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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org