The Crusade Continues
"Dear Mr. Bell:
"I travel so much that I'm always behind in my reading. So you can well have imagined my surprise when I found out you were going to fold the paper. Well, Hell man, I don't always agree with you, but for God's sake let's keep the paper going for awhile yet. Enclosed you will find my subscription renewal plus a little something extra."
Lawrence J. Taylor, Omaha, NB
This is just one of the letters readers sent to High Country News after editor Tom Bell announced the paper’s demise in the March 2, 1973, issue.
Letters like this buoyed Bell's spirit and the accompanying donations set the organization on firm financial ground. It allowed Bell to pay off debts he'd incurred to keep the paper alive and assured him and his two staffers a salary for the months to come. It also meant he could add some horsepower to the staff, something he critically needed to keep the organization going.
Joan Nice and Bruce Hamilton, a young couple from Colorado, arrived in Lander, Wyo., in late spring of 1973 and were introduced in the July 6 issue. Hired as associate editor, 24-year old Nice had been the editor at Climbing Magazine in Aspen. Hamilton, a 22-year old environmental consultant and activist who had been analyzing the impacts of oil shale development, was brought on as field editor.
That same spring President Nixon called for an expansion in domestic gas and coal production and nuclear power. Bell, Nice, Hamilton and a small cadre of freelance writers churned out feature after feature about the frenzy of coal leasing, strip mining, and oil shale and uranium speculation across the West. They also reported on energy conservation and wind and solar power.
Nice and Hamilton wrote about the people and communities facing the onslaught, complementing Bell's focus on the ravaging of the West's landscape by timber, mining and energy companies. And they tapped writers to report on what it all meant for Indian Country.
The June 7, 1974, cover shows a clutch of energy workers’ travel trailers with the smoke stacks of the unfinished Jim Bridger power plant just outside of Rock Springs, Wyo., looming in the background. "Trailer camps are a way of life for many of the newcomers," reads the caption. "There are no trees, nor yards, no schools, not groceries, no bars, no places to chat with friends here. Just 247 trailer spaces in the dirt, and 80 more to come."
The story described several tiny coal-country towns in Wyoming and Montana that doubled in population almost overnight and faced overcrowded schools, stressed sewage systems and "fatigued men working long shifts, driving long distances to work (coming) home to equally fatigued wives coping with a mud-splattered world."
Several issues later, the weather-creased face of rancher Ellen Cotton appeared on the cover with the headline "Coal Conflict on Tongue River." Hamilton reported that the federal government had recommended leasing for strip mining a vast swath of private and public land containing 6.7 billion tons of coal. Cotton and neighboring ranchers near Decker, Mont., refused a coal company's offer to buy their land for easy access to the coal and vowed they'd either shoot or be shot defending their land.
The 'energy crisis' wasn't the only grist for the High Country News mill. In-depth articles appeared about the rising waters of Lake Powell threatening to drown Rainbow Bridge; the plight of endangered species like the black-footed ferret; whether ghost towns would replace resort towns as the second home boom crashed; and the stand-off between off-road vehicle and snowmobile users and hikers, skiers and snowshoers on public lands.
Despite the growth in subscription numbers, the constant pressure to distill and synthesize the region's environmental news took a toll on Bell. He wanted to live self-sufficiently and worried that the country was plunging into a depression. "I look for the economy of this country to grow steadily worse," he wrote. "As an environmentalist and observer of the national scene, I am discouraged and dismayed with an economic and political system wedded to ever more growth and ever more consumption. Sooner or later that system is going to break down in the face of the finite limitations of our planet."
In July, 1974, just one year into Nice and Hamilton's tenure, Bell announced that he was turning the paper over to the couple and leaving Wyoming. "My wife and I will be moving our family to Oregon in August,” he said. “There, we own 40 beautiful acres. In the sheltered valley at Halfway, near the Idaho boundary at Hells Canyon, we will go back to the land," he told readers. "The land in Oregon can feed my family if the going should get rough."
As one reader noted, Nice and Hamilton had a "big set of Vibrams to fill." They were young and they didn't have Bell's intuitive understanding of the West's land and rural culture. But they had an optimism that allowed them to continue the fight Bell had initiated to save the region's remaining wild places, still-intact forests and unfouled air and water. Where Bell had preached fire and brimstone, they analyzed the region's social, political and economic forces. Their efforts helped shape and define High Country News as an enduring institution, an institution that in turn is helping to shape the region itself.