Tom Bell, conservationist and founder of High Country News, dead at 92

Bell
Tom Bell (Photo courtesy of High Country News)

By Paul Larmer

On Aug. 30, Tom Bell, the founder of High Country News, passed away in his hometown of Lander, Wyoming. He was 92. Tom’s life and work inspired generations of Western conservationists and writers. I am lucky to be one of them.

A few years ago, on a road trip from Colorado to Montana, my then-teenage son and I stopped in Lander to visit him. I’m not sure Zachary knew what to expect: As we pulled into town, he reminded me that, when he was young, I used to tell him that Tom Bell rode around Wyoming on the back of a pronghorn, hell-bent on saving the West.

But something about Tom inspired tall tales like that. His achievements are legendary — he founded both HCN and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, years after losing an eye to German flak during a World War II bombing mission.  His fiery personality was equally legendary, displayed in decades of heated battles with governors, agencies, industries and fellow ranchers.

“Sorry to say to my detractors, so long as I live, I will continue to call the shots as I see them,” Tom, who was the son of a coal miner and a rancher himself, wrote in a 1973 editorial. “I have been a maverick and a gadfly all my life, and like many Wyomingites, I am too old to change now.”

Tom’s integrity was unbreakable. And it meant that he had remarkable influence. As former HCN publisher Ed Marston put it in a 1995 column: “If I were a consultant to the West’s energy and mineral companies and ranchers, and to their politicians and bureaucrats, I would give them one piece of advice: ‘Don’t get crosswise with Tom Bell. Early on in your “process,” tell Tom your plans. If he reacts with a strong no, change them. It will save you lots of time, money and head-scratching.’ ”

Tom’s feistiness was accompanied, as he aged, by an ever-darkening worldview, which might seem odd for a man who has so positively influenced others. But, as former HCN Senior Editor Ray Ring pointed out in a 2010 profile, he reflected an environmental movement that is no stranger to the tango between “we-can-make-it-happen” and “we’re-all-doomed.”

As Zachary and I sipped strong coffee at Tom’s kitchen table, our host handed us articles and books, filled with underlined passages and scribbled notes in the margins, confirming humanity’s dismal path toward destruction. Fixing Zachary with his one bright blue eye, Tom said: “I’m afraid we are leaving your generation with the biggest problems humanity has ever faced.”

This was not exactly the uplifting message a father might want his son to hear as he launches into adulthood. But it was a true and necessary one, and one that Tom was able to share with others, primarily because of the man he was. He had a rare and gentle soulfulness; I think it might be his biggest contribution to this ephemeral world.

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.

Tom was a great man who will be greatly missed. Bless you, Tom Bell.

Paul Larmer is the executive director and publisher of High Country News.