Ed and Betsy Marston's Biweekly May Be Small, but It Is Still a Mighty Voice in the Wilderness

updated 04/09/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/09/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It seemed like a good idea—in theory. In 1986 a group of business promoters persuaded the town of Edgemont, an economically depressed community of 900 residents in South Dakota, to accept 300,000 tons of burned sewage sludge from Minneapolis-St. Paul. The plan was to build a plant in Edgemont that would extract the minuscule quantities of residual gold from commercial processes. Thus, the Twin Cities would be rid of a sanitation problem, while Edgemont would benefit in jobs and recovered gold.

This, however, was a gold rush that didn't pan out. While great piles of ash arrived in Edgemont, the promised recycling plant never materialized, and the town was left with an odiferous man-made mountain. State and local officials moved to bury the mess in emergency landfills. They might have covered over the whole fiasco as well were it not for a feisty little tabloid called the High Country News (HCN), which published a cautionary tale under the sardonic headline CITY SLICKERS STRIKE IT RICH IN SOUTH DAKOTA.

Now beginning its third decade, HCN has become one of America's most respected environmental publications, dubbed by some "the conscience of the West." To look at it, though, the biweekly newspaper seems hardly sturdy enough to carry such a weighty burden. Produced in the isolated town of Paonia, Colo., 250 miles west of Denver, HCNs full-time staff numbers only eight, including publisher Ed Marston, 50, and his wife, Betsy, 49, who is the editor. Its office is housed in a former church, and all of its assets-file cabinets, personal computers and mailing lists—would fit comfortably in the back of a pickup truck.

But HCNs clout on environmental issues is as impressive as its headquarters is not. Its network of 150 free-lance correspondents gives it a reach that goes well beyond its core coverage area of Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. While HCN has only 8,000 subscribers, they include "most of the congressional delegations of the Western states," says Ed Marston. In 1987 HCNs prestige was bolstered by a George Polk journalism award for the newspaper's investigative series on water-use policies in 10 Western states.

Ironically, the husband-and-wife team that have brought HCN such high esteem were once city slickers themselves. Transplanted New Yorkers, the Marstons met in 1961 as students at the City College of New York. Ed, a physics major, became a college teacher. Betsy went into TV journalism, where she became New York's first woman news anchor on a local PBS station and an Emmy-winning documentary producer. Still, there was one hitch in their dual-achieving lifestyle: "We had two small children," says Betsy, "and we never saw them."

In 1974 they decided to take a year off and, with kids in tow, hied off to Paonia (pop. 1,400) in Colorado's North Fork Valley. The Marstons bravely set up housekeeping in a one-room log cabin on a mesa outside town. "But after a month," Betsy says, "we were bored." Taking $10,000 in savings, they launched a weekly called the North Fork Times. In two months it was the valley's largest newspaper, albeit with a circulation of 1,000. They sold it at a profit in 1980, and then, in search of a wider audience, started the Western Colorado Report.

HCN entered their lives three years later. Founded in 1970 in Lander, Wyo., by rancher and former forest ranger Tom Bell, the paper began as Bell's personal platform against such travesties as the bounty hunting of eagles from helicopters. But HCN's finances were always precarious, and in 1983 Bell accepted the Marstons' offer to run the paper, merging it with their own paper and moving the entire operation except the printing (which is contracted out) to Paonia.

Since then the Marstons have managed to restore financial stability by adding 4,800 subscribers—at $24 a year—and soliciting donations and foundation grants. At the same time, the Marstons have given HCN journalistic credibility that is respected even by their foes. In the past three years, for example, HCN has published many critical articles on the proposed Two Forks Dam project, which would flood a scenic area southwest of Denver for water storage. "High Country News takes positions we sometimes don't agree with," says Denver Water Department spokesman Ed Kitts, "but they do it only after deep research. It is not a knee-jerk operation."

By now Ed and Betsy Marston are fully assimilated Westerners who know the region's problems close up. "While our role is to promote land-and-wildlife conservation, we must recognize that people need to earn a living," Ed says. "For the last 100 years, people here have been miners, loggers, builders of dams and power plants. Now those jobs are gone." Nevertheless, HCN's 20th-anniversary issue last September urged Westerners to recognize that their region is moving "away from cowboys and cattle and an indestructible landscape, and toward a fragile, arid land about to be destroyed by those who lived there and those who coveted its resources from afar." High Country News intends to continue as a responsible voice in this painful process of change.

—Dan Chu, David Chandler in Paonia

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