Wyoming's heroes celebrate a birthday

  • "This dog bites": Tom Bell

    Mike McClure photo

LANDER, Wyo. - The Wyoming Outdoor Council, another creation of High Country News founder Tom Bell, held its 30th birthday party here last week.

Back in the 1960s, Bell, a fourth-generation Wyoming native raised on a ranch and trained in wildlife conservation, became incensed at the abuses he saw on the land, especially the illegal fences and "No Trespassing" signs that some ranchers had erected on the public domain.

Bell soon became famous as a cowboy environmentalist - and infamous to some of his former friends in ranching. "Nobody had ever challenged them before," he recalled ruefully to the 150 people gathered to celebrate WOC's birthday.

While there were a number of environmental groups in the state, he said, they were all going in their own directions. In 1967, inspired by the example of the Colorado Open Space Coordinating Council, Bell organized a coalition of groups, including the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, the Audubon Society and the Wyoming Rock Hound Association, to fight Wyoming's environmental battles.

By the early 1970s, the organization, then known as the Wyoming Outdoor Coordinating Council, faced a new and frightening challenge - an unprecedented rush by utilities, coal companies, and the federal government to develop Wyoming's energy resources. The North Central Power Project, slated for the state's coal-rich Powder River Basin, would have strip-mined low-grade coal, burned it on the spot, and transmitted the electric power to markets along the Mississippi River. Bell said he feared the area would become another Ruhr Valley.

Wyoming Gov. Stan Hathaway had no such qualms; he had visions of damming the Green River (at the opposite corner of the state) and piping the water hundreds of miles to supply the needs of gasification and coal-fired power plants.

Bell said his new coalition held meetings, raised the public's ire, and got the Green River proposal squelched. "We fought it, and we won," he said.

In the early 1970s WOC also began to establish a presence at the Wyoming Legislature. Using phone chains, mailing lists and newsletters, it gave the citizens of the state the tools to break into what former executive director Colleen Cabot described to the crowd as "a quiet world of legislators and special interest lobbyists."

A youthful cadre of WOC volunteers and staffers known in Cheyenne as "the ragamuffins" - "Nobody owned all the pieces to one suit," she remembered - succeeded in spearheading industrial siting and environmental quality laws, which are some of the toughest environmental legislation ever created here.

Bell, his emotional health shaken by his battles for the land, had left the state. But the organization he had founded continued, eventually becoming an independent group with its own membership.

The group has weathered some hard times. During the 1980s, for example, Wyoming environmentalists were demonized as the cause of the energy bust.

Now the group is enjoying an unprecedented prosperity. Its membership is growing, and, thanks to foundation money and the contributions of wealthy newcomers to the state, its 1997 budget was close to a quarter of a million dollars. Its paid staff of five has just moved into newer and larger offices in Lander, where they plan to set up a conservation information center.

Bell, who returned home in the 1980s, and is a frequent visitor at WOC's offices, says he is delighted with the organization's robust health. "I could not in my wildest dreams have envisioned this outfit with two staff attorneys," he said.

Over the past three decades WOC has worked with other environmental organizations to stop clear-cutting on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, protect access to public lands, block storage of nuclear waste in the state, establish wilderness areas in the Absaroka and Wind River ranges, get the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone designated a wild and scenic river, and prevent dams and timber sales throughout Wyoming.

As new board president Chip Rawlins put it, "We've given the really bad ideas time to die of their own badness."

The ranchers that Bell started fighting over 30 years ago are also changing at last. "Ranching is finally entering the 20th century," he said.

WOC has not, however, succeeded in extinguishing what Cabot called "Wyoming's love affair with energy."

His views were echoed by writer Paul Krza, who observed that lobbyists still run the Wyoming Legislature. "They come to work every day to make sure things stay the same," he said.

WOC's greatest challenge, these days, is dealing with massive development of natural gas and trona reserves in the state's southwestern corner, which could become the nation's major natural gas producing region, with as many as 11,000 new wells, by the year 2015.

Tom Throop, WOC's executive director, observed that, of all the states, "Wyoming has the smallest population and the most significant resources." Maybe this is what gave the weekend its character of embattled camaraderie. Several speakers shed tears.

Keynoter Bruce Hamilton, conservation director of the Sierra Club and a former WOC volunteer, brought the festivities to an appropriate conclusion by presenting Bell with a button.

It bore a drawing of a pit bull and a caption that read, "This dog bites."

Lynne Bama lives in Wapiti, Wyoming.

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