After 39 years with High Country News, Betsy Marston is retiring. For longtime readers, it will be hard to imagine the post without it.
It was Betsy and her late husband, Ed, who brought High Country News from his birthplace in Lander, Wyoming, to Paonia, Colorado, in 1983. Both New Yorkers, the Marstons moved to the North Fork Valley in the mid-1970s and started two local newspapers before taking over HCN.
Although Ed was known as the man of “big ideas” and the leading fundraiser for High Country News, Betsy was a seasoned journalist. She graduated from Columbia School of Journalism and was New York’s first female news anchor on a local PBS station. A dedicated civil rights activist, she brought a strong moral compass to her role as editor.
“She was always impactful,” recalls Ray Ring, a former editor known for his investigative reporting. “She was the last to step back, still championing public lands among staff, keeping them front and center as the heart of the mission.”
Together, the Marstons increased the magazine’s influence, quality and circulation – from around 3,000 to 20,000 subscribers at the end of their tenure at the top of the banner in 2001. Along the way, they’ve racked up accolades, especially HCN‘s first George Polk Award, for a series on Western water.
Paul Larmer, who worked with Betsy as an intern, then editor and editor, and ultimately editor, remembers learning from Marston just by sitting down next to her “and soaking up her approach. journalism – curious and innocent questions that cut to the heart of a story.
“I never thought of myself as a writer and still don’t think so,” Marston said. “I’m a workaholic who fell in love with an original journal that cared about public lands, rural people, and living Western history.”
“I’m a workaholic who fell in love with an original journal that cared about public lands, rural people, and living Western history.”
Marston was drawn to stories about the exploitation of land, water and wildlife. “Wildlife can’t speak, so we have to do it on their behalf,” Marston said. But she also turned her curiosity towards human communities. “What I have found living here is a growing respect for people,” she said, even when she disagreed with their policies.
A demanding word-maker, Marston was well known among decades of interns for her high standards. “Betsy showed how one can be an intellectual in the rural West,” said Auden Schendler, who interned at HCN in the early 1990s and has since become a leading voice for climate sustainability in the ski industry. “I consider myself a Westerner and a maniac because of this experience. “
Rebecca Clarren, an award-winning journalist and author based in Portland, Oregon, said, “This internship has changed my life,” she said. “Betsy assigned me big stuff from the start. Having someone who believes in you when you’re young is essential.
If Betsy brought moral seriousness to HCN, she also found humor and astonishment in unlikely places, often featuring them in her popular Heard Around the West column. Trainees and other staff remember his frequent bursts of laughter and inexhaustible physical energy. “She could drive me into the ground,” former editor Lisa Jones said. Clarren remembers Betsy dragging her to kickboxing lessons.
“Betsy gave me the confidence that I can write well and have something to say.”
Marston expanded the internship program out of necessity: there was little money available to hire staff in the 1980s. Mary Moran, the Marstons’ first intern, recalled being put to work for everything, from archiving photos to writing press articles, including pasting postal labels on thousands of copies of what was then called “paper”. Like many interns, she came for months but stayed for years, taking on new jobs at the magazine.
Marston says she enjoyed being a talent seeker and a teacher. “Reporting is like being a plumber,” she said. “You can learn the basics. She convinced illustrious academics like Charles Wilkinson and Patricia Limerick to write for HCN, but she also spotted strangers – something she continued to do after she and Ed quit their leadership roles in 2001, and she took over the Writers on the Range union.
Wayne Hare was a park warden who sent a letter to the editor. Marston called him and convinced him to submit an essay instead, speaking about the need for more racial diversity on public lands and in the agencies that manage them. Hare went on to write dozens of race-focused opinion pieces, eventually joining the magazine’s board of directors and founding a nonprofit, Civil Conversations. “Betsy gave me the confidence that I can write well and have something to say,” Hare said.
Dynamic 81 years old, Betsy intends to look after her retirement. She will continue to edit Writers on the Range, which she and her son, David, now oversee as a separate nonprofit by placing columns on Western issues in dozens of newspapers across the region. She will continue to volunteer on the board of directors of the local public radio station in Paonia, KVNF, the advisory board of the El Pomar Foundation and the “Operation Roundup” board of the Delta-Montrose Electric Association.
Visitors to the city will likely see her hanging out at a local cafe or hiking a nearby trail, but they should be warned – they might not be able to keep pace.
Florence Williams is a Washington, DC-based journalist and author.She is also a former intern, staff member and board member of High Country News. Follow @flowill