Tom Bell, Spaghetti Westerns and HCN


"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.

The movie was released in 1968, the same year that High Country News founder Tom Bell took over Camping News Weekly, a local paper in Lander, Wyo., dedicated to hunting, fishing and camping.

Camping News Weekly carried stories about mountain climbers tackling Teton Peak and questionable ice fishing conditions on Wyoming's Flaming Gorge reservoir. A "Campers' Tips" column advised readers about how to hitch their camp trailer or whether gals should wear hairspray camping. And a weekly front page photo featured the "Camper of the Week."

Camping News Weekly didn't include news about Western water wars, land grabs or industry encroachment into the region's remaining wild places. But that changed under Bell as he included more news and opinion about the environmental threats plaguing the West. Within two years, Bell changed the paper's name to High Country News to reflect a "broadened view of the outdoor activities we cover and a growing concern for our environment."

Bell was an unabashed supporter of the budding environmental movement in the West and he chided those who clung to the Old West mentality. "People in the West are still too imbued with what some have termed the 'frontier ethic' or what Oregon Governor Tom McCall has tabbed the 'buffalo-hunter mentality'. We are still too close to the Old West where we ruthlessly exploited the land and all its riches."

But he didn't buy the classic western baloney that neatly divided everything between the bad guys and the good guys, the black hats and the white hats. To be sure, "black hat versus white hat" stories were often found in the pages of High Country News, as environmentalists fought a planned molybdenum mine on the flank of Castle Peak in central Idaho's White Cloud Mountains, or demanded justice when powerful Wyoming ranchers were caught slaughtering hundreds of golden and bald eagles.

Yet Bell had examined the West long enough, as a lifelong Wyomingite, rancher and wildlife biologist, to know the region was a complicated place. He dug into facts and understood the need to make sense of the competing forces at work across the West. "Environmental news is a constantly brewing mix," he wrote in 1972. "It is impossible for one observer to see the whole picture from one perspective. The best that can be done is to look though the eyes of many observers and reporters. And that is what High Country News is trying to do."

It's complexity that High Country News has worked to unravel for 40 years. And a complexity that I'm not so sure plays out in those spaghetti westerns.