Our founder, the man and the myth

Tom Bell still inspires a young Westerner

  • Paul Larmer


This is the editor's note accompanying an HCN magazine cover story, "A Hell of an Anniversary."


A few weeks ago, on a road trip from Colorado to Montana, my 17-year-old son and I stopped in Lander, Wyo., for a visit with Tom Bell, High Country News' founder. I'm not sure Zachary knew what to expect: As we pulled into town he reminded me that, when he was young, I told him that Tom Bell rode around Wyoming on the back of a pronghorn antelope, hell-bent on saving the West.

It's not hard to come up with tall tales about Tom Bell, the subject of this issue's cover story. His achievements -- he founded both HCN and the Wyoming Outdoor Council -- are legendary, as is his fiery personality, displayed in decades of heated battles with governors, agencies and fellow ranchers. Less known, perhaps, is his gentle side. I'll never forget the candid, soul-baring chats we shared a decade ago, bunking together at an HCN board meeting at the Murie Center in Grand Teton National Park. Somewhere in the absolute black of that musty cabin, I connected with the man's indomitable yet humble spirit. I left that meeting ready to tackle whatever challenges life might throw my way.

But we humans are complicated, and as Senior Editor Ray Ring reveals in this issue, Tom Bell has long held a darker view of the world, one that seems odd for a man who has so positively influenced generations of conservation leaders. As Ring points out, the environmental movement is no stranger to the dichotomy between "we-can-make-it-happen” optimism and "we're-all-doomed” pessimism, often swinging back and forth between the two. These days, the doomsayers are resurgent, driven by a string of natural and manmade calamities and grim predictions of a future undone by climate change, population growth, resource destruction and rampant political corruption.

Tom, now in his 86th year, is at home with this worldview. As Zachary and I sipped strong coffee at his kitchen table, he handed us articles and books -- filled with underlined passages and scribbled notes in the margins -- confirming humanity's dismal path toward destruction.

"I'm afraid we are leaving your generation with the biggest problems humanity has ever faced,” Tom told Zachary.

Not exactly the message you want your teenaged son to hear as he prepares to launch into the world. But a necessary one: As Tom's life attests, dark visions of what could be lost can be every bit as motivating as bright hopes for what can be gained.

Driving south toward Rawlins, through sagebrush-covered hills punctuated with gas wells and small herds of pronghorn, Zachary and I marveled at the fire that still burns in Tom Bell's belly. His views may be edgy, Zachary allowed, and he may never have ridden an antelope, but "he's still pretty cool.”

Amen to that.

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