NRDC OnEarth
NRDC   OnEarth
The Earth’s Best Defense

Current Issue
About OnEarth

Cover, Current Issue
Letter from the Editor
Contact OnEarth
Full Table of Contents
Back Issues
Media Kit

NRDC Membership

A NEW WEBSITE! blogs, more multimedia, and award-winning journalism come join the conversation at

photo of Ed Marston
Rocky Mountain Guru

by Lisa Jones

How does a New Jersey physics professor turn a tiny environmental newspaper in Colorado into a mini-media empire? Step one: Think a lot.

Ed Marston is a brooder. It's a breathtaking October day in tiny Paonia, Colorado, the sky bright blue, the mountains to the east shooting out of green and gold aspen forests, and Marston is walking along with his eyes on the sidewalk. He can't just stroll to the post office; he negotiates a path, threading his way through shop owners and cowboys with a gliding, tentative step, as if he's making his first contact with the place. In fact, Marston has lived in Paonia for nearly thirty years. But this is a ranching, farming, coal-mining town, perpetually sunlit and definitely unbrooding, and Ed Marston -- the sad-eyed publisher of a brainy environmental newspaper called High Country News -- doesn't completely fit in.

Eating lunch at a restaurant where most other diners are reading the Denver Post or exclaiming about the fall weather, Marston leans back from his plate of pasta and says, "One of my theories is that what the interior West lacks is a middle-class reform movement." Like most colonies, he says, the West is thinly populated and politically immature. People don't bother talking to their neighbors about their environmental problems, but go over their heads to regional environmental hubs or government offices in Washington, D.C. "The next step for the environmental movement," Marston declares, "is to refocus on social issues."

This is typical Marston. He wields a wider-angle lens than most. He counts among his favorite books Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History, and he is probably the only person who has ever compared Edward Abbey to Napoleon Bonaparte.

the High Country NewsFor the past twenty years, Marston has trained his wide-angle lens on a West in environmental upheaval. He's seen High Country News through the spotted owl brouhaha, through the Clinton administration's quixotic try at reforming the rules on cattle grazing, and into the days of rural suburbanization and the western McMansion. He's seen the end of the era of dam building. He's seen the dawn of the era in which dams are eyed for demolition. He's watched coal and oil booms come and go. His very first story, in 1983, was about the crash of the oil shale market in Colorado; recently, he's been writing about the rise of coalbed methane drilling.

Nobody has brooded more or published more about these issues than Ed Marston. Sixty-two years old, trim from a doctor-ordered vegetarian diet, Marston used to be a physics professor in New Jersey. But he didn't like having to be the man with all the answers. At High Country News, he's been the question man, probing the problems and leveling criticism. "It's time to clearcut the Forest Service," he said in 1993. In 1999 he wrote, "Now that small towns are disappearing from America, we visit Disney theme parks designed to remind us of them. Or we crowd into the first small town we can find and set about changing it into the suburb we came from."

With Ed as publisher and writer and his wife, Betsy -- an Emmy Award-winning television producer -- as its high-energy editor, High Country News covered environmental issues with such thoroughness and passion that some call it "the conscience of the West." Now, the Marstons are stepping down. In September, Ed demoted himself from the publisher's job to spend his final year at the paper as senior journalist. The move was mostly the price of success. On the Marstons' watch, High Country News expanded its circulation from 3,300 to 22,000 and its staff from three to twenty-five and added a radio version; Greg Hanscom, the new editor, jokes about "the world's smallest media empire." And Ed has had to spend less and less time writing ("which I do well") and more and more time fundraising and managing ("which I don't do so well").

But it also may have something to do with the fact that Marston thinks the West is, finally, creeping toward political maturity. Ed Marston, quintessential Thinker, has just turned community organizer.

Grand Mesa Citizens Alliance

High Country News

To keep destructive coalbed methane drilling out of the greater Yellowstone region, take action at NRDC's BioGems website:

Page:  1  2  3

A resident of Paonia, Colorado, and frequent visitor to the offices of High Country News, Lisa Jones has written for the New York Times Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor.

Photo: Celia Roberts

OnEarth. Winter 2003
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council