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Down on the Ground: Remembering Ed Marston

By George Sibley

The Most Important Election of Our Lifetime is finally behind us, and I can’t tell you how glad I am that I was overly pessimistic last month. A respectable blue wave on the national level restored a measure of democratic process to what was becoming one-party plutocratic rule under a would-be autocrat.

My hope now is that the House Democrats will resist the temptation to join the media as another set of straight-man stooges for the Trump Burlesque Follies, and will instead buckle down to fixing health care, restoring some labor rights, unsnaffling the tax-cut mess, addressing climate change, and otherwise working on behalf of we the people. They will, of course, never get any of that through the Senate or the veto, but it will be something to take to the people in 2020.

Moving on – I want to commemorate the loss of one of the real visionaries of the transforming West, and of America, for that matter: Ed Marston, my editor, critic, mentor, challenger-cheerleader, Virgil to my Dante, friend and occasional hiking companion.

I really have nothing to add to the eulogies we’ve probably all read about Ed Marston, and about his transformative work as publisher of the High Country News (HCN): The way he journalistically helped open up the American environmental movement from a national guilt-and-blame industry to a more vital, localized mix-in and fix-it craft activity; the way he helped new and old Westerners take a new look at old problems and see potentials and alternatives beyond the knee-jerk black-and-white; the way he transcended the misbegotten notion of “journalistic objectivity,” and made it okay for journalists to wear their hearts on their sleeves so long as they told everyone’s story and treated opponents with the dignity one accords worthy protagonists.

That has all been said by the real journalists, while we essayists have been musing over how to speak of our loss without making it sound like it’s about us. I come to the probability that there is nothing left to say except to wander up into the open spaces of what Marston didn’t get done that he wanted to do, challenges he tackled that are still out there, still worth doing, maybe now more than ever. His spirit nudges me with Springsteen’s 2004 assessment: “The country we carry in our hearts is still waiting.” Or more brusquely, Joe Hill (and Marston) style: Don’t mourn; get back to work.

His passing drove me to reread a fat folder of things from his HCN epoch. In the arc of a notable career, there is usually a period we can point to later and say, there, that’s where he or she really hit his or her stride – not their peak, but into the cruising gear. Marston readers will all have their own ideas on when that was, but I believe it was in the late 1980s, when he put his growing stable of writers to the task of consolidating and articulating the transformation the West was undergoing on their watch.

Much of that folder is two HCN series from those years. One came in the fall of 1986, a four-issue series titled with monumental chutzpah, “Western Water Made Simple” (Volume 18: 18-21). Irony might be the last public stand for intelligence in a society that seems to be ossifying and dumbing down. Marston sometimes wielded irony as subtly as Saladin’s sword, other times he swung it like the 2×4 muleskinners say you need to get a mule’s attention. But while the title essay he wrote for that series was brilliant, and will someday be true, Western water is still not simple yet. More about that another time; we’ll be back to water soon here.

The other HCN series came in 1988, four issues under the equally presumptuous title, “The Reopening of the Western Frontier” (Volume 20: 17-20). Marston and his stable of writers put together in those pages the best summary of the post-World War II transformation of the West I’ve encountered – “Old West” to “New West.” The whole series would be a learning experience if you’ve been a Westerner for less than 30 years. But I want to just look at a couple of challenges that Marston threw down for us in the final issue of the series, in an essay titled “Muddling toward Tomorrow” (accessible at

I will just mention two things Marston said in that essay – and we aren’t remembering him right if we forget his still standing challenges, his untransacted destiny.

The first was advice to the local environmental organizations that were increasingly influential in the human communities of the West; communities that Marston saw as the keystones – for better or worse – of the Western ecosystems that had to include the human presence for obvious reasons. Marston believed that where local enviro organizations were succeeding, it was because they were the only ones with a vision to supplant the vacuum left by the abdication of the major extractive industries. In looking at that abdication (of every major extractive industry by now, except the desperate oil and gas industry), he said, “There may be a lesson here for the environmental movement – insofar as one can talk about this loose grouping as a movement. This movement is focused on the land, and over the past several years that focus has made it triumphant. But unless the environmental movement figures out how to live in the West among Westerners and as Westerners, it runs the risk of losing the present advantage in the next inevitable economic upheaval, just as the extractive industries have lost their grip on the region.”

Marston never suggested that “to live in the West as Westerners’” was an easy, kumbaya thing. Witness his own experiences in his own community, as a liberal “outsider” first (from New York) presuming to write about a conservative town in a brand new newspaper, as the first real avatar for renewable and decentralized electric energy in Colorado’s REA co-ops, as an unsuccessful county commission candidate, as a creative investor in North Fork real estate, and his last hurrah as an “enemy of the people” opposing a land swap beneficial to the town’s largest employer – all this testified to the complexity he urged on us all, by example. But he saw the Western communities (not just its towns and cities) as the keystones for the sustainability, or lack thereof, of the ecosystems of the West – the environment and its diversity and health as much dependent on the will and wisdom of those in the communities, as the communities were dependent on the environment.

But how could such communities – “unable to build a stable life when highgrading mineral deposits and old-growth forests” – survive economically, “develop new rural activities to sustain themselves?”

There, Marston really dropped a challenge. He didn’t even mention the recreation industries, tourism, resortism and the other amenities; dealers. Instead he went straight to the foundation: “One answer, perhaps the only answer,” he said, “is reclamation: deroading forests, dealing with ubiquitous mining wastes, recovering overgrazed land, repairing or dismantling dams, pushing out weeds, restoring damaged streams, detoxifying wildlife refuges, and reintroducing wildlife habitat and wildlife.”

Fix the place up, restore it, in other words – “rural” activities, he notes, more “in the sense of the Amish, or of Wendell Berry” than of the traditional West.

He quickly notes that “it is common to meet every suggestion with the same question: How will it be paid for?”

“The question is backward,” Marston said. “The real question is how can the West not afford restoration?” Then a statement of pure faith: “Once the West decides that the land, streams and, where necessary, the air must be reclaimed, ways to do it will be found.” And he notes that “in places, and quietly, that process is underway” – even in 1988 – “going forward under the cloak of economic development.”

This is still true today: Restoration goes on, lurking under the cloak of water and forest planning as well as economic development, driven now by the early impacts of climate change and the ongoing impacts of population growth: Anything we can do to restore the stability and resilience of the ecosystemic economies for which we are the dependent keystone species is the right thing to do at this point – and if the federal government isn’t going to participate, we’ll have to squeeze out the wherewithal where we can, where we live. Recreation fees? Tax the second-home owners? Ways to do it will be found.

Like all the great ones, Marston got less done than he wanted to, but only because he saw so much that still needs to be done. We do him disservice if we just say farewell, and don’t feel him still pushing us. He nudges me now to stick with the watershed planning and our Wet Meadows Project here, and other works worth getting into in, hah, my spare time. Don’t mourn: Get to work. But also hike with friends, which he loved, stopping often under trees to remind each other of the America still waiting in our hearts.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love …

Missing me one place search another,

I stop some where waiting for you.

– Walt Whitman

George Sibley lives and writes in Gunnison.