Paul Larmer’s 40-year ride with HCN

The one-time intern turned publisher, and now senior development officer, retires to a mic and his camera.

 

Paul Larmer hiking on BLM land near Delta, Colorado.
Jay Morley
Early on the morning of June 15, 2009, Paul Larmer, then-executive director of High Country News, climbed into the company’s Toyota “puddle-jumper” and headed out of Paonia, Colorado, bound for Wyoming. I was the magazine’s editor-in-chief at the time and rode shotgun, while intern Jeff Chen squeezed into the backseat. The stated objective of our jaunt around the Cowboy State was to meet with HCN donors and readers, but Larmer also wanted to pry us away from our computers and get us out into the actual landscape we covered.

The trip was a classic Larmer-style adventure: We stopped in Rangely to see the effects of 80 years of oil booms and busts — and also rode a barrel bull; we got shooed off the Flaming Gorge Dam and out of the Sinclair Refinery’s parking lot by security guards; and we communed with toads in a wildlife underpass in the Absaroka Range, mingled with Mormon Trail re-enactors, and sat down for lunch with HCN founder Tom Bell. We even met with donors as promised, from hardcore environmental activists to green-leaning Republicans.

That expedition embodied all that Larmer has brought to High Country News in the nearly four decades since he first came to work here: boundless energy and enthusiasm, insatiable curiosity, a remarkable ability to cross cultural and political divides, and a knack for inspiring the same traits in his colleagues. Larmer stepped down as executive director in 2020 and became a fundraiser and writer. Now, he is retiring from HCN.

Paul Larmer, then the High Country News senior editor, in 1999.
Cindy Wehling

Larmer was ambitious: He wanted to transform the “newspaper” into a full-color magazine and restructure the organization’s revenue streams. 

Larmer first stumbled on HCN in the early ’80s when he was just out of college, working for an environmental group in Washington, D.C. He found a copy of the black-and-white tabloid lying around the office and saw that the new publisher and editor, Ed and Betsy Marston, were looking for interns.

“I called, and Betsy answered the phone and said, ‘We can’t pay you anything but if you’re interested, come on out,’” Larmer says. So, in January of 1984, he loaded up his Toyota Corolla and headed to Paonia, where he was given a diminutive desk with an electric typewriter and sent out to report on local meetings. Betsy Marston remembers the young intern as “serious and unduly modest, a graceful writer, and sunny company.”

Eight years later, after grad school and time at the Sierra Club, Larmer returned to HCN as an assistant editor. He was an intrepid reporter, going behind Sagebrush Rebel lines to pen a cover story on local reaction to the establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and another on the salmon-harming Snake River dams. He did a stint as editor-in-chief before taking the helm when Ed Marston retired in 2001.

Leadership wasn’t always easy. Larmer began his tenure in the shadow of the Marstons, who had come to symbolize the organization. A young editorial staff itched to tell new stories that sometimes rankled longtime readers, and HCN’s nascent public radio program was gaining attention but draining the bank account. And Larmer was ambitious: He wanted to transform the “newspaper” into a full-color magazine and restructure the organization’s revenue streams.

Some of his decisions proved controversial, as when he axed the radio show. But Larmer was usually up for an adventure, so long as it didn’t stray from HCN’s core tenets. He helped his editorial team find space for stories about gangs in Salt Lake City, for example, and drug addiction in New Mexico — and even published a dystopian science-fiction feature story that helped launch then-staffer Paolo Bacigalupi’s writing career.

Larmer looks over the flats for an upcoming issue in 2001.
Micahel Brands

“He knew that the West was changing, and understood that HCN needed to evolve along with it.”

And of course there were groundbreaking stories about Western lands and communities in transition, Michelle Nijhuis’ climate coverage and the staff’s prescient reporting on the Bundys and the Sagebrush Rebellion. Larmer never lost his zeal for the editorial side of things, and he continued to write and edit. He had a gift for infecting writers with his fascination for any topic, no matter how tedious it might seem.

Larmer had a knack for fundraising, too, which he approached much the way he did reporting, drawing people out with his genuine curiosity and fondness for the West and its inhabitants. As executive director, he more than doubled HCN’s annual budget, from $1.5 million to $4 million, and increased HCN’s subscriber base to over 30,000 for the first time ever. He also expanded the editorial team, raising the money that launched a trailblazing Indigenous Affairs desk.

“Paul stayed true to HCN’s deep roots in the rural and wide-open West, but he also took calculated risks,” says Greg Hanscom, who served as editor under him in the aughts and succeeded him as executive director and publisher in 2020. “He knew that the West was changing, and understood that HCN needed to evolve along with it.”

So what’s next? For one thing, Larmer is looking forward to exploring the West without worrying about deadlines and finances. He’s gotten serious about photography in recent years, capturing images of tiny islands of beauty among the trammeled badlands near Paonia. And he’s also the lead singer in a local band and has become famous in the North Fork Valley for his pickleball prowess.

Whatever new adventures await him, Larmer will always be a member of the far-flung HCN family. “The brilliance is the idea of HCN,” he says. “It’s the readers, the amazing staffers, the love of the land and the eclectic curiosity that ties us all together. I feel very blessed to be part of that community and to be able to nurture it.” 

We welcome reader letters. Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 

Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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