Dear friends

  • Ruth Hutchins


Out for birds

We thought we were in for a noisy Saturday night. The motel parking lot was packed. In a small town like Socorro, N.M., that usually means a basketball or wrestling meet, with celebrating or mourning into Sunday morning.

But the Holiday Inn Express was like a morgue, until we got to the breakfast buffet in the lobby at 5:30 a.m. and saw all the birders - solitary birders, birder couples, and birder families with the children looking sleepy but game.

The birders gulped their breakfasts and set out for the nearby Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, where, just before dawn, thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes rose from the marshes and headed for the nearby corn and alfalfa fields. It was an engineered moment - the refuge is intensively farmed and dredged to keep it attractive to birds - but it was thrilling nevertheless. Sometime in March, the snow geese will rise for one last time this season and head north to the Arctic. The sandhill cranes will also leave, and the coyotes will be reduced to eating mice and voles until the birds return in the fall.

Socorro, a town about 80 miles south of Albuquerque, is easy to miss and easier to dismiss. At first glance, it is no more than a strip with every fast-food restaurant known to our civilization strung out along California Avenue.

But against the low hills west of town lies the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. In addition to educating 1,500 students, it is home to the Langmuir Lab for Atmospheric Research and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Very Large Array, a collection of 27 antennas spread out across the Plains of San Augustin.

We didn't explore the entire town, but we did find two diamonds. The old town square is still relatively intact, a block or so west of the strip and decades removed from it. We also came on a handsome stone building that produced beer until prohibition and then switched over to something called Grapette. In the 1950s, it went the way of so many small producers in the West.

Now it is the Hammel Museum. It is bare, unless you count a huge steam engine and coal-fired boiler, stacks of pop bottles, and an extensive electric train set. We know all this because Jonathan Sprago, a member of the railroad club, was leaving the building as we walked by and he volunteered to give us a tour.

Our Socorro experience

HCN was in Socorro for one of the paper's tri-annual board meetings, which we hold in towns around the region. The official point of this meeting was to review 1996 financial and circulation results and approve a 1997 budget.

But more and more we're coming to see that the real point of board meetings is to get to know another Western town and to visit with the 50 to 60 subscribers who attend the Saturday evening potlucks that are inseparable parts of each meeting.

The potluck could not have taken place without Paul Krehbiel, who not only provided the soft drinks and paper goods, but also set up and tore down the potluck room. We are also grateful to Jim Ulvestad, for giving us a tour of the National Radio Astronomy Lab.

Earlier, board and staff had spent hours struggling with questions about circulation: Who are our readers? What else do they read? What groups do they belong to? All this was with an eye to better focusing our direct-mail campaigns.

Associate Publisher Linda Bacigalupi, who can recite from memory the results of scores of tests of mailings to different lists, said after the fiercely conversational potluck:

"Now I see again what unites our readers. They're passionate about the land. They care about politics. They're involved in their communities. And they're open-minded and well educated."

On what large mailing list can we find people who match this profile? We spent 1996 intensively testing lists in an effort to go beyond dependable standbys like The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club. And there are lots of small environmental groups (usually with no more than a few hundred members) that do spectacularly well. But the 1996 tests showed that once we leave that well-defined world, responses plunge.

That makes sense, said Linda, because people who are interested in HCN's mix of journalism and policy-wonkdom don't grow on trees. In theory, newcomers to the West should provide a growing pool of new subscribers. But people who have moved to the region for the clear air and wonderful backdrops will have to get beyond their honeymoon relationship with the region before they begin to understand the West and possibly become interested in an HCN.

19,000 readers

Felix Magowan, a magazine and book publisher from Boulder who attended much of the meeting (board meetings are open to subscribers), said each publication exists in a relatively fixed universe of potential readers. That universe is most easily defined in terms of mailing lists that produce acceptable returns. HCN's universe contains about 300,000 names. At 19,000 subscribers, we have already attracted the 5 to 10 percent of our universe that Felix said is possible.

That means, Linda told the board, that after 13 years of growth, HCN may be leveling off, and must find other ways to get its word out.

One way is through our site on the World Wide Web, which contains the last four years of HCN. To strengthen the site, the board authorized staff to seek a grant to both make it a more attractive archive and to turn it into a much broader Western resource.

The board also directed the staff to establish its High Country News-Writers on the Range syndicate, which will distribute op-ed pieces to member newspapers around the West. The articles will be provided by a remuda of writers whose common bond is "... a desire to gently nudge the West they love from a past of reckless land use, federal dependency and warring interests toward a future of environmental responsibility, ecumenical self-governance and good neighbors," according to the project's mission statement.

The writers exist and are eager to get to work. The missing detail is funding, and board member Andy Wiessner volunteered to head the effort to deal with that. He got an immediate boost from director Michael Ehlers, who has already raised $13,000. (The syndicate is expected to be self-supporting after three years.)

In other matters, staff reported that the paper ended the year $46,000 in the hole, on a sustaining basis (a one-time payment from the Arrowsmith bequest reduced that considerably), on total expenses of $973,000. Undaunted, the board approved an expense budget of $1,061,000, with a projected loss of $39,000. That loss will disappear if HCN does not go ahead with the Writers on the Range project, since part of the syndicate's funding will come from reserves.

While circulation grew from 17,300 to 19,000, it did so grudgingly, rather than, as in the past, exuberantly. Direct-mail response dropped from the normal 1.1 percent to 0.7 percent, and renewal rates went from 70 percent to 68 percent. Twenty percent of all subscribers continued to contribute to the Research Fund, but the average contribution dropped.

We're ready ...

We have been waiting for years for this downturn - this period of one or more lean years - and the paper is ready. HCN is conservatively run, both in terms of financial reserves and in its solicitation of readers. We do not ask readers to contribute to the Research Fund more than once a year. And we don't ask for that gift more than three times in the year. We don't solicit subscribers through annoying (but effective) insert cards in the paper. We don't discount subscription rates to attract new subscribers. And we keep subscription rates as low as possible. So in a pinch, we can get a bit more aggressive.

As part of that aggression, the board voted to raise the subscription rate from $28/year to $32/year in September. It has been five years since the last rate increase, and the costs of paper and postage have risen sharply.

The board rejected as too risky a staff suggestion that HCN have a lifetime subscription rate. Board member Farwell Smith said he paid only $100 for a lifetime membership in the Sierra Club many years ago. "It was a great deal ... for me."

Ruth Hutchins

Ruth Hutchins died in her home in Fruita, Colo., on Tuesday, Feb. 4. The board and staff of High Country News mourn her passing. She has been a good friend, both personally and professionally, passing on to us innumerable story ideas and insights about water and land use.

She has also been a good friend to western Colorado. She worked to strengthen irrigated agriculture and to take some of the craziness out of the way we Westerners deal with water, she fought against development of farmland, and she campaigned within her ditch company to keep water under the control of her fellow farmers.

She was cofounder of the Mesa County Water Association. Recently, that group published the first issue of a newsletter, Western Colorado River Journal. And on Feb. 11, 18 and 25, the association will present its Fourth Annual Water Course in Grand Junction.

Ruth was a beautiful and intelligent and vital woman blessed with great energy and curiosity. We will miss her.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions be made to the Mesa County Water Association, c/o Marjorie Miller, 843 Rood Ave., Grand Junction, CO 81501.

- Ed Marston for the staff

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