the spotted owl and all of that was intense. The tree-sitters: Those young people who tried to save old growth because there’s so little left — that was a whole phase.

And at a certain point, I remember a 2000 story that was really about recreation wrecking the West. We humans had become destructive to what we loved. Like Wallace Stegner said, you can love a place, and you can be dangerous to it.

Another big one was wildfire and the whole change in the approach to fighting fire and living with fire. And also the understanding that a lot of people were moving into the woods and being really cozy with trees, like in Paradise (California).

Then there was oil and gas. There are these phases that come up. And now climate change underlies almost every story. You can never escape the impact of climate change.

It did feel like waves. And I remember at one point saying: “No story is ever done.” And it’s going to come back, the wave will come back, because like with dams we will never escape the danger of the legacy of dams. And we can bring down a few, but there are still plans to build more. So no story is ever finished or accomplished.

Paul Larmer.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Larmer: Another piece to add to that is we follow the political and social currents in the West, too. We had this big phase when (President Bill) Clinton and (Interior Secretary Bruce) Babbitt were trying to protect all the rest of the public lands through administrative fiat instead of Congress, because Congress was no longer able to act.

Also, the fight between the rural West and conservative county commissioners versus all these newcomers, and would the West actually change and become a more liberal bastion. We’re still covering that, as elections come up.

I think those kind of currents we were very aware of. Natural resources often course through them, but they were also just kind of broader questions about society that we covered as well. The West is such a fascinating, broad place, and there are communities that we didn’t know anything about. There was a story about the heroin trade in northern New Mexico and how it transformed communities throughout that corridor from Mexico up to Colorado. And the “Gangs of Zion,” about the huge Pacific Islander influence in Salt Lake City drawn by the Mormon Church — that was a culture within a culture, and those kinds of stories became intriguing to us. We always look for a great story that reveals some aspect of the West.

We always kind of held ourselves to this standard that we’re not necessarily going to break all these stories, but how can we provide deeper interpretation of them? How can we write stories that are going to last, and that help people really understand and not just get caught up in the headlines that go back-and-forth?

HCN: HCN has long covered and depended on environmentalists as sources. How do you see the interplay between journalism and advocacy at the magazine?

Marston: I think at one point we decided we would cover the environmental movement as a story. Because there were tensions between environmentalists and there were vastly different approaches, like suing and collaboration. We never thought of ourselves as advocates; we thought that we could tell a story and tell it with a point of view, but it would be backed up by fact. I don’t think we were propagandists.

We had a beat, and maybe that’s an inherent bias. Right from the beginning, I remember Tom Bell said that wildlife has no voice, the land doesn’t speak — you’ve got to tell that story.

Larmer:  We openly criticized the environmental movement or parts of it. When we would do that and people would write nasty letters, not hateful but very vehemently opposed to us, we saw that as a great sign. If we could get not just the progressive green side of the environmental movement to write letters, either of clarification or forcing them to think a little deeper, we felt like that was a victory, because that was a service to society.

I always felt like if someone could read High Country News for a year, it would be like getting an education on the West. You would go, “Wow, I know a lot now,” about communities, about public lands, about water and resources and the fact that this is not a pure place. It has a deep history of use and abuse, and it’s complicated, and it’s also incredibly majestic and beautiful — it’s all those things. Each issue of the magazine can’t do it all. But as we go through the year, I feel like by the time people have read it, that it’s like the chapters of a book that keeps going.

I always felt like if someone could read High Country News for a year, it would be like getting an education on the West.

HCN: Recently, there’s been some tension over the evolution of the magazine and a feeling by some that the magazine isn’t covering public lands enough and is too focused on social issues.  What do you think about that sentiment?

Marston: Do you really want to know this? I think it’s great that we cover Native American stories with Native American writers, and in a serious, concentrated, consistent way. I think that was a wonderful addition to High Country News. At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be, for me, enough focus on the public lands where everything happens. I think we’ve missed so much of Donald Trump’s impact on the West, and I’m afraid much of it is lasting.

I hope that we’ll get back to it. If you ignore what had been the core of High Country News, you’re in danger of losing readers. And I think we have lost some of them.

Larmer: HCN can’t ignore the social and human issues that are happening to the region, or the economic trends and the border issues. We can’t ignore those stories. I think some of it is about resources. If you only have a small staff and freelance budget and you’re going to disperse that budget covering many more issues, you’re going to necessarily spend a lot less time on the traditional stories that HCN has done.

It used to be all we did was natural resource stories, everybody on staff. Since we’re covering a much broader range of issues now, maybe we actually need some focused attention on those core areas so that we’re not missing stories. But you can’t do everything.

HCN: I want to follow up on this conception of the West as its natural resources and the stories of the West being about its natural resources, as opposed to say cities or people. How do you see that tension between these different parts of the West, and what role do you see for HCN in covering them?

Marston: My approach would always be to start with the public land, because everything flows from that. Not to start in the city, and then only in the sense of how the city impacts the public land and rural communities, as they suburbanize, as they change.

The national parks are like monoliths of our economy. And yet, the local people are hard put to keep up or to make a living in gateway communities. The suburbanization, too — it’s happening here in Paonia. Land values are skyrocketing. We don’t have enough water.

Sometimes I don’t get why we do a story, because I want it to connect to the land and everything that goes on. That’s what makes us unique, as far as I could see. Nobody has the land like we do, or the water or the wildlife, or the air. So, why wouldn’t we keep our base, stay with our core and radiate out from the core? My approach would be the heart would be public lands and you go from there, and you don’t exclude Native Americans from that.

HCN: What is your vision for the future of HCN as the magazine celebrates its 50th anniversary?

Larmer: I hope that 10 years from now, HCN is not only around, but that it is producing this incredible, high-quality journalism. Its finger is on the pulse of the issues in the region and bringing those to a national and international context. What happens here is important for the country and for the world and can spur passionate discussions, like the one we just had.

All over the place, in classrooms, in tribal council meetings and county commissioner meetings, the issues that we’re putting into context — we’re helping inform those debates. We’re basically a large bulletin board and we want people to participate, take that information and do something with it to make the world a better place. If we’re still around doing that, and doing it more and better than we are now, then we will have really succeeded. I think that would be a fabulous legacy to leave. And I have no doubt that we’ve got another 50 years in us.   

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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