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Rocky Mountain Guru
Page 2

Marston was never a western insider. A New York City Jew whose father was a tailor and whose mother was a hatter, he attended the City College of New York. In 1974, he and Betsy fled their stressful East Coast jobs and moved to Paonia with their two small children. Paonia (population then about 1,400; now 1,700) is gorgeously situated on the western slope of Colorado's mountains and the eastern edge of a desert that stretches into Utah and beyond. For a couple who take 17-mile mountain hikes on weekends to relax, it has its compensations.

photo of Ed and Betsy MarstonThe Marstons ran the local North Fork Times , and then the regional Western Colorado Report , for several years. Then, in 1983, High Country News , a feisty paper started by Wyoming rancher Tom Bell in 1970, needed a new editor. The Marstons made a bid, and soon after, the paper's new staff -- Ed, Betsy, and a typesetter -- set up shop in a cramped building on Paonia's two-block-long main drag.

The paper, a tabloid published twice a month, covers the eleven western states from the Rockies to the Pacific. It's usually sixteen pages long, but runs to twenty when there are especially weighty issues to consider. Its stories are carefully researched. Each issue's lead article is usually several thousand words long -- more like a magazine feature than a newspaper story. It likely took weeks to write, and may have taken months. It may have been written by one of the handful of in-house editor/writers, or, more likely, one of the paper's network of dozens of freelancers across the region. (I count myself among them.) During the researching, writing, and lengthy editing process, the author probably gained a large store of knowledge about the Colorado River Compact, or the history of Montana's environmental movement, or, say, bees.

Betsy Marston, Ed's wife of thirty-six years, was at the center of the paper's editing process until she stepped down last year to take over "Writers on the Range," an in-house syndication service. She's the extrovert to Ed's introvert; when they make their way down Paonia's main drag to get lunch or their mail, she strides while he glides, looks up while he looks down. At work, when Ed went into his office, closed the door, and brooded, she ran things. From a glass cubicle near the interns and editors, she would laugh and hoot and chat. But, like Ed, Betsy held the paper to standards that could be painfully high. "Tough editing is good for people," she says cheerfully of her days as editor and intern supervisor. "I thought of [the internship] as boot camp."

Over the years, accolades rolled in. Journalism awards started lining the walls of the office. Reporters from national newspapers started scouring the paper for story ideas. "Ed's got integrity," says Jamie Williams, who heads the Montana chapter of the Nature Conservancy. "He's come up with some of the most refreshing ideas in the West because he's not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom."

photo of Wyoming ranching countryIndeed. The editorial line during Marston's first ten years at High Country News harmonized with the take-no-prisoners sentiment prevailing among western environmentalists at the time. But then, in 1991, Marston made a discovery that tilted his view of the West: environmentally and economically sound ranching. He met Doc and Connie Hatfield, a pair of Oregon ranchers who cared for the land as passionately as any green-to-the-bone environmentalist. They managed their cattle herd so it didn't impinge on nesting ducks or resident coyotes. They organized meetings in which ranchers sat in a circle and figured out how to save their economic necks -- by cutting out the middlemen and marketing their own beef, largely on its ecological merits. They sat in different circles with environmentalists and figured out how to rehabilitate trout streams in meadows used for grazing.

Operations like the Hatfields' were new to a High Country News readership used to reading about degradation of the public lands at the hands of ranchers. But for Marston it was a watershed. "I lost my innocence about the West -- lost my ideology, really," he says. "And then it was a slippery slope downwards." He kept speaking up for stable biological communities, but now he also spoke up for stable human communities. He wondered aloud whether New Westerners (among them, liberal newcomers drawn by the scenery) might have something to learn from Old Westerners. As Really New Westerners started arriving in rural mountain and desert communities in the 1990s -- driving bulky SUVs past old diners on their way to new latte-dispensing cafés -- he condemned "the wholesale conversion of the West into 35-acre ranchettes."

Marston looked for new answers, too. He searched for small towns that were trying to cope with the crumbling of the Old West economy without selling out to mining companies and subdivision developers. He trained an increasingly bright light on local consensus groups, in which environmentalists, ranchers, miners, and loggers sat down together and tried to solve local problems. In 1996, underneath a cartoon of a rancher, a hippie, a Forest Service employee, and others sitting in a circle holding hands, High Country News ran a story called "Howdy Neighbor! As a Last Resort, Westerners Start Speaking to Each Other." In stories like these, Marston was starting to see the beginnings of that middle-class reform movement he hoped for.

Grand Mesa Citizens Alliance

High Country News

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Photo: top, Celia Roberts; bottom, Tom Bean

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