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Know the West

‘Somebody has to keep people on their toes’

High Country News’ unlikely and remarkable origin story.

The summer of 1969 was a momentous one: The Stonewall riots publicly asserted the rights of the LGBTQ community; Apollo 11 landed on the moon; a music festival in Woodstock, New York, became shorthand for the counterculture movement. But in Lander, Wyoming, a very different kind of drama played out in the classified section of Camping News Weekly. “GIRL CAMPER would like to enlist the aid of boy camper,” the first ad read. “Please bring double sleeping bag and rare Yetti (sic) stomach. Camp location: two miles above Townsend Creek.” Boy Camper — confused — replied in the next week’s issue: “Filled with what and where the heck is Townsend Creek.” Girl Camper responded the following week that she might blaze a trail for Boy Camper to find her tent, though either she didn’t or he couldn’t follow it. By the end of August, Girl Camper had grown impatient: “the world has been beating a path to my tent flap,” she wrote. “If you don’t find Townsend Creek this week, you’re out of luck.” After this, their budding romance disappeared from the paper’s pages.

This seemingly small, personal drama provides a window into the origins of the magazine you hold in your hands — and a place to begin telling the story of this rather unlikely and remarkable publication. Camping News Weekly, where our star-crossed campers traded flirtations, would become High Country News just five months later, signaling a shift from a focus on outdoor recreation to a decision to take on the mantle of environmental activism through the conviction of its founder, a Lander native named Tom Bell. From its inception, it was the kind of publication that published material both local and somehow universal, like the (perhaps) unrequited yearnings of two young people, and it slowly became a voice for the Western United States. It examined the effects of the mining industry in Wyoming, but also served as a platform for the burgeoning national environmental movement: on overpopulation, pollution, energy production, ecology and the preservation of wilderness areas. Over the five decades High Country News has been in print, it has maintained that wide-ranging curiosity about the region, seeking to create a community “for people who care about the West.”

 

On its 10th anniversary, Bell called High Country News “a freakish, oddball curiosity in the eyes of most traditional journalists.” To established publications, Bell wrote, it was at its founding and remained, a decade in, “like a bumblebee to an aerodynamicist — the darn thing isn’t supposed to fly, but it does.” So how did this bumblebee get off the ground in the first place, and how has it stayed aloft for 50 years now? Like the environmental movement itself, HCN was a product of the 1960s, a decade that convinced Americans that activism could create real political and cultural change. Bell founded the publication believing that people could make a difference, as long as they were educated and informed about the issues. High Country News evolved alongside the modern environmental movement. Guided by Bell’s experience as a Westerner and his dedication to environmental activism, the paper both emerged and succeeded because of the American public’s increasing concern about the impacts of human activity on public and environmental health.

Perhaps most importantly, High Country News became a much-needed resource. The publication brought together national, regional and local environmental issues and causes, providing not only the information its readers needed to become informed activists, but also a sense of collective effort and a shared cause. In doing so, it helped create, shape and sustain the environmental movement and its effects in the West.

“Like a bumblebee to an aerodynamicist — the darn thing isn’t supposed to fly, but it does.”

Girl Camper and Boy Camper’s personal drama played out on the Bridger-Teton National Forest south of Lander, against the backdrop of national political and cultural unrest. Throughout the 1960s, the United States witnessed protest and activism from diverse groups, including the African American civil rights movement, the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Chicano United Farm Workers. White college students joined the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and feminists mobilized in the National Organization for Women (NOW). These grassroots movements put pressure on American cultural and governmental institutions to reform from the ground up, while John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society promised reform and equality from the top down. There were groundbreaking legislative victories, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the end of tribal relocation and termination, and legislative protection against discrimination in the workplace.

But other events helped define the decade as one of violence, anxiety and increasing disillusionment. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in November of 1963 dashed the hopes of his New Frontier program, and Martin Luther King’s assassination outside his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, five years later made activists question the efficacy of nonviolent protest. And while legislative victories promised a brighter future for minority groups, tangible progress in alleviating poverty, attaining social equity and extending government aid remained unrealized despite more than a decade of struggle for equal rights. 

The events that marked the 1960s and continued into the 1970s track with High Country News’ early years: advocacy and activism fueled by optimism and followed by defeat, or, occasionally, victory. The successes provided just enough optimism to continue the fight.  By the end of this tumultuous decade, (predominantly white) America had tired of the cycle. But a new movement was emerging to help unify many Americans in the face of their disillusionment: the environmental movement, with High Country News poised to provide an outlet for those hungry for news about the West and in-depth reporting on environmental threats in the region.

CAMPING NEWS WEEKLY’S FOUNDING YEAR saw a series of human-caused environmental disasters that captured Americans’ attention in a new way. First, in January 1969, an oil platform blowout off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, coated the idyllic town’s beaches in crude oil. Then, in June, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, polluted by oil refineries and industrial waste, caught fire. By the end of the 1960s, Americans were primed to view these disasters through the lens of that decade’s advocacy and activism. Lakes and rivers were no longer safe for drinking, fishing or swimming. Pesticides, including DDT, threatened the extinction of entire species, most famously the bald eagle, America’s national symbol. These concerns were prompted, in large part, by the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, biologist Rachel Carson’s landmark exposé of the danger of industrial chemicals. Carson warned that the by-products of the post-World War II military-industrial complex and new kinds of manufacturing processes and consumer products were wreaking havoc on the nation’s ecosystems, causing not only environmental chaos but also public health impacts. Her book illuminated the idea of ecology, which she described as “interrelationships” and “interdependence,” and the events of 1969 awakened Americans to this “web of life” in which they and all living creatures were bound.

This marked a shift in how Americans thought about the environment. Until the late 1960s, the mainstream and mostly white conservation movement had focused on preserving natural landscapes for recreational and aesthetic purposes. This cause dates back to the second half of the 19th century with the foundation of the first national parks and the formation of organizations like the Sierra Club. Preservationists like John Muir believed in protecting “nature for nature’s sake,” while conservationists like Gifford Pinchot believed in managing natural resources to provide “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In the mid-20th century, conservation became the standard label for what we would today call “environmental” activism, coinciding with an increasingly popular movement to preserve wild places in the post-World War II U.S.

High Country News evolved in tandem with this movement. Over the course of its first year in print — and through its transition from Camping News Weekly to High Country News — the publication shifted from disseminating “the latest information on places to camp and things to do and see all over the country,” as the May 2, 1969, inaugural issue did, to covering environmental causes in the West and nationally. To Bell, who wrote for Camping News Weekly from the first issue and became increasingly involved until he assumed control in late 1969, it was only natural for hunters, anglers, hikers and those concerned with causes like wilderness preservation to join the burgeoning environmental movement. “We who call ourselves conservationists,” Bell wrote in his regular “High Country” column on May 23, 1969, “would like to think we are trying to preserve a world which is clean, healthful, and fit to live in.” To Bell, it was obvious and logical that Westerners who recreated on and worked to protect public lands would take on national-level issues and causes as well as threats to their own backyards, which were becoming more and more alarming in the aftermath of events like the Santa Barbara oil spill.

Bell’s increasing influence on the content of Camping News Weekly and its transition to High Country News grew out of his own experiences and conviction that Westerners needed to be informed environmental activists. Bell was born April 12, 1924, in Winton, Wyoming, a small coal-mining camp near Rock Springs. He spent his childhood near Lander, the town where he would later found High Country News. A biography written for his reception of the Society of American Travel Writers’ 1973 Connie Award describes Bell as “a native Wyomingite, of pioneer stock, who grew up on a small ranch in the high country where he often dreamed of himself as a mountain man when the West was young.”

Growing up close to the land shaped Bell’s environmental sensibilities and gave him a deep sense of the interconnectedness of the natural world, a view that shaped his life, career and High Country News. He described his walks to school as a young boy as 

pretty tough at times. But they were confidence builders for that little boy, and the beginning of my real education. From that time on I walked the ditches and creeks, the hills, the ridges and valleys. And eventually I walked the mountains. When I wasn’t walking, I was riding a horse. Through it all, I was wide-eyed and curious. Who knows how a boy’s eyes become trained to detect the webs of life all about him — and the nuances of life? How do the subtle sights and sounds and smells, and the even subtler changes on the landscape become a part of his nature? Whatever the process, it was the forge in which my life was cast.

Through it all, I was wide-eyed and curious. Who knows how a boy’s eyes become trained to detect the webs of life all about him — and the nuances of life?

Bell also had a voracious appetite for books, and he consumed all he could — “mostly of horses, dogs, and wild animals, of outdoorsmen, mountain men and Indians who knew the woods and the wilds like the backs of their hands, and who lived by their wits.” On his outdoor excursions, Bell did his “best to emulate them.”

A self-described loner, Bell spent his free time as a child and then a young man exploring the landscape around Lander. This time proved formative for him; in 2004, he wrote that “those walks and horseback rides along the ditches and creeks, and across miles of hills and mountains were the training grounds for my natural bent in life.” But before Bell could set off for a career that would take him through wildlife conservation, journalism and teaching to High Country News, World War II began, and Bell enlisted in the Air Force in May of 1942. He deployed to Europe in December of 1943, where he flew combat missions in a B-24 bomber. He did not serve long: In May 1944, in the skies over Vienna, Austria, there came “a blinding light, a thunderous crash, and a searing blow” when German flak hit Bell in the nose of his bomber. Bell lost his right eye and nearly his sight. But what seemed to be a terrible setback only deepened his desire to defend the natural world he loved.

After the war, Bell returned to Wyoming and his determination to understand and eventually advocate for the natural world. He received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Wyoming, obtaining a B.A. in wildlife conservation and game management in 1948 and an M.S. in zoology and ecology in 1957. Following each of his degrees, Bell worked for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, though both times he resigned over what he saw as a lack of concern for the health of wildlife and the environment, something he cited as the origins of his environmental sensibilities. After leaving the agency permanently in late 1959, Bell taught junior high school science and wrote for a now-defunct local Lander paper, the Wyoming State Journal. Bell found an outlet for his thoughts on the malpractice he had observed at the Game and Fish Department, as well as his opinions on public lands, recreation and the environment, in his regular column, “High Country.”

Bell left teaching when he was elected president of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation in 1965. In this position, he was able to advocate for the growing concerns of conservation groups about the effects of human actions — including ranching, road construction and pesticide use — on wildlife habitat, health and mobility. Later the same year, Wyoming Gov. Clifford Hansen appointed Bell to the National Public Land Law Review Commission as a representative for outdoor recreation interests. These experiences — writing for the Journal, teaching biology, working on behalf of conservation groups and advocating for outdoor recreation — inspired Bell to found the Wyoming Outdoor Coordinating Council (WOCC) in 1967. This coalition grew out of what Bell saw as “the need for cooperation between outdoor interests and other public interest groups” to further conservation causes. In a letter to his Aunt Lillian in December 1966, Bell described the WOCC’s purpose — and what would become his mission for High Country News:

Some of us here in the Rocky Mountain region believe that our open spaces, our mountain wilderness areas, our majestic natural scenery, and our other natural resources are a national treasure. What happens to them is not only our concern but that of the American public. But the battles to preserve them are here, and it is we who live here that stand in the forefront of the battle ranks. We are more effective because we do live here.

In 1969, Bell found an opportunity to pursue what he felt was his true calling: writing about environmental issues that threatened the Western landscapes he loved and thereby educate readers about how they could take action. Wyoming State Journal editor Ray Savage opened Camping News Weekly in Lander as a side project and invited Bell to contribute his weekly “High Country” column. The first few columns discussed the joy of living so close to outdoor recreation opportunities and spirit-lifting scenery, entreated campers to behave well and clean up after themselves, and pondered the perceived emptiness of the rural West and the sense of wonder derived from learning about its wildflowers, birds and other living things. But by the fourth issue of Camping News Weekly, Bell revived his activist stance, warning about the major concerns of the growing environmental movement, sounding the drumbeat not just for public-lands protection, but also pollution, overpopulation and unrestricted natural resource development.

In the publication’s third month, July 1969, Camping News Weekly announced that the Wyoming Outdoor Coordinating Council — run by Bell and described as “a nonprofit Wyoming corporation interested in conservation and environmental matters” — had chosen it as the “official publication of that conservation-minded group.” Bell’s commitment to conservation, his belief in the protection of public lands, and his penchant for connecting national environmental concerns to local and regional issues shows not only the origin of High Country News within the context of the evolving modern environmental movement, but also its unique recognition of the importance of providing information about issues, resources for activism, and a sense of community for Westerners and people across the country who cared about the region.

“Bell saw a chance to present the kinds of stories the mainstream media were ignoring.”

Bell’s growing influence over the content of Camping News Weekly and his use of the publication as his bully pulpit for education and activism culminated in 1970. In Camping News Weekly, as the 20th anniversary edition of High Country News noted, “Bell saw a chance to present the kinds of stories the mainstream media were ignoring,” and so he assumed both ownership and editorship and renamed the paper after his longstanding weekly column. The first issue of High Country News premiered on Jan. 30, 1970. Bell explained the name change on the front page:

High Country News reflects a broadened view of the outdoor activities we cover and a growing concern for our environment. No, we have not forgotten or dismissed the many thousands of recreationists and vacationers who go afield in their campers and tents. There will still be news of places to visit, things to do, interesting things to see, and adventurous activities in the Rocky Mountain West. We like to think we have an outdoor news coverage matched by no other newspaper. And we carry a digest of outdoor and environmental news second to none. We hope you will continue to like our product and will spread the news.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/21.18/saga-of-a-high-country-newsman]

But not much about the publication had changed, other than the name. Bell continued to run outdoor recreation content — a featured “Camper of the Week,” notice of the Wyoming State Winter Fair — alongside articles about proposed dams in Hells Canyon on the Snake River and a reflection on growing national concern over pollution on the first anniversary of the Santa Barbara oil spill. The newly christened High Country News reflected where the environmental movement stood at the beginning of 1970 as it was expanding to include both the causes of the older conservation movement, which were deeply tied to outdoor recreation and land preservation, and the growing national concerns about public and ecological health. And as both the environmental movement and Bell’s publication expanded in 1970 and beyond, High Country News filled a necessary role in the environmental movement in the West, providing not only information about environmental issues to its readers, but also a sense of community and collective action.

JUST AS CAMPING NEWS WEEKLY WAS BECOMING High Country News, the environmental movement was gaining ground throughout the United States — a shift in public opinion that was not lost on Bell. In the second HCN issue, published in the first week of February 1970, he predicted that the next 10 years would be “the decade of more awareness of what goes on in the world around us. It should also be a decade of more personal involvement in the events who shape and affected our environment.” This was a prescient observation; as Bell wrote these words, planning had been underway for seven months for the first Earth Day, an event that historian Adam Rome contends is best understood as a starting point for the modern environmental movement rather than a culmination of activism. While major demonstrations of the 1960s resulted from years — in some cases decades — of work by activists, Earth Day jumpstarted environmentalism as a unified, national movement by giving seemingly disparate activists and causes a name and a shared community.

That such power could be exercised by an informed community of activists was hardly news to Bell. It was, in fact, the very force he sought to channel by founding High Country News, and it became the publication’s defining mission. In reflecting on the magazine’s origins in a 2012 essay, Bell noted that “even people power cannot be successful without taking the cause to the public,” and so he used first Camping News Weekly and then High Country News to do just that. By the first Earth Day, High Country News, as Bell pointed out in a special issue dedicated to the event, had “been carrying environmental news for many months. The issue is nothing new to us.” The West faced many pressing environmental issues, and Bell argued that “the public has a right to know” in order to take action “to preserve a quality environment in which all can live healthfully, peacefully, and with good will to all.”

 Somebody has to keep people on their toes, and aware of what’s going on out there in the world.” 

Earth Day built on and provided an outlet for Bell’s personal belief that “an informed people is a more intelligent people,” as he advocated in a video produced for the publication’s 40th anniversary. And this, he continued, “was the whole point of High Country News. Somebody has to keep people on their toes, and aware of what’s going on out there in the world.” These educated activists fighting on behalf of the West responded not only to the in-depth coverage on environmental issues High Country News provided, but also to Bell as a Westerner himself. Reflecting on Bell’s ability to appeal to a wide range of readers — from middle-class city dwellers outside the region to ranchers whose families had homesteaded the land they worked a century prior — on the paper’s 20th anniversary, former High Country News Editor Geoffrey O’Gara wrote of Bell’s effectiveness as a voice for the region:

If the Rocky Mountain environmental movement of the 1960s had been given the power to construct from scratch a leader to represent its cause before the world, certain attributes would surely have been included. That leader would be a native, not a newcomer to the region but someone familiar from childhood with the ways of the plains and mountains; he would be a rancher, someone who had put up hay as a child and knew how to move cattle from pasture to pasture; he would have family who suffered the grunt work of mining and homesteading in the early settlements of the West; he would be a scientist, who could approach ecological problems with a scientist’s eye; and he would be lovingly intimate with the rocks and wildlife and landscapes of the high country. Extraordinarily, the movement got all that in Tom Bell.

Bell was exactly what the regional environmental movement needed: a Westerner to lead a Western movement.

With this mission, its commitment to educating those who lived in and cared about the West, and Bell’s unique ability to speak on and for the region, High Country News filled an important role. By 1970, national-level conservation organizations like the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club were producing their own books and magazines advocating for environmental causes. Environmental journalism made its way into mainstream papers, radio and television in the aftermath of Earth Day. Other publications grew out of the outdoor recreation industry’s concern about pollution, overpopulation and public lands. Backpacker magazine, founded in 1973, educated readers about techniques and gear along with ethical camping and hiking practices to minimize their impacts on the environment and other visitors. Similarly, another Lander institution, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), used its Alumnus magazine to promote good conservation practices while on the trail, while REI included an educational and advocacy section called Viewpoint in its catalogs beginning in the 1970s. But High Country News offered coverage and a sense of identity these other publications did not. The publications of environmental organizations covered issues from across the country, while outdoor recreation publications focused on how the individual interacted with the landscape. In contrast, High Country News offered education about a region readers cared about deeply — whether they lived there or not — and through this it formed a community dedicated to collective action.

The value of this community and the importance of the role it played in educating readers became apparent through a series of financial crises in the 1970s. For the first two years, Bell kept the paper financially afloat by contributing money he made selling uranium claims, then, when that ran out, selling his family’s ranch, and finally converting HCN to a nonprofit, able to accept donations rather than rely on advertisements and subscribers. This kept the little paper going for a couple of years, but in 1973, the coffers finally ran dry. On March 2, Bell announced in his “High Country” column that “we have done our best. It was not good enough.” The paper, he said, would cease production with the March 30 issue. He and his wife had poured an additional $30,000 of their own money into the publication and taken out a $7,500 loan from the local bank, and he could see no way out of the financial straits in which the paper found itself. In closing, he acknowledged that “miracles can happen,” but if one didn’t materialize before the 30th, “we will quietly leave the scene.”

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/5.6/optimism-reigns]

A miracle did, in fact, happen. In the next issue, Bell announced that donations had rolled in in response to his announcement and appeared to be coming with enough regularity to keep the doors open and the printing presses running, at least for now. Bell attributed this outpouring of support as “something of a barometer of how people really feel about the environment. What has happened is almost unbelievable to me. It is a most convincing testimonial to and a vindication of the strength and commitment to the environmental cause.”

 “What has happened is almost unbelievable to me. It is a most convincing testimonial to and a vindication of the strength and commitment to the environmental cause.”

Five years later, after Bell had left the publication, a tragic car accident killed Associate Editor Justas Bavarskis and injured three other staffers, throwing the staff and the paper itself into financial chaos. Readers again responded, unbidden, by raising more than $30,000 that ensured the publication’s survival. These “miracles” proved High Country News’s value as a necessary tool for the environmental cause and an established and recognized voice for the conservation movement. It had become the mechanism for advocacy and education Bell had dreamed it to be.

Bell had transformed High Country News from the regional and recreation-focused Camping News Weekly into a source of news, advocacy and community, but the effort it took to keep it running drained him — financially, mentally and emotionally. Despite the outpouring of support shown in the “miracle” of 1973, Bell was in the midst of a “spiritual upheaval” that left him unpredictable and “mercurial,” as an article in the 20th anniversary issue recalled. “One minute thoughtful and attentive, the next minute lost in gloom and upset over a misplaced comma,” Bell only found solace when he became a born-again Christian in 1974 and “turned (his) life over to the Lord.”

Prompted by this conversion (and a belief that the country’s economy would soon collapse), in July of 1974 Bell announced he was moving to rural Oregon with his family and turning the paper’s editorship over to Joan Nice and Bruce Hamilton. In his July 5, 1974, “High Country” column, Bell told his readers of his departure from the publication and admitted that he had “felt my spiritual batteries slowly being drained” over the last several years. He was “discouraged and dismayed with an economic and political system wedded to ever more growth and ever more consumption” and feared this system would soon disintegrate. Looking back on his decision in a 2003 speech at the Headwaters Conference at Western State Colorado University, he reflected that after more than five years of keeping High Country News afloat, “I had poured so much of myself into the paper and what I wanted it to be that I came to a cliff. It was either continue on and destroy myself, or turn completely away and seek solace and recovery.”

Bell continued to write for High Country News, contributing his regular “High Country” column from Oregon until 1978, though the paper’s tone shifted once its founder left the editorship. Nice and Hamilton “eked out information; they wrote their stories in a pointillistic style, rather than with broad brush strokes” and “eschewed Bell’s religious convictions and sense of good and evil in favor of economic, social, and political analysis,” Ed Marston, then the publisher, wrote in 1989. From Bell’s departure through the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Nice and others redefined the paper’s identity, though it remained at the same circulation level — 3,000 to 4,000 subscribers — it had for years. It wasn’t until 1983, when Ed and Betsy Marston, newly appointed publisher and editor, took over the publication and relocated it to Paonia, Colorado, that the paper began to gain a stable financial footing and expand its circulation.

Despite these shifts, however, High Country News and its staff never lost the passion and fire that had motivated Bell to found the publication. Upon Bell’s death in 2016, High Country News Executive Director Paul Larmer reflected on Bell’s innate ability to impart that passion to everyone who came across his path:

I’ll never forget the candid chats we had bunking together at a 2003 HCN board meeting at the Murie Center in Grand Teton National Park. Somewhere in the absolute darkness of that musty cabin, as we talked about the potential brightness of the future, Tom’s fierce, humble spirit latched on to me. I left ready to tackle whatever challenges life might throw my way. I know many others who knew Tom had similar transformative experiences.

Though Bell only ran High Country News for its first five years, he remained involved long after stepping down as editor — contributing columns, serving on the board, and acting as a mentor and guiding light to the staff who came after him. Bell provided the nascent modern environmental movement a home in the Western U.S. and set High Country News on a course that would inspire people across the country to care deeply about the region.

“That need obviously still exists or the paper would not be alive and well today,” Bell wrote in May 1979. “People are concerned with the world around them. They do have a right to know how their lives may be changed by what happens across the river, or over the hill or even a thousand miles away.”   

Sara Porterfield is the water policy associate for the Western Water and Habitat Program at Trout Unlimited. She has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Colorado Boulder where her research focused on the Colorado River’s transnational past

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

This coverage was supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.