High Country News: Origins

The first in a series celebrating our 45th anniversary


“The days shorten. Hills turn sere and brown. Dried cases of the stonefly stick lifelessly to the exposed boulders; streams once brimming flow low and clear. ... As seasons swing, I suppose it is only natural that our thoughts turn inward and back.”

Tom Bell — a Lander, Wyoming, rancher, wildlife biologist and World War II combat veteran — wrote this for the “Fall Fishing Issue” of High Country News in 1970. A year earlier, he’d purchased Camping News Weekly, a small newspaper geared toward hunters and anglers. Soon afterward, he renamed it, creating a new kind of publication that has endured for 45 years.

Bell loved the natural world and initially preserved much of Camping News’ outdoor flavor. But his vision for the paper — as a voice for the nascent environmental movement — was already clear: A recipe for leftover roast elk sandwiches would appear next to a strongly worded column about timber legislation.

For the next few years, Bell and a shoestring staff did what other newspapers refused to do — announced important wilderness hearings and mining proposals, scolded the governor for cozying up to industry, shamed local ranchers for killing eagles and fencing in pronghorn.

His views weren’t terribly popular in Wyoming, and the paper — with only a few thousand subscribers — struggled. Bell, who earned almost nothing, eventually sold his ranch and moved his family into a small house in town. He made High Country News a nonprofit in 1971, and asked readers for extra support. But it wasn’t enough; in 1973, he announced that HCN was closing shop.

High Country News founder Tom Bell in 1984 and his article about eagle poachers from 1972.
Mike McClure/HCN Archives

In one of the highlights of HCN history, money poured in from readers, and the paper survived. Bell called it a miracle, and printed the donors’ names in a centerspread — a tradition that lives on today as the Research Fund.

Shortly before Bell left HCN in 1974 — exhausted by the constant deadline grind — he hired two young editors, Joan Nice and Bruce Hamilton. When a wave of energy development hit Wyoming, the duo wrote sharp-eyed stories about strip mining, oil shale and their effects on small-town communities. Marjane Ambler, another young editor, joined that same year, bringing an interest in Native American issues.

Together, through the mid-’70s, they secured HCN as a solid environmental news source and expanded its reach across the Rocky Mountains.

As the days again shorten and the seasons swing, we’re reflecting on HCN’s 45 years. Stay tuned for more chapters. And visit our webpage to read articles chosen by former HCN editors.

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