High Country Thirst


There were days when Tom Bell must have wondered what he had been thinking. In August 1969, he purchased Camping News Weekly and a year later renamed it High Country News, launching what has become home to some of the best environmental reporting in the American West. Operating on a shoestring, the News captured devoted readers, yet not enough to pay the bills. So Bell sold his ranch, cashed in stocks and liquidated his savings. In 1973 he announced he could do no more and would have to shut down the News. Within days, money-stuffed envelopes poured in, enough to save the paper. “Somehow we have created another bond between people across a far-flung land,” Bell editorialized. The fight to save the News took its toll on Bell’s health, and a year later, he sold his stake. His successors struggled to keep the paper afloat even as they turned out one brilliant issue after another over the next 40 years.

The story should sound familiar to hard-core Observer fans. Though the two periodicals’ origins are distinct—the Observer was born amid the civil rights movement of the early 1950s; the News’ first issue appeared in 1970, the year the nation celebrated the inaugural Earth Day—they still have much in common. The muckraking mags delight in out-scooping mainstream media, and their staffs smile knowingly when their stories are picked up, often without attribution. Their writers, despite corporate media’s dominance, snare more than their share of prizes and awards. And surely Bell and Ronnie Dugger, The Observer’s founding editor, appreciate that the organizations they brought to life remain long on passion, energy, and insight, if occasionally short on cash.

Most striking is that each speaks to a devoted readership about the importance of place—their place. The Observer boasts it publishes “Sharp Reporting from the Strangest State in the Union”; the News’ masthead may be more staid—“For people who care about the west”—but its circulatory ambition is bold. It would be bolder still if it included Texas in its mix. It doesn’t, noting its coverage ranges “from the Northern Rockies to the desert Southwest, from the Great Plains to the West Coast,” thereby airbrushing the Lone Star State out of the region it played a fundamental role in inventing.

Savvy 19th-century Americans did not make the same mistake: They knew the West was defined by its environmental boundaries, not its political borders. So argued John Wesley Powell, head of the U.S. Geological Survey: His West began at the 100th meridian, which splits Texas roughly in half. Why this longitudinal line? Because it approximates the break between the wet and dry portions of the nation. (If you want to get technical, it marks the 20-inch isohyet: To the east, more than 20 inches of precipitation falls annually; to the west, less). Ergo: El Paso is not Houston.

This demarcation is not rigid, as there are years when Austin and San Antonio—which lie east of the dry zone—suffer crippling droughts. Yet as Powell observed in Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1876), these variations merely underscore this sun-baked fact: Water determines the region’s economics, settlement, and politics. That’s what makes the west, The West.

Powell’s vision gave me the organizing idea for a set of companion volumes that highlight the High Country News’ aggressive investigations into how this precious resource is managed—or not. Water in the 21st-Century West is structured thematically, tracing the impact of such issues as climate change, indigenous water rights, groundwater pollution, dams and endangered species and urban water pressures. Watersheds are the focus of the second volume, River Basins in the American West, which probes controversies swirling around the Columbia and Missouri, the Colorado and Rio Grande. These rivers may follow differing
topographies, nurture unique habitats and meet a variety of human demands, but they also reveal how similarly integral they are to the region; without them there would be no West, however mapped.

The News’ reporting on the Rio Grande drove this point home. Its lengthy, serpentine course complicates straight-line cartography; it cuts through three states and delineates the 1,254-mile international border between Mexico and the United States. The reporters of the News doggedly trace how the Rio Grande is affected by declining snowmelt that’s apportioned among a series of competitive users. Both countries have constructed dams to capture this shrinking resource, whose release is defined by a international treaty that is observed more often in the breach. Ignored as well are threatened creatures—the Rio Grande silvery minnow, for one—that depend on the river. The News exposed how metal-laden tailings are flushed into some of the Rio Grande’s northern tributaries and how, farther downstream, urban effluent and agricultural runoff create a toxic brew. Its gifted writers know that when you follow the water, you learn a great deal about the people who depend on it and the land they inhabit.

By focusing on this powerful, binding relationship between humans and the watersheds that have been channeled to serve our interests, High Country News has forced its readers—and the people they vote for—to pay closer attention to how we manage this diminishing resource. The publication’s vigilance is proof of the enduring value of an independent, aggressive and ethical press.

Contributing writer Char Miller is W.M. Keck professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and editor of the forthcoming Cities and Nature in the American West.