Editor’s Note: I am the host, producer and photographer for the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast. I also write a monthly guest column related to the podcast for two local newspapers in Chaffee County, Colo.: the Chaffee County Times (Buena Vista) and The Mountain Mail (Salida). This is my column based on my conversation with Jason Marsden. (Show notes with transcript)

Jason Marsden recently joined me on We Are Chaffee’s Looking Upstream podcast. He is the executive director of the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association (GARNA). Now. But he’s lived a number of compelling life chapters and is eloquent in sharing his reflections on them.

Marsden’s early years, and his lifelong appreciation for nature and its rhythms, were influenced by life on a farm in Minnesota. After his father died when Marsden was eight, he moved with his mother to Sheridan, Wyo. 

He would go on to study post-World War II poetry at Harvard. And then return to Wyoming, where he would become a newspaper reporter of success and consequence, I’d say, for the Casper Star-Tribune.

There were honors for Marsden as a reporter, and dozens upon dozens of front page-worthy news stories. Many pertained to serious environmental issues. Yet possibly the most consequential, or let’s say the most life-altering for Marsden himself, would be an opinion column he wrote the day his friend Matthew Shepard died in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colo.

That name, Matthew Shepard, might sound familiar to you. It certainly does for many around the world. Shepard was a 21-year-old college student in Laramie, Wyo., when he became the focus of national and international media after a brutal anti-gay hate crime was committed against him. It was October 1998.

Marsden and I talked about all the above on Looking Upstream. We also talked about the state of journalism, given we both were newspaper reporters when in our 20s. What is journalism’s purpose in our society? How has the industry changed? What are we collectively missing and misunderstanding about how the media is functioning today? 

“The language of warfare is being injected into everyday discourse, and so slowly that no one is noticing it happening,” Marsden said.

We also talked about the confusion that has been created between opinion and actual, factual news reporting.

“That is not accidental,” he said. “The confusion is on purpose and it is done by people who feel entitled to help you change your mind about stuff. Some of them play fair and some of them don’t. And the ones who don’t play fair, spoiler alert, they have advantages over the ones who play fair.”

Marsden later would become executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy, established soon after their son’s death. He has since brought his extraordinary talents for communication, rights advocacy and organizational leadership to Chaffee County.

When I asked Marsden about his vision for GARNA, his love for the Arkansas Valley poured out:

“I first encountered Salida in 2014, ’15, ’16, on a series of camping and backpacking trips. I’d been with the Shepard Foundation for about five years, going on more, and I spent a lot of time in conference rooms, a huge amount of time on airplanes and in hotel rooms, and doing stuff all over creation.

Jason Marsden | Photo by Adam Williams

“I needed to be outdoors more, and I started taking that seriously. I kept passing through this valley, or coming to it on purpose, and I always just had a really good feeling about it. 

“As I studied contemporary history in the Arkansas River Valley, this is a story of redemption. That river was poison in living memory. People my age grew up being told by their parents not to go down to that … river because it was full of poison and was treated like a sewer.

“And I just felt this incredible wonder and excitement about the cleanup that had been very painstakingly and expensively put together to turn this back into a natural river system with healthy aquatic life and a booming recreation industry, and people laughing and being joyful in that river. 

“It is such a brilliant success story and it is such an affirmation of optimism. And the fact that it is now at the center of what so many people love so much about this place that gets them to live here, and gets them to know and love one another, this place just started to really seem to me to be very special, worthy of protection, and important, and very much in need of continued support and continued activism and continued vigilance. 

“But also continued celebration and recognition of what a treasure it is. It’s a gift of nature but it is a work of human beings, the state that it finds itself in now. And I wanted to be a part of that very much.

“I spent a lot of my younger years identifying and triangulating against and trying to address bad behaviors and bad beliefs and bad situations, and to be part of something that is this treasured and precious is healing for me, I feel. I see how healing it is for how many people it is, and I cannot resist trying to do my part.”

Get to know more about Jason Marsden. Listen to our Looking Upstream conversation on any podcast player or at wearechaffee.org. Til the next episode, “Share stories, make change.”

Adam Williams hosts We Are Chaffee’s Looking Upstream podcast every other Tuesday. Follow @wearechaffeepod on Instagram.