Conservation pioneer, rancher and High Country News founder turns 90

For immediate release: April 11, 2014

LANDER, WY -- Tom Bell, the straight-talking founder of High Country News, turns 90 on April 12. At a time when there was little coverage of environmental issues in the American West, Bell founded HCN in 1970.

"Tom Bell is one of those rare individuals who literally sparked a movement," said HCN publisher and executive director Paul Larmer. "His creation of High Country News and the Wyoming Outdoor Council has pulled tens of thousands of people into conservation, heightening our awareness of the critical issues facing the American West and the world, and spurring us into action."

Ninety years ago, on April 12, 1924, Tom Bell was born in a house owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, in Winton, Wyo., a coal-mining camp. It was an inauspicious but appropriate beginning for the guy who would start both High Country News and Wyoming's largest conservation group.

Tom's father, Lafe Bell, worked in the company store where the miners shopped, and his mother, Hilda, did ranch work and waitressing. At a young age, Tom got to know the Western trait of imagining the grass is greener over the horizon, as well as the region's constant boom-and-bust cycles. His family moved to another coal camp, and in 1927, they bought a small ranch near Lander, where Tom grew up during the Great Depression.

When Tom was 18, he signed up to fight in World War II, becoming a bombardier in the nose bubble of a B-24 bomber. He participated in 22 raids over German-occupied territory, and in 1944, a flak burst shattered the Plexiglas around his head. With one eye destroyed and the other damaged, he crawled to the bombardier's cabin, determined to complete the mission. That won him the Silver Star for "courage above and beyond duty."

He came home and took up wildlife science, earning a master's degree at the University of Wyoming and working for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Disgusted by the agency's politically driven anti-predator policies, he quit and became a pioneering conservationist. In 1967, he founded the Wyoming Outdoor Council. He also bought the innocuous Camping News Weekly, and, in 1970, rechristened it High Country News, creating a fearless biweekly for "people who care about the West."

In HCN's early years, Tom wrote most of the stories: He demanded better management of public lands, helped persuade the Wyoming Legislature to pass laws for conservation goals, including strip-mine reclamation, and pressured Game and Fish to be more scientific. Tom has continued to be a strong voice for conservation. In 2007, for instance, he wrote a letter to Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who had accepted illegal gifts from an oil company executive. The letter begins: "You are a lousy, corrupt, crooked old bastard. ..."

"We were adversaries on some issues (such as clear-cutting and mine reclamation standards) but I always respected Tom." said Bill Budd, who often clashed with Bell during the 70s when he was a a Republican legislator and head of the Wyoming Mining Association. "His word was good. He was always honest about what he was doing. I thought he was a fair fighter and a good fighter. So few people will stand up and talk about what they think."

But, as anyone knows who has met him, Tom also has a softer side, captured in this passage from a "High Country" column he wrote in 1970:

"My lot has been cast with the simple wonders of the world. You cannot buy the light flashing from a rainbow's side in limpid waters. There is no price on the hoot of an owl from dusky woods at eventide. You can only experience a coyote by hearing his howl.

"My own son can experience these things. But how about my grandsons? Will the world become so crowded that they, or their grandsons, be deprived of fulfilling experiences? How can our affluent, burgeoning society continue on its way without destroying values which cannot be bought in the marketplace? I suppose it's these apprehensions that motivate my waking moments. I would have it no other way. But I wish I could assure myself, and them."

To learn more about Tom's life, read HCN's Aug. 20, 2010, profile of him, "A Hell of an Anniversary."

About High Country News:
For more than 40 years, High Country News has been renowned for in-depth, independent journalism that digs a little deeper and reports the stories of the American West that are often overlooked by larger media outlets. HCN’s nonprofit news organization has won numerous awards, including the 2013 and 2010 Utne Media Awards and the George Polk award, for its unique coverage of the West.

For more information about High Country News and Tom Bell, contact Gretchen King, HCN audience engagement coordinator, at 970-527-4898 x14 or [email protected].

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