High Country News founder, Tom Bell, passes

A Wyoming rancher and self-proclaimed maverick, Bell led a lifelong conservation effort.

 

On Aug. 30, Tom Bell, the founder of High Country News, passed away in his hometown of Lander, Wyoming. He was 92. Tom’s life and work inspired generations of Western conservationists and writers. I am lucky to be one of them.

A few years ago, on a road trip from Colorado to Montana, my then-teenage son and I stopped in Lander to visit him. I’m not sure Zachary knew what to expect: As we pulled into town, he reminded me that, when he was young, I used to tell him that Tom Bell rode around Wyoming on the back of a pronghorn, hell-bent on saving the West.

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Mike McClure

But something about Tom inspired tall tales like that. His achievements are legendary — he founded both HCN and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, years after losing an eye to German flak during a World War II bombing mission.  His fiery personality was equally legendary, displayed in decades of heated battles with governors, agencies, industries and fellow ranchers.

“Sorry to say to my detractors, so long as I live, I will continue to call the shots as I see them,” Tom, who was the son of a coal miner and a rancher himself, wrote in a 1973 editorial. “I have been a maverick and a gadfly all my life, and like many Wyomingites, I am too old to change now.”

Tom’s integrity was unbreakable. And it meant that he had remarkable influence. As former HCN publisher Ed Marston put it in a 1995 column: “If I were a consultant to the West’s energy and mineral companies and ranchers, and to their politicians and bureaucrats, I would give them one piece of advice: ‘Don’t get crosswise with Tom Bell. Early on in your “process,” tell Tom your plans. If he reacts with a strong no, change them. It will save you lots of time, money and head-scratching.’ ”

Tom’s feistiness was accompanied, as he aged, by an ever-darkening worldview, which might seem odd for a man who has so positively influenced others. But, as former HCN Senior Editor Ray Ring pointed out in a 2010 profile, he reflected an environmental movement that is no stranger to the tango between “we-can-make-it-happen” and “we’re-all-doomed.”

As Zachary and I sipped strong coffee at Tom’s kitchen table, our host handed us articles and books, filled with underlined passages and scribbled notes in the margins, confirming humanity’s dismal path toward destruction. Fixing Zachary with his one bright blue eye, Tom said: “I’m afraid we are leaving your generation with the biggest problems humanity has ever faced.”

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Paul Larmer and Tom Bell in 2003 in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
HCN File Photo

This was not exactly the uplifting message a father might want his son to hear as he launches into adulthood. But it was a true and necessary one, and one that Tom was able to share with others, primarily because of the man he was. He had a rare and gentle soulfulness; I think it might be his biggest contribution to this ephemeral world.

I’ll never forget the candid chats we had bunking together at a 2003 HCN board meeting at the Murie Center in Grand Teton National Park. Somewhere in the absolute darkness of that musty cabin, as we talked about the potential brightness of the future, Tom’s fierce, humble spirit latched on to me. I left ready to tackle whatever challenges life might throw my way. I know many others who knew Tom had similar transformative experiences.

Tom was a great man who will be greatly missed. As a farewell, we’d like to share a column that he wrote 46 years ago for the Aug. 28, 1970, issue of High Country News. Bless you, Tom Bell.

–Paul Larmer, executive director and publisher, for the staff


High Country

By Tom Bell, 1970

The days shorten. Hills turn sere and brown. Dried cases of the stonefly stick lifelessly to the exposed boulders; streams once brimming flow low and clear. And flocks of birds are all too evident. The cycle of life turns slowly but irrevocably.

As seasons swing, I suppose it is only natural that our thoughts turn inward and back. The promises of Spring and the fulfillments of Summer pass in review. Happy times and sore times have come and gone, those particular ones never to come again.

So, too, the memories of youth return on occasion to bring the warmth of old friendships remembered and old experiences renewed. Some of my fondest memories are of the dog days of August. Then much of the ranch work was done and cares slipped away. School was in the offing but far enough away to leave free time. And even after school hours, there was still time to slip away and meditate beside some branch of the river — a retreat unsurpassed even yet in my mind’s eye.

It was during those days that we often fished. Two boys and a girl, a boy and a girl, two boys, and on many occasions — a boy. Whether together or alone, the memories recalled are always pleasant.

We caught fish, sometimes excitedly, but mostly we just fished. It didn’t really matter. They were the pleasant hours when teenage cares could be temporarily submersed.

Teen years are tortured times. I suppose they always have been and always will be. I don’t know how I might have fared in this world had I not had the great outdoors in which to roam, seek solace, heal sensitive feelings, and begin to grope my way to adulthood. I grieve that all young people cannot experience the lessons the Good Lord can teach under His blue canopy, beside some soothing brook.

Fishing was one of my releases. But even more than fishing was the chance to be along amongst nature’s constant wonders. I climbed trees and onto the overhanging branches of the stream below. There, I could watch the trout rise to the flies, or languidly hold their place in the clear waters. The beauty and the symmetry of the fish were sights to behold.

As golden leaves rustled loose from their moorings and floated down upon the water, I watched the brown trout seek their redds and there enact the ritual of life itself. And there came the wonder of how it must be between man and woman.

I fished with rod or I fished with my hands as the urge struck. If I tackled them, it was only the biggest ones and then only one for I searched the deep holes beneath driftwood piles for the lunkers. Sometimes I closed upon the great body and then relaxed to let him pass his way.

I could exalt in the triumph of a prize catch. And yet felt compassion for the fallen — for a lifeless bit which would no more rise to a shimmering fly.

Amongst these many experiences, whether alone far back in the mountains or lying quietly beside a still pool, I found myself. I could come to grips with life itself. And in doing so, I found my own niche in life.

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Kathy Bogan

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.

For so long as I live, I will prize the simple pleasures I learned as a boy above all material goods. Money could never buy the happiness and contentment which I experience afield.

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? 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 which motivate my waking moments. I would have it no other way. But I wish I could assure myself and them.

Over the years, Tom wrote many pieces and many people wrote pieces about Tom. Read a few of our favorites here:

The Bell family has requested that donations in Tom’s memory be made to High Country News, the Wyoming Outdoor Council or the Museum of the American West in Lander, Wyoming.

You are welcome to share your remembrances in the comments, on social media or by letter: PO Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428.