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Dig into four decades of news and community

Revisit some gems from High Country News' forty years of reporting on the West and join the discussion — share your memories!

40 Years in the West

Forged on a Rough Frontier

Robyn Morrison | Mar 17, 2010 09:00 AM

One thing is certain:  High Country News founder Tom Bell wasn't afraid of poking a finger in someone's chest. He openly criticized Wyoming's ranchers and industry and the politicians that looked after them. The state's pro-development governor, Stanley K. Hathaway, was a frequent target, as were a pair of Casper-area ranchers who shot and poisoned hundreds of eagles. Bell stirred up controversy and many subscribed just to hear what this fierce advocate of the West's land and wildlife had to say.

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The Crusade Continues

Robyn Morrison | Mar 09, 2010 07:50 AM

"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."

Sincerely yours,
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.

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What Tom Bell Had to Say

Robyn Morrison | Mar 05, 2010 02:03 AM

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:

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The First Scrappy Years

Robyn Morrison | Feb 17, 2010 07:05 AM

"Americans are great people. But I think the readers of High Country News are the greatest," wrote Tom Bell in the March 5, 1971, issue. He was responding to the letters and donations that readers and subscribers had sent following a grim assessment of the paper's future.

Bell had been at the helm for just over a year. He'd changed the name from Camping News Weekly to High Country News in the first months and shifted the focus from hunting and camping to environmental issues. He had hired Charlie Farmer, a former Wyoming Game and Fish employee and avid hunter, as co-editor.  Farmer encouraged hunters and fishermen to "care enough about the outdoors to speak out."

But the paper was struggling to attract the subscribers and advertisers it needed to survive. In that March 5 issue, Bell told readers that he and his wife had reluctantly sold their small ranch outside of Lander, Wyo., to finance the paper. "It is one of those things you do because you believe," he said.

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Tom Bell, Spaghetti Westerns and HCN

Robyn Morrison | Feb 05, 2010 02:05 AM

"Once upon a time" is a better start to a bedtime story than it is to a retrospective of 40 years of High Country News. But have you ever watched the old movie "Once Upon a Time in the West?" It's Italian director Sergio Leone's best spaghetti western, a three hour epic about the struggle over Sweetwater, a spot of land near the mythic town of Flagstone that contains the region’s only water. The railroad is coming and the landowner, a widowed ex-prostitute, is positioned to make a pile of money since steam engines need water. The gun-slinging oldtimers of the Western high desert face losing their way of life as the railroad forges ahead -- bringing newcomers and new towns.

Dirty deals, double crossing and revenge shooting mark the water and land battle. Charles Bronson plays Harmonica, a mysterious man out to put an end to Frank, a hired gun of the railroad played by Henry Fonda. The movie culminates with a showdown between Harmonica, the good guy in the white hat, and Frank, the bad guy in the black hat. It's classic.

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They say it's your birthday

Robyn Morrison | Jan 28, 2010 11:20 PM

Two years ago I celebrated my 40th birthday. I wasn’t thrilled about turning 40 (who is?) and couldn’t convince myself that a celebratory shindig was a good idea (all that attention). But in her quiet way, a close friend convinced me it needed to happen. On an April evening, friends filled the upstairs of the Blue Sage, a bank-turned-community-center just down the street from the High Country News office. Home-cooked tapas covered the tables, sangria punch flowed, and salsa dancing ensued. I pedaled my birthday gift, a refurbished 1962 Ross bicycle, around the oak-floored rooms to the cheers of my friends. It was humbling, the sense of community.

Now, High Country News is celebrating its 40th year. The institution has a remarkable history, and in the weeks to come I’ll be sifting though four decades of feisty, independent, sometimes cantankerous, and often unpredictable reporting on the West.

High Country News' history isn’t just a chronicle of news-breaking stories or critical coverage of the political, environmental and cultural successes, battles and failures shaping the West. It’s also a story of a remarkable community. 

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