HCN at 30: The saga begins

  • Clips from various early issues of High CountryNews


On the cover of the Oct. 22, 1970, issue of High Country News, there's a photograph of a hunter packing out what later would become the paper's mascot, the Rocky Mountain goat.

The man - Charlie Farmer of Cheyenne, Wyo. - was the first person to bag a mountain goat in Wyoming's first official hunt. He was also co-editor of High Country News.

High Country News has always been an unpredictable creature. Its birthplace was Lander, Wyo., on the high plains at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. In 1970, an emboldened environmental movement was pushing Congress to enact a whole range of environmental protection laws. At the same time, new dams, large-scale uranium and coal mines, immense oil and gas fields, and vast logging clear-cuts were transforming the Western landscape.

Into this milieu stepped Tom Bell, a rancher, wildlife biologist and teacher from Lander, Wyo., with a fierce passion for the wild. In 1968, Bell had taken over a local paper, Camping News Weekly, which celebrated the great outdoors but had little hard-hitting news. Bell would change that, but for a while he kept the paper's original tone. An editorial he wrote in the Jan. 2, 1970, issue of the paper reads:

"So you gave your son or daughter a firearm for Christmas - Good for you. It's a gift which can do as much to shape the future of your young sportsman and uphold the traditional pastimes of hunting and shooting which are so dear to the West."

Advertisements in the newspaper were mostly for recreational equipment. Classifieds exhorted readers to buy duck decoys and build-it-yourself campers.

But with every issue, Bell included more news and editorials about the plight of the environment.

The Jan. 30, 1970, issue was the first to carry the High Country News name, and a box on the cover read: "High Country News reflects a broadened view of the outdoor activities we cover and a growing concern for our environment."

HCN retained some of its quirkiness and its connection to the recreation industry. "Mrs. Nimrod's Cookbook" continued to feature recipes for such delicacies as roast venison and dandelion greens. And the last two issues of 1970 - the "Snowmobile" and "Skiing" issues - read more like promotional brochures than news. Of course, HCN was not yet a nonprofit organization, and Bell had to keep in mind his advertisers.

That didn't stop him from running more and more stories and columns about threats to Western wildlife and open spaces and the need for wilderness protection.

A centerspread in the Feb. 13, 1970, issue featured aerial pictures of spidery mining roads on Wyoming's Green Mountains, with this headline: "The Land Cries Out: Do we have a conscience?"

A new column, Environmental Eavesdropper, featured short news items from around the West, along with a Looney Limerick by Zane E. Cology, such as this one from the Oct. 23, 1970, issue:

     Smart-aleck Snowbiler, Joe Grubble
     Should be fined and have to pay double.
     Wild animals he chased
     tore up trails in his haste
     and got all snowbilers in trouble.

In mid-1970, Bell hired goat-hunter Charlie Farmer to write columns about hunting and fishing, but almost all of Farmer's writings had a strong conservation message.

In many issues, Bell inserted a page called Wyoming Outdoors, which was the newsletter of the Wyoming Outdoor Coordinating Council, a group he helped found in the late 1960s. There, he advocated letter-writing campaigns to congressmen and local officials to boost new recreation areas and wilderness, wildlife protection, and other Wyoming conservation causes.

Bell reserved his most stirring rhetoric for his page 2 "High Country" column. Through HCN's first year, he took on dozens of issues, including the 1872 Mining Law and jade mining in Wyoming, dams planned for the Green River, the destruction of the Oregon Trail, and timber sales in the Wind River Mountains.

Bell's words catch the early excitement and anxiety of the environmental movement in the West (see excerpts).

Fire and brimstone? Even fatalism? Yes, Bell was a hot-burning light, and his vision lighted the pages of High Country News during the early 1970s. His focus caused some readers to drop their subscription. It also attracted a new group of people who cared deeply about the West.

In our next installment, we take a look at the rise and fall of Tom Bell's crusade for the West and the rescue of High Country News by its readers and two kids just out of college.

High Country News Classifieds