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A Western Institution Turns 50: High Country News Stays True to its Roots While Explaining a Fast-Changing Region

The High Country News editorial team. Photo by Evan Bolt.

In January 1970, Wyoming rancher and educator Tom Bell cobbled together a gritty black-and-white tabloid sounding the alarm about the destruction of a landscape that he loved. In the process, he birthed a Western institution and launched one of the nation’s first reader-funded nonprofit news organizations.

A decorated World War II veteran, Bell had seen firsthand the devastation war had visited upon Europe. When he returned home, he saw irresponsible players in the oil and gas and mining industries wreaking similar havoc. High Country News (HCN)was his answer, designed to raise awareness about industry’s impacts on the region’s land, air, water and wildlife.

In the 1980s, a new publisher and editor moved HCN to Paonia, a coal mining and fruit growing community on Colorado’s Western Slope. Ed Marston, a former physics professor, and his wife Betsy, a former TV journalist, tackled the region’s complex issues, including public land and water policy and population growth.

Under the Marstons, HCN earned a reputation for its honest reporting and insights into the changes that were sweeping across the region. The Marstons and their proteges won numerous awards for their work.

Paul Larmer, who became publisher in 2002 when Ed Marston retired, transformed the black-and-white tabloid into a full-color magazine and expanded its coverage of social and environmental justice issues. In 2018, HCN became the first non-Indigenous publication with an Indigenous Affairs Desk, staffed largely by Native American journalists and focused on the vast archipelago of tribal nations in the West.

2020 marks HCN’s 50th anniversary. The staff is celebrating the publication’s unique story with an ambitious $10 million fundraising campaign, an anniversary issue in September 2020, a gala in Denver in June 2021 and a traveling exhibit illuminating HCN’s history.

Much has changed since Tom Bell first raised his voice and his pen in defense of the Western landscape, but Bell’s spirit lives on in the pages of the magazine and its website, “At its heart, High Country News is still about fostering clear-eyed conversations about a place that we all love,” says newly minted Executive Director and Publisher Greg Hanscom. “It’s about telling the stories of the West, with its troubled past and present, and asking how we can build a better future.”

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