A fierce defender of the Western word

Betsy Marston retires from High Country News after 39 years with the magazine.

 

Betsy Marston, hosting the popular Radio High Country News, in 2001.
Michael Brands/High Country News

After 39 years with High Country News, Betsy Marston is retiring. For longtime readers, it will be hard to imagine the publication without her. 

It was Betsy and her late husband, Ed, who brought High Country News from its birthplace in Lander, Wyoming, to Paonia, Colorado, in 1983. Both New Yorkers, the Marstons moved to the North Fork Valley in the mid-1970s. They started two local papers, North Fork Times and the Western Colorado Report, where they reported on everything from local road conditions to the region’s short-lived energy boom. “Everything was a story,” said Betsy. “We had fresh eyes, and we weren’t wedded to the history. We wanted to make it a good community.” 

Already a seasoned journalist, Marston had graduated from Columbia’s journalism school and was New York’s first woman news anchor on a local PBS station. There, she won an Emmy for a series on football star-turned actor and activist Paul Robeson. As a journalist and in her private life, Marston had a sharp eye for racial injustice. While attending college in the early 1960s, she was arrested for staging a sit-in at a cafe in Delaware, triggering a lawsuit that would reverse the state’s law on public accommodation.

Although Ed was known as the “big ideas” man and chief fundraiser for High Country News, Betsy brought her talent, work ethic and moral compass to her role as editor. “She was always hard-hitting,” recalled Ray Ring, a former senior editor known for his investigative stories. “She was the last to back off, always the champion of public lands on staff, keeping those front and center as a core of the mission.”

Ed and Betsy Marston in the early 1990s, before HCN moved across the street to its new, larger location.
James Cook/High Country News file

Together, the Marstons increased the magazine’s influence, quality and circulation — from about 3,000 to 20,000 subscribers by the end of their tenure at the top of the masthead in 2001. Along the way, they racked up awards, including HCN’s first George Polk Award, for a series about Western water.

Paul Larmer, who worked with Marston as an intern, then a staff writer and editor, and eventually, publisher, was wowed by her stamina. “I learned from her through osmosis,” he said, “literally by sitting next to her in the office and soaking in her approach to journalism — curious, innocent-sounding questions that cut to the heart of a story.”

“I never thought of myself as a writer and still don't,” said Marston. “I'm a workaholic who fell in love with a quirky paper that cared about public lands, rural people and living Western history.”

Marston was drawn to stories about the exploitation of land, water and wild animals. “Wildlife can’t speak, so we have to do it on their behalf,” Marston said. But she also turned her curiosity to human communities. “What I found living here was a growing respect for people,” she said, even when she didn’t agree with their politics.

“I’m a workaholic who fell in love with a quirky paper that cared about public lands, rural people and living Western history.”

The HCN staff in 1997, with Ed and Betsy Marston shown in the back left. Paul Larmer, center, and Greg Hanscom, center back, would both follow in their footsteps to become editor, then HCN executive director.
Pete McBride/High Country News file

An exacting wordsmith, Marston was well known among decades of interns for her high standards. Auden Schendler, who came to HCN in the early 1990s as a college student, describes the internship as “brutal, like martial arts training.” But it was worth it. “That internship was foundational for me,” said Schendler, who has gone on to become a leading voice for climate sustainability in the ski industry. “I see myself as a Westerner and a sticker because of that experience. Betsy showed how you could be an intellectual in the rural West.”

Rebecca Clarren, a Portland, Oregon-based journalist and award-winning author, agreed: “That internship changed my life,” she said. “Betsy assigned me big stuff right out the gate. She believed in me like no one did. To have someone believe in you when you’re a young person is essential.”

Interns and other staffers also recall Marston’s ability to find humor and amazement in unlikely places, her frequent bursts of laughter, and her unflagging physical energy. “She could hike me into the ground,” said former staff writer Lisa Jones. Clarren remembers Betsy dragging her to kick-boxing classes.

Betsy Marston, known for her big laugh, with Steve Mandell, then HCN marketing director, and Ed Marston, on one of their many trips around the West to board meetings, in the late 1990s.
High Country News file photo

“Betsy gave me the confidence that I can write well and have something to say.” 

Marston expanded the internship program out of necessity: There was little money available to hire staff in the 1980s. Mary Moran, the Marstons’ first intern, recalled being put to work doing everything from archiving photos to writing news stories to sticking mailing labels on thousands of copies of what was then called the “paper.” Like many interns, she came for months but stayed for years, growing into new jobs at the magazine.

From finding capable interns to recruiting new voices for the magazine’s opinion page, Marston says she enjoyed being a talent scout, and then teaching people the basics. “Reporting is like being a plumber,” she said. “You can learn the basics.” She convinced illustrious academics like Charles Wilkinson and Patricia Limerick to write for HCN, but she also spotted unknowns — something she continued to do after she and Ed stepped out of their leadership positions in 2001, and she took over the Writers on the Range syndicate. 

Wayne Hare was a park ranger who sent in a letter to the editor. Marston called him and convinced him to submit an essay instead, talking about the need for more racial diversity on public lands and in the agencies managing them. Hare went on to write dozens of opinion pieces focused on race, eventually joining the magazine’s board of directors, and then he founded a nonprofit, Civil Conversations. “I would definitely credit her,” said Hare. “Betsy gave me the confidence that I can write well and have something to say.”

If Betsy brought moral gravitas to HCN, she left plenty of room for laughs. In the 25 years she wrote the popular Heard Around the West column, some favorite examples of the absurd, the wacky, and the plain old guffaw-making stand out, like the story of the coyotes who howled along with the church choir in Albuquerque, and the guy in Texas who tried to shoot an armadillo only to have the bullet ricochet off the animal’s tough hide and hit the shooter. And of course there were the many photos that captured the West’s ironies, like the “Jesus saves” billboard hovering above the adult bookstore, or the “Dead End” road sign posted in front of a cemetery.

A dynamic 81 years old, Betsy plans to stay busy in her retirement. She will continue editing Writers on the Range, which she and her son, David, now oversee as a separate nonprofit placing columns about Western issues in dozens of newspapers in the region. She will still volunteer on the board of Paonia’s local public radio station, KVNF, the advisory board of the El Pomar foundation, and the Delta-Montrose Electric Association's “Operation Roundup” board.

Visitors to town will likely spot her holding forth at a local café or hiking a nearby trail, but they should be warned: They might not be able to keep up. 

Florence Williams is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and author.She is also a former intern, staffer and member of the board of directors at High Country News. 

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