Colorado, the West, and western journalism have lost a treasure in Ed Marston. And I have lost a dear friend.
The former longtime publisher of the Paonia-based High Country News was a physicist by training and a journalist by instinct. He’d wonder about all manner of things all of the time. Like where’s the plan in Colorado’s water plan. And whether Donald Trump is a sociopath or a psychopath. And why the 2017 fidget-spinner craze was merely a summer fad.
He also was a chronic interviewer. I remember him asking one of my kids, then 12, how Colorado’s power grid should look by the time he graduates from high school. Last year, hoping for some insight into how his longtime journalism habit affected his own now-adult children, he asked my other son, then 11, to cite the ways that newspeople make awful parents. It turned out to be a long, uncomfortable list. Whenever I’d speak with Ed since, he’d rattle it off by memory. We’d laugh, kind of, but also cringe about having put our kids on hold to meet deadlines.
Ed read books, public policy and people with signature thoughtfulness, and would remember things about them in striking detail. Subtle things like the care with which he saw one of my neighbors pruning her tree 10 years ago. Things that irritated him, like a certain writer’s overuse of fancy words. And nuanced things like the views about the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository as expressed to him by a former federal geologist he met at a wedding 16 years earlier.
Nuances mattered to Ed, especially when it came to how they shaped news. He and his wife Betsy Marston – High Country News’ former longtime editor – set out to provide coverage about issues like federal land use, energy and mineral extraction, water planning, and tribal affairs with the complexity they require. The paper avoided pat paradigms pitting city dwellers against rural westerners, farmers and ranchers against conservationists, and old-timers against newcomers. Ed, a native New Yorker, learned upon arriving in Paonia in 1974 (for what was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical) that the interior West couldn’t be reduced to Roadrunner v. Wile E. Coyote dynamics, especially as its population was growing, resources were dwindling and politics changing.
As has been chronicled in several obituaries this week – including one Betsy wrote about her husband – he, as a publisher and columnist, was an early champion of public lands and conservation projects on the Western Slope. He also was an early evangelist for smart, in-depth nonprofit news about a wide swath of the country that wasn’t otherwise covered.
After retiring from High Country News in 2002, he took on billionaire Bill Koch for pushing a federal land exchange in his favor, nudged his rural electric co-op to use renewable sources, and led the board of Solar Energy International, a nonprofit that trains people and communities worldwide on how to harness solar power.
Ed reveled in both the personal and paradoxical.
Only he, hours after taking visitors on a tour of SEI’s Paonia campus with unmistakable devotion to its mission and staff, would sit in his well-heated living room raving about his own, decades-old coal-fired furnace and the efficiency of coal mined in Paonia, and empathizing with local coal miners’ indignation over environmentalists and politicians who seem to think 100 percent clean energy is achievable overnight.
It was classic Ed that a comment about the sweetness of an apple would inspire him to wax about the bitterness of the local farmer who grew it.
And it was inevitable that a stroll down Paonia’s Grand Avenue would lead him not only to recap what life had dealt nearly each person who passed by, but also muse about the ways in which they or their parents or grandparents before them gave to or took from the community. His take on life in a small, western Colorado town was delicious, warts and all.
The grainy photo above is the only semi-recent one I have of Ed, shot two years ago when I roped him into joining a Colorado Independent expedition to a vent spewing coalbed methane from the West Elk Mine. I had been diagnosed with breast cancer the previous day. Ed had battled a far worse cancer a few years earlier, convinced it was caused by years trying to keep a nonprofit news organization afloat. On that early spring afternoon, he told me and our friend Cody Oreck, pictured at right above, that cancer was like the mud through which we were hiking. You won’t remember it, he told me. “You’ll just remember having gotten through it.”
As it turned out on our hike back from the mine site at dusk that day, Ed – then in his mid-70s – ran down a good portion of the muddy mountain and then somehow barrelled his red Toyota pickup back up it to rescue a videographer in our group who was suffering from altitude sickness and exhaustion.
I remember the look on his face at dinner that evening as we toasted him, lauded his heroics, and marveled at the improbability of a city-raised son of Jewish immigrants saving anyone in the West Elk Mountains with his off-roading abilities. It was a uniquely Ed-like mix of “Oh, stop” humility, “I know, right?” bravado, and delight. Any day in the field, he’d say, was worth 100 in a newsroom.
I also remember getting back to his and Betsy’s place that night and taking off our boots at the doorstep. I noticed his quiet slowness and then his tears, he having survived cancer and knowing I was wondering if I would.
“Trust me about this one, Susie,” he said, reaching for my boots to scrape off the mud.
Ed Marston died Aug. 31 of complications from West Nile virus. Among the ways his legacy continues is the work of the nonprofit High Country News, which we at The Colorado Independent proudly republish. Our team and families send condolences to our friends at HCN and their families, especially Betsy, Wendy and David Marston.