The First Scrappy Years


"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.

He reported that Farmer had left the paper, but would continue as a regular contributor. Just two loyal staffers remained with Bell in the office: columnist and circulation manager Marge Higley and typesetter and business manager Mary Margaret Davis. Neither had been paid in four months, "coming to work on faith alone."

He also made the decision to establish High Country News as a nonprofit corporation and vowed to avoid advertising. "We feel your responses have given us a mandate to carry on without resorting to advertising."

Despite the outpouring of support from readers, as the months progressed, Bell was candid about feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. "This is one of those times when I am feeling rather low. (I think Amos & Andy used to call it ‘down in the dumps'.) There is so much to do and too little time to get it all done," he wrote. "How do I pick and choose the worthiest material? And having done that, how do I find the time to research, to be as certain as possible of the facts, to condense and edit and re-write and then to get it all fitted in?"

But High Country News continued to cover controversial issues passionately, including a multi-part series on the government's failed predator control program in the West, the future of Wyoming's vast Red Desert, illegal fencing on public lands and huge timber sales in Montana. As the energy crisis took hold of the nation, attention turned to the West’s vast reserves of oil shale, coal oil and gas and High Country News reported on plans for massive strip mines and coal fired power plants.

Bell was clear that he didn't shy away from the task even though the work extracted a heavy toll. "The remuneration is practically nil but the rewards are many. My conscience is clear and I can sleep well. Tomorrow is another day of challenge and exciting work. No man could ask for more."

In fact, the financial return for Bell was less than nil. Bell had also plowed $30,000 of his own cash into the paper. During the first year, he paid himself a modest salary, but over the ensuing two years, he drew a scant $910.97 in salary.

In early March 1973, Bell again wrote that the paper had finally run its course. "High Country News will cease publication with the March 30 issue. Barring a miracle, we have come to the end."

Over the ensuing days, letters with cash and checks flooded the office. Once again, readers had revived the paper and the next issue's headline gushed "Optimism Reigns."

In what was to have been the final issue of High Country News, Bell wrote, "Each day the letters come pouring in and as you read them, you alternate between humbly crying and joyfully cheering. People who we have never met except through the pages of a little paper write us as they would a long lost friend. Somehow we have created another bond between people from across a far-flung land."

The next issue carried the first list of  "High Country News' Friends" (those who donated beyond a subscription, known today as the Research Fund).  But Bell was losing his stamina for the never-ending battles. And it wouldn't be the last time that readers would provide miracles.