HCN at 30: 'On faith alone'

 

"The Shame of it!" cries the headline of the Nov. 24, 1972, issue of High Country News. The story is accompanied by a disturbing close-up photograph of a golden eagle, talons clenched in death.

The eagle was one of hundreds poisoned or shot by Wyoming sheep ranchers in 1970 and 1971. Stories of the killings dominated the pages of High Country News for two years. In 1971, rancher Van Irvine of Casper was charged with illegally shooting pronghorn antelope, then lacing their carcasses with poison to kill coyotes and eagles. He paid a $675 fine after pleading no contest. The slap-on-the-wrist enraged editor Tom Bell. His July 23, 1971, headline read, "Eagles' Deaths Not Vindicated."

Bell became all the more angry when the larger story emerged: Aerial gunners hired by Irvine's father-in-law, Herman Werner, had killed nearly 800 golden and bald eagles. It wasn't Bell's first run-in with Werner, one of the richest and most powerful ranchers in the state. In 1966, the rancher had fenced large areas of leased public lands to keep his sheep from wandering. During severe winter storms, pronghorn antelope found themselves blocked by the fences; many died, some tangled gruesomely in the barbed wire.

In late 1972, Bell ran the picture of the dead eagle because Werner's trial date had still not been set:

"... the central figure in the whole matter, Herman Werner, jokingly (and smugly) walks the streets of Casper unprosecuted and unruffled by the whole matter. I repeat, as I did last March, when will justice be served?"

The eagle killings prompted High Country News to tackle predator control head on. In a series of articles by Verne Huser, the paper exposed hidden costs to wildlife - and the taxpayer - that were imposed by ranchers. During this time, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order halting the use of many poisons on the public lands. This won rare praise from Bell.

Ranchers weren't the only ones to feel the heat of Tom Bell's words. The "energy crisis" in the early 1970s had turned the nation's attentions to the West's vast reserves of coal, oil shale and oil and gas. Large energy companies had plans to strip-mine vast areas of the northern plains in Wyoming and Montana and the Four Corners area for the low-sulfur coal beneath the ground. The coal would be burned in giant power plants that would send electricity around the country.

In issue after issue, Bell ran stories and columns on the environmental and social impacts that energy development would have on the region. He questioned the companies, the politicians that backed them, particularly Wyoming Gov. Stanley K. Hathaway, (see column below), and the need for the energy itself. He called for new strip-mining regulations, joining his voice to a chorus that would eventually force passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.

Between the lines of the dense news stories were rare glimpses of the period's legendary environmental heroes: Sen. Frank Church, fighting for wilderness in central Idaho; David Brower, warning that the floodwaters of Lake Powell would drown Rainbow Bridge in Utah; Frank Dunkle, the Montana Fish and Game's director, fighting the timber industry and his own bosses over wildlife management; writer Michael Frome, losing his job at American Forests magazine for criticizing the Forest Service with too much zeal.

There were also surprises: Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon fighting against dams in Hells Canyon; a Democratic senator in Wyoming, Gale McGee, taking on clear-cutting on national forests and predator control.

Selling the ranch

The candor and passion of the early High Country News came with a price. In March of 1971, Bell told readers that he had just sold his ranch to help subsidize the paper and that his two steadfast assistants - Marge Higley and Mary Margaret Davis - had gone four months without pay, "coming to work each morning on faith alone." He also announced that High Country News was becoming a nonprofit corporation and would cease to run advertising because "we must be in that independent position or we lose one of our main purposes."

Over the ensuing months, Bell's reports to readers grew more somber. In August 1971, he said the number of subscribers paying the $10/year fee had plummeted from 2,931 to 1,771 following the move to nonprofit status. In March of '72, circulation had barely climbed to 1,810, and Bell admitted that "the paper has become so all-environmental that I think we have lost readers."

A year later came an ominous editorial in the March 2 issue: "I write this with a great deal of regret and inner dismay. High County News will cease publication with the March 30, 1973, issue. Barring a miracle, we have come to the end."

In the days that followed, readers sent hundreds of checks to the HCN office in Lander, Wyo. "Optimism Reigns" shouted the headline of the next issue. Bell told readers that the paper would continue.

In the issue that was to have been the last, Bell wrote: "Each day the letters come pouring in and, as you read them, you alternate between humbly crying and joyfully cheering. People whom 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 across a far-flung land."

Donations beyond subscriptions (known today as the Research Fund) saved the paper, but Bell was wearing out. He was finding the battles endless and overwhelming. He needed help.

He found what he and the paper needed to survive in Bruce Hamilton, a 22-year-old researcher and environmental activist, and his wife, Joan Nice, a 24-year-old journalist who had just completed a stint at Backpacker magazine.

Bell introduced Joan and Bruce in the July 6, 1973, issue, noting that each would receive a salary of $300/month. Their apprenticeship under Bell was short. A year later, Bell turned over the reins of the paper to the couple and headed to Oregon to live on a ranch. He was not to return to Wyoming for nearly a decade.

In the next installment, we take a look at how Bruce Hamilton and Joan Nice kept Bell's crusade alive, while changing the face of High Country News.

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