High Country News (HCN) is a nonprofit, independent media organization covering issues that define the American West. Based in the small western Colorado town of Paonia, High Country News publishes a biweekly newsmagazine as well as a variety of digital and print media. HCN is widely regarded as the leading source for environmental news and analysis across its coverage region of more than a million square miles. It has covered many of the important environmental, economic, and cultural events that have defined Colorado since the 1970s.
The mission of High Country News is to inform and inspire people through in-depth journalism to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities. Its coverage spans the eleven western states and Alaska—an area roughly defined by an abundance of federal public land, one of the staple topics of High Country News. Other primary topics include climate change, energy, water, grazing, wilderness, mining, wildlife, logging, and western politics and communities, including tribes.
In the late 1960s, Tom Bell—a Wyoming rancher, biologist, and World War II combat veteran—became increasingly dismayed by the strip mining, clear-cutting, and poaching he saw going on around him. He founded what is now Wyoming’s leading environmental group, the Wyoming Outdoor Council, in 1967, and two years later he purchased Camping News Weekly, a small publication aimed at hunters and anglers, to spread conservation news. In 1970, Bell renamed the publication High Country News and began transforming it into a voice for the burgeoning environmental movement, published biweekly from an office in Bell’s hometown of Lander.
Bell was a firebrand and HCN was fueled—against financial odds—by his passion. The new paper’s zeal alienated some readers and advertisers, but Bell and his shoestring staff kept HCN going. To keep it afloat, he even sold his ranch and moved his family into a small house in Lander, Wyoming. In March 1973, he announced that the financially struggling HCN would cease publication, “barring a miracle.” Donations poured in from a small but loyal readership. Two weeks later, Bell announced with gratitude that the thousands of dollars received would allow HCN to continue.
The deadline grind had taken a toll on Bell, and HCN had drained much of his family's money. In July 1974, he announced that he was taking a less active role in HCN and moving to Oregon to farm.
Through the mid-1970s, HCN’s cadre of young editors expanded its scope into the Rocky Mountain region and took on a more newsy, objective voice, even as it remained well networked within the region’s environmental movement.
On August 27, 1978, tragedy struck when four HCN staffers were involved in a serious car accident. Medical bills threatened HCN’s continuation, but readers donated more than $30,000, another sign of the unique connection HCN had established with its readers through its passionate reporting.
In 1979, HCN reorganized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and established a board of directors. It also emphasized more literary writing, a step toward HCN’s current magazine style.
Move to Colorado
In spring of 1983, several staffers, including the managing editor, were ready to move on. To take over HCN, the board chose Ed and Betsy Marston, then living in Paonia, Colorado. The Marstons had moved to Colorado in 1974 from New York, where Ed had worked as a physics professor and Betsy as a television news journalist. Since arriving in Paonia, they had founded and run two community newspapers, including the North Fork Times, which covered land, water, and resource issues.
In the summer of 1983, the paper was moved from Lander to Paonia in a pickup truck carrying an addressing machine, a photo file, the HCN subscribers list, some HCN back issues, a heavy-duty dolly, and a couple of old chairs. The Marstons and a small supporting staff settled into publishing HCN from a former Seventh Day Adventist Church in Paonia’s small downtown.
Within a few years, the Marstons’ nuts-and-bolts, intellectual exploration of Western issues and politics was attracting a growing, loyal following. A 1988 Rocky Mountain News article reported that former Colorado senator Tim Wirth read HCN cover to cover; national publications praised HCN for its clear and provocative writing.
By 2001, when Ed Marston stepped down as publisher, HCN circulation had grown to more than 20,000, up from 3,000 in 1984. (As of 2015, Betsy is still active at HCN, managing its syndicated op-ed service, “Writers on the Range.”) Despite having been founded by someone who held some politically conservative views, HCN had developed a reputation as a liberal publication. The paper had adopted a motto that ran a common thread through all these decades:
“for people who care about the West.”
Surviving in a Digital Age
When Ed Marston left HCN in 2001, print journalism was reeling from the expansion of the internet. Readership for print publications was dropping, and the entire advertising and subscription-based journalism business model seemed threatened.
HCN had already delved into the digital age when it created a website in 1995. In 2003, HCN hired its first webmaster and began publishing some content solely for a web audience. By 2015, HCN’s website reached more than 160,000 readers per month.
The format of the HCN newsmagazine adapted to the times as well. After taking over in 2002, one of the first things that new publisher Paul Larmer did was adopt a magazine-style format with a full-color cover. In 2005, the entire publication became full-color.
During the past decade, HCN’s nonprofit approach, funded largely by loyal subscribers and donors, has allowed it to continue to provide in-depth news coverage of Western issues.
Notable News Coverage and Awards
Initially, HCN’s coverage focused on Wyoming. Tom Bell published stories on environmental topics—wilderness, forestry, mining—that traditional newspapers were not covering. Bell also wrote provocatively about local controversies such as sheep ranchers poisoning eagles.
Bell and his successors tracked energy development in Wyoming in the wake of the early 1970s energy crisis. HCN ran cover stories on coal strip mining, oil and gas development, and proposals to extract oil shale. In 1980, EPA Journal—the publication of the US Environmental Protection Agency—noted that HCN’s reporting on oil shale in 1974 was “five years before syn-fuels reached the headlines of daily newspapers.”
Through the 1970s, HCN published groundbreaking analysis of Agent Orange herbicide, radioactive tailings used in housing construction, and the buildup of nuclear weapons in the West. In 1980, HCN received an environmental award from the regional administrator of the EPA.
Under the Marstons, HCN took an increasing interest in the political institutions that define the West, including the public lands agencies, the Bureau of Reclamation, and land-grant universities. HCN also began to tackle wide topics like the deindustrialization of the West's commodity-based economy and western water issues. In a four-issue series in 1986, HCN published in-depth stories on the water issues facing the West’s three major water drainages: the Columbia, Colorado, and Missouri. The series won the prestigious George Polk Award for Environmental Reporting in 1986, and was packaged into a book, Western Water Made Simple—one of several such books that HCN has since produced.
During this period, HCN also established its independence from the environmental movement. In the early 1990s, for example, HCN published several special issues celebrating ranchers who were using sustainable grazing techniques—a clear break with environmental groups seeking to limit or eliminate grazing on public lands.
HCN’s move to Paonia also brought more focus to Colorado issues. From the late 1980s, HCN wrote in-depth analysis of the proposed Two Forks Dam. In the early 1990s, it covered the Animas–La Plata water project, the economic decline of Denver, and the construction of Denver International Airport. HCN published cover stories on groundwater depletion in the San Luis Valley, the Rocky Flats weapons plant, and the effects of the 2000s natural gas boom on Western Colorado towns. In 1998, HCN won the Colorado Governor’s Environmental Award and a media award from the Wirth Chair in Environmental and Community Development Policy, presented at the University of Colorado at Denver.
As the publication branched further from traditional environmental topics in the 1990s and 2000s, HCN published cover stories on immigrant workers in the West’s ski resorts, Polynesian gangs in Salt Lake, and the international finance structure of the West’s energy economy. High Country News senior editor Ray Ring won a George Polk Award for Political Reporting for his 2006 cover story on the West’s libertarian movement. High Country News also increasingly focused on social justice issues. Ring’s 2008 cover story, “Disposable Workers of the Oil and Gas Fields,” won the Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism; Rebecca Clarren’s 2010 cover story about dangerous working conditions faced by immigrant dairy workers also won the Hillman Prize. Recent award-winning articles include a 2014 cover story about tracking the climate effects of global wind-blown dust and another about studying the causes of tree die-off in the West’s forests.
Today, HCN remains true to its roots, while continuing to widen its lens to occasionally consider social and environmental justice topics, urban issues, and the West’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity.