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Know the West

Reflecting on HCN in the 1990s

Monuments, growth and the Marstons marked this era of the magazine.


When President Bill Clinton took office in January of 1993, the West’s “Big Three” industries of logging, ranching and mining — dubbed the “Lords of Yesterday” by historian Charles Wilkinson — were already in decline. A new service economy based on the region’s spectacular scenery began to take hold. In 1993, the Clinton administration used the Endangered Species act to end the unfettered logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. That same year, Congress ceased giving away public lands to mining prospectors and increased its support for cleaning up polluted sites under the federal “Superfund” program.

In the rural West, cattle and sheep ranchers still dominated local and state politics, despite an increasingly aggressive campaign against public-lands grazing. Though Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s attempts to rein in grazing and charge higher rates for permits were unsuccessful, the new collaborative committees he created finally offered conservationists a seat at the management table. HCN publisher Ed Marston began a decade-long dialogue with progressive ranchers like ranchers like Doc and Connie Hatfield of Brothers, Oregon, who pioneered sustainable grazing practices while selling beef to high-end urban markets.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Bob Wick/BLM

The Clinton administration took on a more active role in protecting the West’s last wild public lands. In 1996, Clinton used the 1906 Antiquities Act to create the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. HCN followed the issue closely, visiting the small communities in the area and speaking with both monument opponents and supporters. Despite the vehement controversy the designation aroused, Clinton and Babbitt successfully created a total of 19 new national monuments and conservation areas.

In the 1990s, it became clear that the West was changing in fundamental ways. The region was becoming increasingly dependent on tourism as wealthy urban refugees descended on its booming resort towns. HCN produced groundbreaking stories about the recreational empires of Aspen and Vail, and their growing influence — for better or worse — over vast swaths of the West.

HCN rode this wave of growth, adding thousands of new readers, and, in 1996, creating one of the earliest news websites.

For more information about HCN’s incredible first 50 years and to support our campaign, visit: hcn.org/50-years

Ed and Betsy Marston featured in a 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.
Jeffrey Aaronson/Rolling Stone

We can’t talk about HCN during the 1990s without talking about the Marstons and their extraordinary legacy. Ed and Betsy, New York transplants, ran the paper from 1983 to 2002, a time when HCN moved beyond its early years of straightforward environmental advocacy and earned its reputation for fair-minded journalism by covering a much wider range of topics. 

Ed, a former physics professor, was publisher. His vision of the West was rooted in the region’s rural communities, yet he also seemed to see the world from 30,000 feet up. He had a knack for capturing the truth of the moment in a simple phrase, as in an interview with the local radio station, KVNF, shortly before his death in 2018, when he quipped that, with forests logged-out and susceptible to climate change, “The Forest Service … is just a fire department.”

Betsy, who was the half of the duo with a journalism background, became editor. She pored over every sentence that went into the paper, fine-tuning every phrase. Betsy became a legend among the generations of interns who participated in what they proudly described as HCN’s “journalism bootcamp,” with many going on to successful literary, media and other careers around the region. Betsy still writes our “Heard Around the West” column. She and her son, David, send out columns to dozens of Western news outlets via the Writers on the Range syndicate, which started as a project of HCN and is now its own nonprofit.

The Marstons created a tent that was big enough to welcome environmentalists and ranchers and anyone with an abiding love for Western U.S. They set a standard for tough-mindedness and clear thinking that still shapes the work of High Country News today.

“Coming to work for Ed and Betsy was challenging and sometimes scary — the standards, my God! But you NEVER felt like no one was in charge. Those two were firmly in charge. And they really taught me how to tell a story. Not such an easy process, but I’ll always treasure the fact that they were in my life.”

—Lisa Jones, HCN special projects editor ’94-’96, author, writing coach

“After laboring for days over my first 200-word article during an internship in the early ‘90s, I handed it in to Betsy. It was back on my desk in less than five minutes, shredded by red ink, with only a few of my original words intact. It was Betsy Marston’s brutal red pen that taught me to write a solid piece without fluff or hyperbole.

Ed was no partisan enviro, but he saw the West through a more colorful romantic lens than the rest of us. He simply loved the big, messy grandeur of history and culture and the grand experiment of public lands that defines the modern West. That’s an attitude that we need more than ever in our hyper-partisan times.”

—Ernie Atencio, HCN intern 1993, Southwest Regional Director, National Parks Conservation Association

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

Note: This story was updated to correct the year President Clinton took office, instead of the year he was elected.