In the 1970s, there was a mad dash to promote U.S. energy independence following the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. Plans were unveiled to transform the Northern Rockies and Northern Great Plains into the Ruhr Valley of North America, tapping the region’s abundant coal, oil, gas, uranium and oil shale. Activists and conservation groups were still few and far between, and High Country News knit them together by sharing information and hope. There were few environmental journalists back then, and HCN caught the eye of major newspapers that picked up on our stories and shared them with a national audience.
The North Central Power Study proposed a transbasin diversion to bring water from the Colorado River Basin to the water-short Powder River Basin to exploit its coal resources. There were plans to pepper North Dakota with mine-mouth coal gasification plants and build a giant coal slurry pipeline from the Powder River Basin to Arkansas. The Atomic Energy Commission suggested using underground nuclear blasts to produce natural gas from tight geologic formations. As acid rain became a growing problem in the East, industry pursued the West’s low-sulfur coal, which could be easily strip-mined without pesky union labor. Another proposal called for geothermal energy development right up to the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, threatening the world’s most famous geysers.
High Country News covered all of this every two weeks and empowered the fledgling regional environmental movement. Wyoming and Montana passed the nation’s toughest strip-mine regulation, industrial siting laws, severance taxes and sulfur dioxide regulations, with one Wyoming legislator arguing that we did not want to end up having “49 states and one smudge.” The AEC’s nuking proposals and the coal slurry pipelines were blocked, and plans to fast-track and subsidize energy projects were both defeated. The proposed transbasin diversions and geothermal leasing next to Yellowstone were blocked.
All these victories were won by a coalition of outspent, scrappy local volunteer conservationists, ranchers, outfitters and sportsmen, business owners, Native Americans and a handful of environmentalists. What brought them together as a powerful community with a common voice was High Country News. Carrying forward the spirit of its founder, Tom Bell, HCN fearlessly confronted powerful adversaries. One wonders what the region would look like today without High Country News to tell this story.
Bruce Hamilton was an HCN editor from 1973 to 1978, and is now national policy director of the Sierra Club.
Reflecting on the 1970s
“What drew me to HCN was the fresh new environmental reporting for the Rocky Mountains on the Forest Service and BLM, the forests and rangelands. Many so-called “multiple-use” practices favored only a selected few — grazing, drilling, logging and mining.” —Gerry Snyder, Manhattan, Kansas
“I’d say the most memorable story from the ’70s is in Tom Bell’s first issue, about ‘the shame’ of a fellow rancher poisoning eagles to protect his lambs.” —Betsy Marston, Paonia, Colorado
“By the early 1970s, Vietnam raged on, bloodier than ever. Many civil rights leaders had been assassinated. … Freedom and harmony could only be found outside the system — get out of the polluted cities and stifling suburbs, find a place in the country, tend your garden and find beauty in life.” —Doug Morris, Sonoita, Arizona
“As a kid in Arizona and Utah, I understood the West’s issues through grownups’ conversation — that individuals, corporations and government agencies were ruining the West by overuse (including grazing and tourism), mining, logging, building roads. … All this happened out East, of course, but the East was considered a lost cause.” —Susannah Abbey, Albuquerque, New Mexico
“The summer of 1979, I joined a Forest Service fire crew in Northern California that brought together people from around the West and exposed me to an interesting mix of personalities and cultural backgrounds. It resonates with what HCN is trying to do these days — expand the way we’re exposed to people with different experiences and backgrounds, interacting with the Western environment.” —Tim Baker, Eureka, California
“I was involved in anti-nuke activities in Eugene, Oregon. During the 1970s, there were major efforts to develop alternative energy sources. Jimmy Carter even put solar panels on the White House — until Reagan took them off!” —Tom Lynch, Lincoln, Nebraska
“An HCN story revealed heavy duck kills on waste ponds near Green River, Wyoming. I was a chemical engineer at one of the plants and helped set up a successful duck rescue and rehabilitation program.” —Jack Schwartz, Weatherford, Oklahoma
“Pollution: Growing up in LA in the ’60s and ’70s, we’d have over 100 ‘Ozone Alert’ days per year, where folks had to stay indoors because of the unhealthy air.” —Mike Newton, Las Vegas, Nevada
“The 1970s was when the working class once and for all lost the class war. The decade is when Roosevelt’s New Deal was killed dead.” —Joe Ward, Farmington, NM
In celebration of HCN’s 50th birthday, we’re looking back through the decades, one issue at a time. To scroll through HCN’s full timeline, visit our webpage: hcn.org/events/50-years-timeline
TAKE US HIGHER
From its inception as a rare environmental voice in an ecologically fragile region, to its increasingly nuanced coverage of the country’s most rapidly growing and diverse populations, High Country News has, story by story, unveiled the real and complex West behind the beautiful scenery. Now we’re raising $10 million to spread the news and launch HCN into the next half-century. Please make a pledge or contribution today: hcn.org/support50more