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Rocky Mountain Guru
Page 3

High Country News isn't the only publication covering such things. In September 2002, the New York Times ran a story called "Environmentalists Hail the Ranchers: Howdy, Pardners!" Marston looked at the article and said, "It's my party line."

But down the hall, Paul Larmer, Marston's successor as publisher, looked at the same article -- which quotes several scientists saying ranches are environmentally benign -- and asked, "Where are the scientists who disagree with this?"

The next generation of High Country News brass, like all good students, respect Marston but freely disagree with him. "Ed has a remarkable ability to define an era," says Hanscom, the paper's thirty-year-old editor. "Saying 'This is the era of consensus' -- that sparks debates." But neither he nor Larmer, forty-two, agrees with Marston's most controversial recent claim: that the environmentalists have won. "It doesn't mean all the bad things stop," explains Marston. "But I do think even with the fire and drought we're not going to build new dams. We're not going to clearcut forests. It fundamentally goes against the current of the times."

Hanscom begs to differ. "I think on a broad scale the environmental movement has established itself as a mover," he says. "But it has to happen over and over and over again on the grassroots level."

Recently, Marston has been busy proving Hanscom's point. This summer, as part of the Bush-Cheney drilling push, an energy company declared plans to drill up to 600 coalbed methane wells in the coniferous hills near Paonia. Coalbed methane is one of the more environmentally destructive forms of natural-gas drilling. It is the kind of development to which westerners have, historically, knuckled under -- and the kind of development that makes Marston doubt that the environmentalists' victory he believes in includes the Rockies.

"Seeing these coalbed methane knights and dukes and vandals move in here, I've seen how powerless the place is," Marston says. "What person living in suburban New Jersey or Denver or L.A. is worried about someone planting a hundred thousand acres of gas wells and flaring them all night and setting up compressor stations and destroying their serenity and landscapes? But that's what we're up against."

So he and a diverse group of locals -- old-timers, newcomers, farmers, ranchers, former oilmen, intellectuals, housewives, retired pilots, young environmentalists (myself included) -- formed the Grand Mesa Citizens Alliance, a nonconfrontational effort to turn the county commission around. After a summer of negotiations, Delta County became the first county in Colorado, and only the second county in the West, to refuse a coalbed methane proposal.

For Marston, it was like one of his editorials come to life. Western society was maturing right in front of his eyes. "We're nation-building," he says. "In the end, we got the government we deserved: a fine government." He has become the president of the Grand Mesa Citizens Alliance.

Does this mean that Ed Marston -- brooder, enviro, ex-physicist -- fits into Paonia after all? Could be. In 1998, reviewing a book by a Duke University historian who moved to a Colorado ranching town, Marston wrote, "Why did a worldly, educated professor work so hard to become part of one of the nation's narrowest-minded, hardest-working societies?" The historian, he decided, didn't give a clear answer. But Marston seems to have figured out an answer for himself.

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:

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