Tom Bell: Cowboy Environmentalist
by Tom Reed, NOLS Publications Manager Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 1994.
Tom Bell It's hard not to look at Tom Bell with awe. All it takes is a cursory knowledge of Tom's accomplishments, and his sacrifices.
Perhaps no one in the history of modern conservation has given so much of himself to a cause as Tom. A man born in the West, he quite literally lost the farm-and nearly his mind-for something he felt was right. Some would say that Tom is anomaly. Better yet, an oxymoron. Tom Bell is a cowboy environmentalist.
I've always been fascinated by the evolution of environmentalism in the West. The country-wild canyons, broad expanses of sage, soaring mountains, raging rivers-draws out a love of the land and a corresponding desire to protect. And environmentalism as a cause seems to born in the East, yet discovered and nurtured in the West. We all know the stereotypes: "Them damn meddlin' Easterners." But such generalities, admittedly, are based on fact. Teddy Roosevelt's yen for wild places germinated in New York, grew in North Dakota, and blossomed in D.C. John Muir's roots go even farther east-to Scotland. Even Aldo Leopold, dean of American wilderness, protector of New Mexico's wild Gila, discovered his love of conservation in the Flint Hills near his boyhood Iowa home and crafted it to an art in Yale's school of forest.
All "Easterners" to the salty Westerner.
But growing up in Colorado, I knew there were those who were born to the land who loved it just as much, who suckled their environmental ways from the West to which they were born.
Such a person is Tom Bell. At the foothills of the Wind Rivers, in the midst of his cattlemen peers, Tom launched into a one of the most significant and staunchly environmental careers the West has ever seen. For his rancher peers, Tom's move to the environment was a betrayal. For Tom, it was a natural progression in a life which had started on his father's ranch up the North Fork of the Popo Agie outside Lander, where Depression Era-grazing practices had pounded the land to dust. Tom didn't become an environmentalist, he was born one.
One has only to meet Tom to know he doesn't do things halfway. It's all or nothing. Hence the reason that many look at him with a mixture of admiration and awe.
I know I did the first time I met him. Not surprisingly, I met Tom in the midst of one of his causes-the annual Pioneer Days picnic/auction which serves as a fund-raiser for Lander's small but impressive museum It was June, and my first summer at the base of the Winds. Tom, wearing his customary Stetson, shook my hand firmly and welcomed me to the valley. He looked me over. "Say, I've got a good story for you."
I had heard a lot about the man before I met him. I had listened to the legends: of how Tom had started the Wyoming Outdoor Council, of how he had bucked a huge Casper ranch as president of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation (and won), of how he had founded and owned the High Country News, and of how he had lost his ranch and almost everything he owned to keep the paper afloat. I imagine I was like many who have met Tom. Lander writer Geoff O'Gara captured it perfectly in a 1987 Sierra magazine article on Tom: "The first thing one notices meeting Tom Bell, is how compact a man he is-small and athletically trim in his 60s, with a beaky face beneath a Stetson. The second thing one notices is his missing right eye."
On that June day in City Park, it was much the same for me. I had imagined a bigger man, a John Wayne-type who waded in punching, asking questions later. Tom's writing is a lot like that, a one-two punch, with a finishing upper-cut to the jaw. Couple this with the missing eye and in my mind, I had conjured up a Rooster Cogburn with a pen, a man who shot out rapier retorts like the Duke shot bad guys.
But I wasn't disappointed. Instead, I found myself fascinated. Entranced. Like his writing, Tom is direct, to the point. So, too, has been his life as Wyoming's leading conservationist.
Tom was raised on the North Fork beneath Red Butte, the son of a cattleman who worked winters as a coal miner so he could afford to ranch. In those days, Tom can remember "only one fence in the whole country." He also remembers the abuses. "That's when I learned about overgrazing. All this talk of range reform is only about 60 years overdue," quips Tom.
Like many Wyoming kids, Tom grew up on horseback, riding the foothills around the ranch, noticing the hammered range and the conflicts with wildlife. He kept with his agriculture roots when he went to the University of Wyoming, where he served as the first treasurer and later the second president of the Wyoming Rodeo Club. "but it griped me to no end the way the ranchers were always bitching," says Bell. "They howled and bitched and complained. It was the same kind of baloney that is going on right now." A few professors made an impression, but then the war came. Tom, perhaps because of his spry figure and quick reactions, found himself flying as a bombardier aboard the famed B-24 Liberator bomber. Tom flew in 32 missions over North Africa and Europe, despite holding a job which had one of the highest mortality rates of any in the service. He survived the legendary, daring raid on the Nazi oil compound in Ploesti, Romania. But on May 10, 1944, Tom's career in the air ended. On a mission over Austria, his plane was hit by a piece of ground-to-air flak the size of a man's finger.
"I was looking at the flak coming off the ground in these blue and red streaks and thinking, 'Hey, that's kind of pretty." he remembers. "I turned my head and the next thing I knew I was knocked to the floor of the plane. Blood was coming out of both of my eyes, but it almost instantly froze. It was 40 below up there. The Lord was watching out for me. If I hadn't turned my head, I wouldn't be here today."
For the next few minutes, Tom groped blindly about his position, trying to get his bombs away, blood running down his face. "Then I realized that the pilot had already dropped them. I could feel a piece of the Plexiglas scraping against my left eye, so I kept it shut tight. It took six hours to get back to the ground."
Tom turned 21 in an Allied hospital the day Franklin D. Roosevelt died. Like many veterans, Tom returned to find his hometown changed. He worked for a time for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, then quit, disgusted with the politics. He and his wife, Tommie, adopted three children and had three of their own. They bought a cattle ranch on Tweed Lane north of Lander and raised registered shorthorn cattle. He tried his hand at writing and says he still has a novel "floating around in my head." When there was time, Tom retreated into the mountains and deserts he love. He became more and more disenchanted with what was happening to his home state: clear-cutting, fencing of public lands, strip mining, road building, Some called it progress; tom called it a mess.
Always an active voice, Tom was elected president of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation in 1965. Not long afterward, he became aware of an alarming problem: miles and miles of illegal fence strung across public land near Casper. The culprit was the Diamond Ring cattle outfit. "They had fenced off whole sections, whole townships," remarks Tom. "Yet they were holding themselves up as these paragons of virtue..."
Tom rode the range. He took pictures. He alerted the media. He went to Washington. The barbed wire came down n the end; an investigation exposed more than 16,000 miles of illegal fence on public lands in the West. During this time the environmental movement in Wyoming was staggering along, disjointed, in need of direction. Tom stepped to the helm. Writes O'Gara: "This was the movement for which Tom Bell would provide a voice-a distinctly regional, often visionary voice."
The vehicle to broadcast that voice was the Wyoming Outdoor Coordinating Council, the forerunner of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which is now more than a quarter century old. Tom founded the group because of the shotgun approach of all the other environmental groups in the state. "We were all going off in different directions, all having our own separate meetings. We needed one big organization to coordinate these efforts."
Tom fell back on his love of writing in newsletters for the new organization. Soon, however, a new publication entered the Wyoming outdoor media-a little paper known as Camping News Weekly, published in Lander. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come, Tommie bought Tom the very first subscription to the weekly. Before long, Tom was deeply involved in the paper, both financially and editorially. The paper's publisher, Ray Savage, approached Tom to write for the weekly. The paper, which had been dedicated to the growing industry of camping trailers, began to take on a new tone, a distinctly environmental one. "Then Ray ran into trouble and I loaned him $1,000. A couple of weeks later, I loaned him another $1,000," remembers Tom. "Pretty quick, I had $8,000 of my own money in it and in December of 1969, Ray just turned it over."
A column which Tom had started under the title "High Country" gave birth to a title for the distinctly new paper which became High Country News. In 1970, the paper went to a bi-weekly with a strong Wyoming focus growing more and more Western. "It was still all my own money."
The little paper, based in the heart of the West, tackled tough issues. Stories reported everything from water fights to grazing problems, from timbering to illegal eagle killings. "The same old things we're still hashing over," sighs Tom. A strong, but small readership[ formed of some 900 to 1,000 dedicated readers. Tom was soon to find out firsthand how devoted to High Country News they really were.
In a few years, he had sunk everything he owned into the paper. Subscriptions were growing, but not rapidly enough to pay the bills. The Bells sold all their cattle, then the ranch. Pressures mounted. Readers praised. Expenses kept growing. In 1973, Bell predicted the end of the popular, but uneconomical paper in a now-famous editorial: "I write this with a great deal of regret and inner dismay. High Country News will cease publication with he March 30 issue. Barring a miracle, we have come to the end.
The paper was sunk. More than $30,000 was owed. There was no hope. At least, that's what Tom thought. In the weeks that followed $30,000 flowed into the offices-$10 here, $100 there, $1,000 from a few. High Country News took a deep breath and swam for the shore.
Tom, however, was still drowning. Battered from the financial scare, he admits "I was really going nuts." So he did what many dream of doing, he chucked it all and moved away. Away, in this case, was Oregon, where Tom could grow a good garden and recoup. He left the little paper with a new financial structure based on donations, not subscriptions, and $10,000 in the bank.
A deeply religious man, Tom stayed in Oregon nine years, writing, gardening, teaching, praying. But his father passed away and Tom was tugged back to the base of the Winds. In August 1983, Tom returned to Lander, the very day that High Country News pulled out for Paonia, Colorado.
The fate of Tom's little paper? Today, the paper "which nobody owns but the readers" boasts thousands of subscribers across the country and even the world. It is widely recognized as a leading voice in regional environmental journalism and has a budget of upwards of half a million dollars. Tom serves as editor emeritus while a board of directors, a and a healthy editorial staff churn out the news of the West.
And Tom? Though 70 now, Tom fills his days with volunteer work at the Pioneer Museum and is Fremont County's unofficial historian. In his spare time, he is helping a son and a son-in-law launch a construction business specializing in environmentally friendly homes made of rammed earth. And there are other projects. On that June day in the park, Tom pulled me aside. "Have you heard about the Pipeline? You won't believe what these idiots want to do." In the span of a few minutes, Tom filled me in on a natural gas pipeline that would cut through the heart of Wyoming over historic South Pass. Although the fate of the pipeline is still not known, it's a sure bet that Tom will be right there, fighting for what he believes in, battling it out with anyone and everyone.
There's no halfway to Tom Bell.