A brave and unusual conservationist turns 90

  • Tom Bell, fighter for the West.

    Mike McClure
 

Ninety years ago, on April 12, 1924, Tom Bell was born in a house owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, in Winton, Wyo., a coal-mining camp. It was an inauspicious but appropriate beginning for the guy who would start both High Country News and Wyoming's largest conservation group.

Tom's father, Lafe Bell, worked in the company store where the miners shopped, and his mother, Hilda, did ranch work and waitressing. At a young age, Tom got to know the Western trait of imagining the grass is greener over the horizon, as well as the region's constant boom-and-bust cycles. His family moved to another coal camp, and in 1927, they bought a small ranch near Lander, where Tom grew up during the Great Depression.

When Tom was 18, he signed up to fight in World War II, becoming a bombardier in the nose bubble of a B-24 bomber. He participated in 22 raids over German-occupied territory, and in 1944, a flak burst shattered the Plexiglas around his head. With one eye destroyed and the other damaged, he crawled to the bombardier's cabin, determined to complete the mission. That won him the Silver Star for "courage above and beyond duty."

He came home and took up wildlife science, earning a master's degree at the University of Wyoming and working for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Disgusted by the agency's politically driven anti-predator policies, he quit and became a pioneering conservationist. In 1967, he founded the Wyoming Outdoor Council. He also bought the innocuous Camping News Weekly, and, in 1970, rechristened it High Country News, creating a fearless biweekly for "people who care about the West."

In HCN's early years, Tom wrote most of the stories: He demanded better management of public lands, helped persuade the Wyoming Legislature to pass laws for conservation goals, including strip-mine reclamation, and pressured Game and Fish to be more scientific. Tom has continued to be a strong voice for conservation. In 2007, for instance, he wrote a letter to Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who had accepted illegal gifts from an oil company executive. The letter begins: "You are a lousy, corrupt, crooked old bastard. ..."

But, as anyone knows who has met him, Tom also has a softer side, captured in this passage from a "High Country" column he wrote in 1970:

"My lot has been cast with the simple wonders of the world. You cannot buy the light flashing from a rainbow's side in limpid waters. There is no price on the hoot of an owl from dusky woods at eventide. You can only experience a coyote by hearing his howl.

"My own son 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? How can our affluent, burgeoning society continue on its way without destroying values which cannot be bought in the marketplace? I suppose it's these apprehensions that motivate my waking moments. I would have it no other way. But I wish I could assure myself, and them."

We're among the many Westerners who have good reason to wish Tom a happy 90th!

To learn more about Tom's amazing life, check  our Aug. 20, 2010, profile of him, headlined "A Hell of an Anniversary."

Tom has put High Country News in his will, and he encourages anyone who wants to see HCN continue its mission to do the same. To find out more about the Tom Bell Legacy Circle, please contact development manager Alyssa Pinkerton (alyssap@hcn.org).

Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor based in Bozeman, Mont., and Paul Larmer is HCN's CEO and publisher, based in Paonia, Colo.