Ed Marston, former publisher of High Country News, doesn’t spend his days and nights in a newsroom anymore. But stories that define the West are part of who he is. Before I could ask Marston details about retired life, he pulled out maps and papers on a proposed federal land swap just outside of Paonia.
The Bear Ranch Land Exchange story is one of many over the years, and the Marstons are well-acquainted with the characters – big money, government, land, water and the public.
Open exchanges of ideas have served the Marstons, and their readers, well, elevating the level of discourse on issues in the West. Former New Yorkers, they’ve been in Paonia since the ’70s, and took over the High Country News in 1983. Betsy Marston had a journalism background and Ed Marston a Ph.D. in experimental physics.
This was a time when the environmental movement in the intermountain West had no tolerance for drilling, logging, mining and ranching.
Environmentalists fought to remove dams, dismantle the 1872 Mining Act and get cattle off public lands. But the Marstons had a different vision of how the West should be seen, used and covered in their journal.
“It was a war,” Ed Marston said. “I didn’t understand the environmental and natural resources communities, why they didn’t work together, why they didn’t get along. I’ve always been a reformer rather than a revolutionary.”
Then Marston found the story that transcended his previous work. And it changed him.
“I had been looking for this ideal of ranching in a respectful way,” Marston said. And he found it in Doc and Connie Hatfield, ranchers in eastern Oregon who were pioneers in natural beef and restoring the land the cattle beat up.
Marston wrote a 24-page issue in 1991 about the Hatfields, his “best piece of work,” he said. Doc Hatfield died in March 2012, leaving a legacy of sustainable, mindful ranching on public lands.
After consorting with ranchers, Marston saw them as “softer on the land” and the “most rooted,” he said. This moderate approach worked well for business. Circulation grew from 3,300 to 23,000 subscribers, and so did his budget.
Urban people began to see ranchers in a better light. “What takes the place of a ranch but a subdivision,” Marston said. “They’ve won the PR war.”
Not all media have given the HCN a fair shake. Marston said The Christian Science Monitor slanted a story, giving the impression the Marstons were at war with their community. This was not the case. If anything, newcomers were the ones mortally offended. “It’s interesting to have local people more easier going,” he said.
Under the Marstons guidance, the HCN evolved into a well-respected and decorated publication. Betsy Marston, former editor of HCN, continues to edit Writers on the Range opinion columns.
Maybe more impressive than the journal is that the couple survived working side-by-side. How is it possible to work this well with a mate through all the years, all the stories, life with kids?
Marston said it’s because Betsy is a “saint.” Betsy, though, did yank him from covering the school board when he became too comfy with members. This was back in the days before owning the HCN, while putting out the weekly North Fork Times.
Fast forward to what’s going on now, and the Marstons’ work to shed light on issues in the West continues. It’s just done in a different way.
This Bear Ranch land swap outside Paonia has left the public out of the process, presenting a broader threat. Congressionally mandated land exchanges don’t require public input, environmental analysis, appraisals or allow a right to appeal.
Industrial billionaire Bill Koch wants to swap property to gain a high-elevation corridor of public land that would connect his two ranches, Upper Bear Ranch and Lower Bear Ranch. A federal land exchange would keep hikers and hunters’ prying eyes off his very private Old Western town. It would also eliminate the best access to the Ragged Mountain country.
Hunters would lose access to prime elk habitat, essentially privatizing it, and fishermen couldn’t get to favored creeks. The public would be locked out of the Ragged Mountain Basin.
“If you start rearranging public lands, there’s a public good to be served that would require hearings,” said Marston.
Koch prizes western and historic memorabilia, and is a serious collector. He bought Buckskin Joe, the old movie set by the Royal Gorge where “True Grit” was filmed. Koch then lovingly hauled it to his 4,500-acre ranch. A local coffee shop owner said Koch fired his interior designer, familiar with his tastes, for not making his house Western enough.
Koch’s new/old Western town is truly a boom town, employing about 150 construction workers for a better-than-standard working wage and requiring more hours. Employees must sign nondisclosure forms, preventing them from photographing or talking about the worksite. And no one is saying anything. Koch has a reputation for suing adversaries.
This is a not a Disney-esque town with Western facades but a full-on Western street scene, 420 acres, and built to correct codes. “Think Neverland,” said Marston.
After looking at photos covertly shot by a worker, this town may be better built than Paonia, which has many Victorian homes lacking foundations.
In exchange for this 1,846-acre corridor of mostly BLM land east of Paonia Reservoir, Koch has offered an 80-acre parcel in Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, and 911 acres of sagebrush near Sapinero in the Curecanti National Recreation Area.
The legislation for this federal land swap is called the Central Rockies Land Exchange and National Park System Enhancement Act of 2010. So far, Congress hasn’t done anything with it. Former Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo., 3rd) introduced it into the House.
The Western Land Group lobbying firm is promoting the swap.
Marston called Koch’s land exchange “one-sided” and “wicked.” “I want it to go away,” he said. “If not, I want a public process.”
Koch could not be reached for comment before this story was posted.
Paonia is a leafy, pretty place, dressed in its autumn colors. All this attention on the land swap has increased popularity of the public corridor, enticing hikers with a look-see over the local – and vigilantly guarded – attraction.
Koch owns a mine in nearby Somerset, and many workers live in Paonia. The New York Times ran a story in September 2012 about Koch’s proposed land swap, focusing on class divides and warfare between the tycoon and residents of Paonia.
Marston doesn’t see this as accurate and other locals in town don’t either.
The thing is, no one in Paonia really knows Koch because he doesn’t come around. And there are opportunities for lasting impressions. This town could benefit from a donated recreation center, a pool for its children or a renovated senior center.
Koch is seen as an eccentric person with a lot of money for toys, frequently flying over Paonia in his green helicopter. His armored personnel carriers, fire engines and stagecoaches have rolled through the streets in holiday parades.
Mark Ramsey, owner of the cafe Nelle’s in Paonia, said: “I don’t have a problem with him. If I were a billionaire, I might have a tank or two.”
Ryan Todd, owner of Burger Bomber, said: “I take a neutral opinion. The guy can walk around with a hat made out of money, for all I care.”
Todd added that the land swap is a “little questionable.” But he said he’s not worried as long as it’s legal and Koch’s intentions aren’t extensively industrial.
As Lewis moved into the street, he said he felt some hesitation when he saw the vets wearing their hats, up on the tanks. He meant no disrespect toward them. “We owe veterans a great deal of praise and honor,” Lewis said. “It was strictly a Bill Koch thing. It was underhanded of Koch to approach the vets.”
Rachel Maddox’s show ran a clip on July 6 of Lewis standing down the tank.
Lewis stepped in front of another of Koch’s vehicles, a Hummer, but it didn’t stop, he said. Lewis said he put his hand out and the vehicle pushed him back five or six steps.
“It angers me that this person with so much money feels he can buy anything that belongs to the public,” Lewis said. “They call it swapping but it’s not really swapping for a fair like-kind. They’re buying government. May the richest person win – that’s not democracy.”
Meanwhile, Marston does what he can to inform people about the land swap. Talking about public land, Marston said, “It has to be something we can walk on, not just a backdrop.”
Marston has an upcoming trip with Betsy to Paris. I imagine him strolling the Champs-Elysées, thinking about the players and intricacies of the land exchange, part of his heart left back in Paonia.
Land Trust of the Upper Arkansas annual fund-raiser, Wed., Nov. 7, 5:30 to 9 p.m., SteamPlant Ballroom in Salida. $30 for members; $40 nonmembers. Catered, cash bar. Individual and business sponsorships available. (719)539-7700.