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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -