High Country News: an impartial eye on environment

High Country News is not an ordinary newspaper. This small biweekly, which covers environmental issues in the Rocky Mountain states, has developed a clout that far exceeds its size.

Put out by a young, idealistic staff in a suite of offices over a fabric shop , the paper has developed a devoted following throughout the nation. It has become required reading not only for environemntalists but also for government officials and company executives involved with energy and resource development in the mountain states.

The unique aspect of the paper is it approach. There are a number of environmental newsletters and newspapers around the country. But these tend to be broadsheets that talk exclusively to the "faithful." High Country News, on the other hand, takes a journalistic approach, attempting to impartially include the arguments of the various sides on even the most controversial of topics.

"As a result, not all environmentalists here appreciate us," explains Joan Nice, an intense woman who has played a major role in shaping the paper.

The tension between journalistic objectively and environmental advocacy has, in recent years, led High Country News to a number of editorial positions unpalatable to environmentalists.

"The paper has taken a number of unpopular stands," says Bruce Hamilton, a Sierra Club staff member and ex-high Country News reporter. They opposed a scenic plan developed for Jackson Hole, Wyo., as a pork barrel for developers, suggested that a cap on state coal severance taxes was unreasonable, and even editorialized that considerable "fat" could be cut from environmental programs, he recounts.

"Our readers tend to have shared and often unquestioned assumptions which we occasionally must poke some holes in," says Geoffrey o'Gara, the quiet-spoken managing editor who came here from a small paper in Washington, D.C.

Despite an occasional fall from grace, High Country News has a devoted following. Just how devoted was demonstrated by the response to the two major crises in its short lifetime.

The paper was started in 1969 as the Camping News Weekly by a country editor with a yearning for his own publication. It was aimed at recreationists frequenting Yellowstone National Park, but it was a financial failure.

Nine months later a professional environmentalist, Tom Bell, bought the paper and began filling it with more environmental than travel and recreational news.

"This was at a time when Wyoming papers were not carrying any environemntal news whatsoever, so the paper filled an important niche," Mr. Hamilton explains.

A dedicated environmental activist, Mr. Bell used the pages of High Country News to crusade against the conservative and moneyed interests that dominate Wyoming politics, plunging into the center of issues such as clear-cutting on national forests, wilderness proposals, and the damning of scenic rivers. He sank his personal fortune into the paper.

Finally, in 1973, Mr. Bell no longer could carry the paper. He advised his readers: "I write this with a great deal of regret and inner dismay. High Country News will cease publication with the March 30 issue. Barring a miracle, we have come to the end."

Then the "miracle" occured. Letters and donations poured in. Within a month , they had received more than $7,000 and 160 new subscriptions. This enabled him to pay off his most pressing debts and hire some new staff.

For the following year, the paper lived from issue to issue. But it was also the year of the Arab oil embargo, an event that forced Americans to think seriously about environemental and resource issues, many for the first time. The High country News subscription list continued to grow until its budget finally balanced.

But, during this same time, Mr. Bell had become convinced that US society was on the verge of collapse, that it was time for him to practice the self-reliance that he had been preaching for so many years. As a result, he moved to Oregon to homestead and turned the paper over to his staff.

When Mis Nice and Mr. Hamilton took over, they made some changes. They separated editorial and news content. They begun taking advertising. They hired writers as much for journalistic ability as environmental sympathy.

In 1978, the paper faced another crisis. Four of the paper's eight staffers were involved in an automobile wreck. The news editor was killed and the other three seriously injured.

Writers throughout the West donated articles to fill the paper's pages and more than $32,000 poured in to help pay medical expenses. Donations came not only from environmentalists but also from companies such as Atlantic Richfield and Wyoming Minerals Corporation, who had been impressed by its accuracy and fairness.

Today "the paper is still a financially marginal operation," explains Mr. O'Gara, "But we are sure it will never die. If there is another emergency, there will be another outpouring."

Mr. O'Gara sees High Country News as developing increasingly into a regional paper. He would like to build on its current circulation base of 3,900 by broadening its appeal.

Currently the bulk of the paper's readers are from wyoming and Colorado, although they have subscribers in every state in the Union.

As the Rocky Mountains develop into "the energy bread-basket" of the US, the voice of the High Country News is likely to gain in importance. Developmnet in this region is already bringing a number of problems and conflicts. And information of the sort that the paper has been providing can help resolve them.

"When I was in Washington, D.C., there were a thousand journalists competing for a single, important story. Here, there are a thousand stories for one reporter," says Mr. O'Gara, summarizing both the need for the opportunity of th High County News.

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