HCN's secret past

  • Paul Larmer


In the interest of full disclosure, I must make a confession: High Country News owes its existence, in part, to the nuclear industry.

I learned of this a couple of years ago at a High Country News board meeting in Jackson, Wyo. I was sharing a rustic cabin at the Murie Center with Tom Bell, founder of HCN and still a fierce defender of the West. After a long day of meetings, we settled in for the evening and started swapping stories. We finally turned off the lights, and as a profound darkness settled in the cabin, Tom said, "You know we all have skeletons in the closet." A pause. "Did I ever tell you about the time I had uranium fever?"

Turns out that back in the 1950s, Tom and a couple of his fellow underpaid public schoolteachers got in on the beginning of the first uranium rush, buying up a string of claims near Tom’s home in Lander. Tom never hit it rich, but over the years, the sale of those claims to other speculators allowed him to pursue his conservation work. It also allowed him to keep publishing High Country News when the paper hit hard times in the early 1970s: "People would always ask me, ‘How are you able to take no salary and keep printing the paper?’ Well, it was those uranium claims."

(More accurately, it was those uranium claims plus Tom’s mortgaged ranch and a steady stream of $10 and $20 checks from readers.)

Then, of course, the price of uranium plummeted in the 1980s, and uranium claims lost almost all of their value. But the West is an optimistic place: Every bust is just the seedbed for the next great boom. As we note in this issue, uranium fever is once again gripping the region. Folks who held on to their claims are feeling bullish.

But how much of it is for real? There are still formidable obstacles standing in the way of a nuclear renaissance. Read our stories beginning on page 9, to learn more about this new "boom."

For his part, Tom says he hopes the current uranium frenzy is short-lived. The last one hit the West hard, he says. He can still go out and see the endless mounds of dirt that he and the other claimholders bulldozed in the Wyoming sagebrush to prove to the federal government that they were actively working their claims.

"We ruined a lot of country," he says.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that HCN’s history is tied to the region’s boom-and-bust cycles. We might be headed for a new bust now, if the real estate economy tanks. Hmmm … Do you think I should ask Tom if I can borrow his old Geiger counter?

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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