An Essay on the Nature of Journalism
as practiced by High Country News in the 1980s and 1990s.
By Ed Marston
Publisher of High Country News, 1983—2003
In 1982, I ran a photograph of a decaying Mayan temple on the front page of the second newspaper Betsy Marston and I founded: Western Colorado Report.
The occasion was Exxon Corporation's closing of its oil shale project, canning 2,000 employees, canceling plans to hire another 2,000, and marking the end of the largest western boom since the California Gold Rush of 1849.
The oil shale era had lasted about 70 years, and this latest boom was barely a decade old. So comparison to the demise of the Mayan civilizations was a chronological stretch. But it was how I thought. I was a journalist, setting down the day-to-day events, but seeking historic change within those events. The oil shale boom and bust were not about Exxon or oil prices; they were about the evolution of a 1 million square mile chunk of America and the handful of people who lived there.
After Exxon closed shop, the workers and camp followers fled, leaving behind only things that couldn't move: motels and houses and city halls and sewage treatment plants and even a new town named Battlement Mesa. Investors from around the nation who had sent their money to little Colorado towns like Rifle, Parachute, and Meeker in order to get rich quickly learned an old western lesson: To make a small fortune in this thinly populated, economically marginal and unstable empty quarter, start with a large fortune.
It was not just excess physical infrastructure that was stranded. Some landowners had sold their places to drillers and construction companies for 10 percent down and 10 years of payments. Some sellers were already retired to Florida or Arizona when they got the land back: covered with gravel, ditches filled in, fences down, water sold off, weeds growing.
Also stranded were those whom the late writer Wallace Stegner praised as "stickers," people who stay with a place through thin and thinner. Some stay passively, taking whatever comes in order to live in the rural West. Some are the non-passive stickers that writer Joan Didion describes:
"A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image."
The energy industry had tried to wrench the West from itself. It planned to build new cities, to divert water from the Missouri River into the Colorado River, to send deep open pits crawling across the landscape, and thereby to turn a still-rural landscape into an industrial one. With the collapse of oil prices and the failure of the technology intended to turn rock into gasoline, these plans were shelved or shredded.
There was a Wizard of Oz quality to the bust. Had we ever really believed that oil shale was real? Had we all been bewitched by a few men with billions operating from behind a curtain? Had it all been so flimsy, so easily blown away?
In any case, the vanishing of the shalers and their billions did more than push us back 10 years. The boom had sucked in too many people. Politicians and community leaders and bankers and contractors and landowners had bet their money and their leadership on the boom. When it didn't succeed, investments and reputations were badly damaged or destroyed. Faith in what had seemed a clearly marked future was lost. A vacuum had been created.
Those of us who were environmentalists were ready with a vision. We always knew that the real value of the West lay in its wildness and sparse population and public lands. Grazing and mining and logging and oil shale were flies in the ointment: activities that kept the West from its potential. Now we only had to attract people from elsewhere who shared our values and then build a green economy (definition and implementation to follow) to overwhelm the dam-building, tree-cutting, Bambi-shooting, pickup-truck-driving culture and economy. We thought of the people who had bet on the boom as history, and it was not meant as a compliment.
By the time this stage of the cultural and economic struggle for the West had begun in the mid 1980s, Betsy and I had merged Western Colorado Report into High Country News, a not-for-profit environmental paper whose beat was 10 states and a million square miles of public and private land.
Although oil shale had been confined to western Colorado and eastern Utah, the entire West had suffered collapse in the early to mid 1980s. Coal, conventional oil and natural gas, copper, timber, cattle, tourism, and electric power plants all went into the tank.
We took over High Country News (HCN) in the fall of 1983, as oil shale and other energy dominoes were still toppling. It was HCN's job to report on the on-going demise of energy development and then describe the new society that would emerge from the wreckage.
I will not describe here our 20-year attempt to track, predict, illuminate, and give larger meaning and self-consciousness to the interior West's evolution. That story is in the back issues of HCN: a shelf of bound volumes that measures just shy of two feet wide, and weighs 80 pounds. We thought of each issue as a new chapter in a book that had started with founder Tom Bell in 1970 and is still going.
The staff that produced our 480 chapters consisted initially of Betsy and myself. By the time we handed over the non-profit organization to the next generation, there were 24 people in the office, several hundred freelance writers, and seven times the circulation. But we were still only putting out 16 tall pages 24 times a year.
Freelance writers and photographers across the West have always been at the heart of High Country News. How else could you cover 10 states that averaged 100,000 square miles each, a herd of federal agencies and their 500,000 square miles of federal land, numerous industries, and thousands of small towns?
Because I was once a physics professor, it was natural that I would think of the freelancers as researchers. The freelancers were in the field, testing against reality my hypotheses about what made the West tick.
It's a pretty idea, that as Publisher I ran High Country News as a laboratory, testing and discarding various economic and social theories. But that thesis only intermittently bears close examination. I wasn't much of an objective scientists through the 1980s, when I was in thrall to the conviction that the traditional western economies and communities had suffered their final, shattering defeat, and out of the debris of the 1980s collapse, a new society would be created.
So the focus in those years was on the writing of obituaries for the old ways. We did a four-part series in 1986, published later as a book called Reopening the Western Frontier, about the West's many busts and what would follow them. The series provoked a call from a newspaper editor in a North Dakota town that was home to a closed coal-gasification plant. "Do you mean this sort of thing is going on all over?" he asked from his own impoverished and desperate town.
It wasn't just energy towns. The weekly newspapers from the ski town papers were unnaturally large, fat with foreclosure notices on vacation homes and condos. Thanks to time-share condominiums, instead of one foreclosure notice, a single two-bedroom unit would be foreclosed on multiple times, requiring multiple legal ads, as the various owners stopped paying their mortgages.
Tourism was tied to commodities in unexpected ways. The oil bust hit Vail, Colo., hard because that ski town had lots of wealthy Mexican tourists. When oil prices plummeted and the oil-dependent peso collapsed, the Mexicans disappeared.
Not all of the bust stories were about economics. In our own town of Paonia, population about 1,400, five high-school age youngsters died when their vehicle tumbled into a river while they were on a pizza run to a nearby town. Several of them were living with friends or relatives. Their parents had left town for Tucson, for Saudi Arabia, for San Diego, looking for work in the wake of the closing of our three coal mines. The kids had been left behind, to finish high school with their peers, with their tribe (HCN, 5/12/86).
So obituaries of all sorts were in plain sight. Harder to find were the birth announcements: the new, green, thriving economies that I was sure were quietly transforming the West, just out of sight of our freelance writers.
In place of a new economic direction, we published articles about fights for the West and its resources. In the early 1980s, President Reagan's Interior Secretary, James Watt, was offended by the fact that the region he ruled was socialist to its core. Five hundred thousand of the West's million square miles were public land. Another five percent of the land was Indian reservations, also part of Watt's domain, and also, as he saw it, even more socialistic than the national forests and national parks.
Watt's attempts to sell off the public lands failed, and after three years at Interior, he was fired by Pres. Reagan as the 1984 election approached. He went home, this stiff and driven man, to build a political career in Wyoming, and failed there too.
But while the federal land and its resources remained in the hands of the public, Watt succeeded in a much larger mission. Before Watt, environmentalism and land protection were bipartisan. Pres. Nixon, elected only eight years before Reagan, was the nation's greatest environmental president (the National
Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, et al)..
But after Watt, Democrats were environmentalists, Republicans were anti-environmentalists, and the West voted increasingly Republican. We, the environmentalists, became the other, the minority, the enemy, whipping boy for everything that had gone wrong here. We were fifth columnist who wanted to lock up the West's extractable resources and drive off its working people.
Watt didn't build his divisive strategy on thin air. We who intended to build a New West knew more about what we hated than what we wanted. High Country News published essays about economic development — the paper was obsessed by economic development, as was the entire West. We printed essays, theories, because there were no prominent green economies to write about. It was all imaginary, existing in some yet-to-be-visualized future.
The only positive news we printed was the defeat of logging and drilling proposals and the passage of laws creating or expanding national parks and wilderness areas. Environmental energy in those days went to resisting mining and logging and ranching and to expanding protected lands. Many environmentalists saw the need to be for things, and efforts were made, but overall we were more likely to oppose other's ideas.
Environmentalists were not the only ones blundering through the busted West in the 1980s. The region's proudest agency, the United States Forest Service, was busily destroying itself by continuing to push a roading and logging agenda. It was tone deaf to the 1980‚s new music. It was stuck in the Progressive Era. As a result, by the early 1990s, major decisions about the national forests were being made by the courts, by activists contesting agency action through administrative appeals, and by Bill Clinton's White House.
Although High Country News was as lacking in vision as anyone, we were not taken in by the traditional environmental strategies. In a review of the major environmental groups agenda for the future, we criticized a published agenda for the future put together by the nation's top 10 major environmental groups for putting all their eggs in the litigation and congressional lobbying basket (HCN 2/3/86). In another essay, historian Alvin Josephy bludgeoned novelist and essayist Edward Abbey, accusing him of fronting for the subdividers by attacking ranching. Josephy wasn't ironic or sarcastic (HCN,4/14/86). He was enraged.
There was a sarcastic piece by writer Ray Ring mocking those who would banish cattle from the public's land because it provides only a small percentage of the nation's beef. Ring said hikers and hunters and skiers should by that reasoning also be banished from the public land, because they provide only three percent of the nation's recreation. Disneyland, by itself, he said, provides more recreation days than all the federal lands (HCN, 6/23/86).
It's a wonder anyone read the paper since most of our readers were environmentalists, and we had trouble hewing to the party line. But we discovered that there was a market for a publication that was green to the core, but skeptical about strategy, lack of vision and even icons like Abbey.
The market wasn't huge, but it was enough. HCN had grown from the 3,300 in Sept. 1983, to 11,000 in 1991. More important than their numbers was readers‚ loyalty and extraordinary generosity: they subscribed and then 25 percent contributed to the Research Fund. HCN wasn't rich, but it was self-sustaining. We welcomed the occasional foundation grant, but we didn't need it: readers alone kept us afloat.
The only cloud was a very fundamental one. I wanted to write about the construction or demolition of Mayan temples. But all I could see, amidst the beauty, was a rural backwater that didn't have a clue as to its future.
Extraction and dam building and public-land logging and even mining seemed dead or dying, but there was nothing to take their place except the flow of rootless wealth into the region: wealth that builds a big stucco or log or straw-bale house for two retired people, and that incidentally makes it harder for working Westerners to own a house.
House building creates a momentary burst of economic activity, but unless you're prepared to see the entire region subdivided, it's a temporary effect that simply fragments the land. And the strength and beauty of the interior West is its unroaded, intact land. It is as if this new economy were a diabolical machine designed to destroy this intactness. In more settled areas, building lots range up to an acre. In the West, outside of towns, building lots are 40 acres.
We environmentalists had publicized the West as a place of immense beauty threatened by mining, grazing and dam building. In response, people from urban areas had sent money to environmental groups in order to save the West. And then they had visited to see the saved or imperiled places for themselves. Finally, naturally, some of us wanted our own piece of paradise.
The newcomers and new economies I had dreamt of in 1983, in the wake of the collapse of oil shale, had arrived. We were a fragmented, feuding community creating a fragmented and ugly landscape.
And then, unexpectedly, HCN stumbled on a possible antidote to community feuding and land fragmentation. In March, 1992, I wrote a 28-page special issue of High Country News that was so radical, for an environmental publication, that I believed it would be my last as publisher. It described ranchers in eastern Oregon who were attempting to improve their standard of living by marketing their beef to high-end consumers and to improve the land by working collaboratively with federal land managers and some environmentalists.
Ranged against this new economic and political force was the difficulty of coordinating 14 ranchers, improving the quality of beef they produced, and then finding a market. Politically, the ranchers, led by a couple named Doc and Connie Hatfield, were up against a sluggish land management bureaucracy and especially against a significant number of environmentalists, some of whom opposed all cattle grazing, and some of whom opposed the consensus and collaboration that was at the heart of this effort.
On-the-ground decision-making threatened centralized, Washington, D.C.-based control of the West, and so a top Sierra Club official, Michael McCloskey, spoke out against it. But collaboration also threatens local environmental groups who seek to protect land through Washington, D.C., or the courts. For the highest of reasons, the mainstream of environmentalism was in favor of controlling the West from Washington, D.C., and other urban centers. Local people and communities could not be trusted to treat the federal lands, which belonged to all Americans, fairly.
The dozen articles in that bloated issue were radical at that time, and for a green publication, because they argued that some ranchers shared our basic environmental values, that they had developed a political strategy based on cooperation rather than litigation, and that they had an economic base rooted in a intact and productive landscape, rather than in a recreational or building-lot landscape.
To my surprise, High Country News readers and the board of directors took the March 23, 1992, issue in stride. After the issue on Doc and Connie Hatfield, the paper's growth even accelerated. While the paper had a broad array of readers, the heart of its subscription list was card-carrying environmentalists. And the strength of the environmental movement was its willingness to support a publication that didn't hew to a party line.
Nevertheless, the stories on progressive ranching and collaboration, and my hope that logging and mining would also sprout progressive wings caused me anguish. I'd tell people that after I'd met the Doc and Connie Hatfield, "My life had become hell."
HCN was a valuable environmental institution. Would it be more useful, I wondered, if it hewed to mainstream, and therefore anti-cow, environmentalism? Would it be more useful if it supported on-going conflict rather than searched for common ground among Westerners?
It turned out that there are many ways to be useful. The movement the Hatfields began in the early 1990s has expanded, both economically and politically, and in one guise or another is restoring land and keeping it from being fragmented across the West.
Politically, with environmentalism today locked out of the executive and congressional branches, and on the verge of being locked out of the judiciary, we who care about the interior West are left only with strategies that work on the ground. We can no longer fantasize about being strong enough to impose our vision on the Interior West through the courts or Congress or the White House. Environmentalism has been unseated from its high, national horse, and will succeed or fail here in the West, through coalitions with other Westerners. Its colonialist behavior is dead.
I wasn't being virtuous or a high-minded journalist when I wrote about Doc and Connie Hatfield and their fellow ranchers in eastern Oregon. I was driven mostly by curiosity. I had found a very sophisticated political and economic and land-use program in places that looked more like crossroads than towns, populated by people who, at first glance, looked like hicks or reactionaries? How could I not explore the story, and, when I was convinced that it was for real, how could I not let HCN's readers know what was happening in our hinterland's hinterland?
High Country News has had its conventional scoops. We let the West know that Glen Canyon Dam was almost toppled by the floods of 1983, for example. We had helped expose the heavy-handed manner the Forest Service treated staffers, including Forest Supervisors and Regional Foresters, who wouldn't hew to the agency line in the late 1980s.
But those aren't the kinds of scoops HCN's readers look for. The Hatfield stories were the archetypal HCN scoop. Those stories announced that the West might be changing, not because of some action in Washington, D.C., but because people on the ground were figuring out a new way to do business with each other and with the land.
Those kinds of stories turned out to be good for circulation, but we didn't write them to make HCN thrive. The stories came out of our need to understand the West.
In the case of ranching and consensus, the news was good. Those initial 1992 stories and the ones that followed told environmentalists that ranchers, with their 170,000 square miles of private ranch land, the 420,000 square miles of grazed federal land, and their political savvy and tight communities, were potential allies who might be riding to cooperating in rescuing the region and its open spaces. It said that there might be an alternative to the colonial path environmentalism had been on, with its attempts to govern the West not from within the region, but from the nation's power centers.
But we would have told that story even if it had been bad news. That is the nature of curiosity-driven journalism.