What Tom Bell Had to Say


Passionate, feisty, courageous, "just another nutty prophet of doom" -- all have been used to describe Tom Bell, the Wyoming rancher and wildlife biologist who founded High Country News in 1970.

High Country News' first years were tumultuous as Bell struggled to keep it alive. Twice, he threw away the paste-up sheets for the next issue, certain the paper couldn't survive. But when readers responded with generous donations, staffers rummaged through the trash and retrieved them. The outpouring of support gave Bell the encouragement he needed to keep going.

Like so many who call the West home, Bell was inspired by his connection to the land. He had spent a lifetime roaming Wyoming's vast sage-filled hills and high mountains. Occasionally Bell would "take a break from the typewriter, the swivel chair and the constant pressures" and go out into the wild to recharge his batteries.

Bell's page 2 "High Country" column told of his all-too-infrequent outdoor jaunts and shared his anxiety, anger and optimism for the region he cared for so deeply.  What follows is a look at some of what Bell had to say during those first years:

"While we flew above the (Oregon) Trail, bull-dozers were at work changing the lonely hills. They were clearing right-of-way for a transcontinental telephone cable.  Some short stretches of the Seminoe Cut-off of the Trail had been dozed away.

"Yesterday, I talked to representatives of the company doing the work.  They are honest citizens doing a job.  They are sincerely contrite - sincerely sorry for the damage their company has done.  They pledged the resources of their huge company to repair to the best of man's ability that which had been undone.

"It is not enough.  What I saw as I flew over the Antelope Hills, coursing the tracks of history, made me not only mad but also sad.  For here was an area literally untouched from man except for those hardy souls of by-gone days who fought heat, dust, loneliness and ever present death."  - June 26, 1970

"I don't know how I might have fared in this work had I not had the great outdoors in which to roam, seek solace, heal sensitive feeling, and begin to grope my way to adulthood.

"Fishing was one of my releases. But even more than fishing was the chance to be alone amongst nature's constant wonders.

"My own sons can experience these things. But how about my grandsons? Will the world become so crowded that they, or their grandsons, be deprived of fulfilling experiences?

"I suppose it's these apprehensions which motivate my waking moments. I would have it no other way. But I wish I could assure myself and them." –Aug. 28, 1970.

"It's good to feel the sting of wind and snow in your face, and take respite in the quiet, wooded valleys. It is great to exhilarate in the fresh clean atmosphere of the high mountains. It makes life worth living attain to revel in the power and majesty and beauty of the mountain setting. And even to eat a cold bologna sandwich beneath a whispering pine."   - Jan. 9, 1971

"Being an avowed environmentalist these days can have its lumps. If you want to reserve some lands for future generations to despoil at their pleasure, you are a wilderness freak. If you would prefer to have your kids breathe clean air rather than be assured of a job in the nearest coal-fired generating plant, you are some kind of eco-nut. If you raise searching questions about the safety of a nuclear plant, you are standing in the way of a better life for your neighbor. He has been conditioned to live better electrically and so how can you be so dead set against progress and development!

"But in spite of brickbats and grim forebodings, environmentalists maintain a sense of humor. They have to retain their sanity."  - Dec. 8, 1972.

"It is not often that I am able to find solitude anymore. (Partly my own fault I am afraid, because I won't take the time.)  But recently I sat in a sundrenched forest glade and listened to a ruffed grouse cock drumming just behind me. It was enough to make my spirits soar. This is the stuff of which life is truly made.

"This is the heritage of my sons and daughters. This is what motivates me and gives me renewed spirit to go on."  May 11, 1973.

Stirring words that appealed to many, but also caused some readers to drop their subscriptions. Bell had a vision, and he threw everything he had into creating an organization to share that vision with the growing ranks of people who cared about the West.

hall of heroes
marty weiss
marty weiss
Mar 07, 2010 12:26 PM
Tom Bell is somewhere with John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Ursula LeGuin and all the men and women who see the beauty in living on earth.
Once you could drink from the rivers and streams. Once there were more fish-- cod and salmon, thick in their waters, and trout, before the acid rain. Louis and Clark didn't have to go far to find game. There was plenty everywhere.

When only hunter-gatherers lived here, men worked eight hours a week to care for their extended families. Now with progress and development men can work, no-- must work forty or more, for forty or fifty years, only to be dispossessed by bankers of all they have worked for. Women have carried the load for both cultures and if they were paid now for the work they do unpaid, the economy would be thriving, too. In fact, if women were respected worldwide civilization would be more worthy of the name.

Indians had no bankers to make them pay for water, heat, gas, food, housing, etc.
I don't call that progress and development. In fifty years all these roads will be obsolete and we'll be tearing them up to grow food. This planet and nature feed us, not DuPont, Dow, Citigroup, Chase, Monsanto and all the rest. This planet is our only refuge for millions of lifeless miles. Don't let somebody ruin it just to make a profit. Tom Bell was right. This is our natural home. Having to pay somebody to live here is nuts. Allowing them to ruin it is psychopathic.
I realize we're coming of age and learning anew about the climate and the chemicals we've dumped carelessly. It takes time for technology to catch up with science. But the outright despoliation has no excuse except profit, which is no excuse at all. If this is the best humans can do, we don't deserve to endure and we aren't likely to, either. Tom Bell and all those who try to preserve a viable land are up there with the good guys. HCN is the voice of the living planet.