Goeff O’Gara clearly remembers the first words Tom Bell spoke to him.
O’Gara was editing High Country News, the magazine Bell founded in 1970. New to Lander and the job, O’Gara knew only that the publication’s founder seemed the stuff of legends and larger than life.
“People just worshipped the guy,” O’Gara said.
When he heard Bell was in the office, O’Gara scrambled to think what he would say to the founder of the magazine where he now worked.
The small man who walked in spoke before O’Gara could.
“Thank you,” Bell said to him.
“And if that isn’t typical Tom Bell, I don’t know what is,” O’Gara said.
Bell, founder of High Country News and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, vocal advocate for the state’s land and passionate conservationist, died Aug. 30 at his home in Lander. He was 92.
“I think that Tom was an icon to people and that is a good thing, it’s inspiring to people, but that’s not all he was,” O’Gara said.
O’Gara started at High Country News in the publication’s early days. Bell was passionate and direct.
“He could turn that passion right around on you and tell you what he thought, even if you didn’t want to hear it right then,” O’Gara said.
In Lander Bell was known for being a science teacher. He also was the resident historian and active with Lander’s Pioneer Museum. O’Gara’s kids knew whether they were on time to school based on passing Bell, who walked to the museum at precisely the same time each morning.
Bell and his wife, Tommie Bell, raised three kids and then adopted three more. Family was important to him, his nephew Matt Winters said.
Bell was born near Rock Springs and raised on a ranch near Lander. Bell’s father dropped out of high school to work in the coal mines and to help support his family, but he read constantly. Bell inherited his work ethic and also his curiosity and love of learning, Winters said.
Bell enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942 and lost his right eye to German flak. He was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart.
He returned to the University of Wyoming to finish his degree in wildlife conservation and game management and then worked for Wyoming Game and Fish near Jackson before returning to Lander to teach school. He’d later earn a master’s degree and an honorary doctorate from the university.
Winters, who now lives in Washington, grew-up within biking distance from his uncle’s home. The extended family gathered for Sunday dinners, family picnics in the mountains and excursions in the desert. Bell seemed to know the answer to any question Winters asked about rocks, flowers, or the history of the area. He was quiet and gentle, but could turn “coldly furious” when he saw the land or wildlife abused. Winters remembers one family expedition near the Oregon Buttes in the Red Desert in the 1960s when they came across a golden eagle that had been shot and nailed onto a fence.
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“That was sacrilegious to Uncle Tom,” Winters said.
While he doesn’t remember exactly what Bell said, Winters does remember the transformation he saw as his uncle looked at the wind tearing apart the bird.
“It was so deeply offensive to him,” Winters said. “That was the sort thing that led him to be willing to stake his life and fortune and everything else [on conservation].”
Bell founded the Wyoming Outdoor Council in 1967.
Gary Wilmot, now executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, once asked Bell why he started the organization.
“He said, ‘Gary, I never wanted my kids to be rich, but I wanted them to grow up breathing clean air and drinking clean water and experience a state wild enough to foster freedom,’” Wilmot said. “As a parent, that really spoke to me. It’s a pretty timeless goal and forever important in our state.”
Bell would visit the outdoor council’s office almost weekly with stacks of articles on conservation issues they were tackling. Despite the articles he found, Bell worried important conservation issues were overlooked by the media, so he started High Country News in 1970.
“Even though he fought industry he had a respect for the West and the old West,” said Paul Larmer, now publisher of High Country News.
High Country News was a feisty publication that often ran on a shoestring budget. Bell put his own money into the publication to keep it going and worked to keep it focused on news issues.
Bell would go onto win countless awards for his conservation work.
“His big legacy in the state is as one of the most effective voices on conservation issues,” said Harold Bergman, a professor at the University of Wyoming. But in particular, when Bergman thinks of Bell, he thinks of climate change.
Bergman sat on the Wyoming Environmental Quality Council for 12 years, during which he first heard of Bell and the outdoor council. Bell and the organization always argued using data, something that impressed Bergman.
Years later, in 2006, Bergman accepted a position on the outdoor council’s board and found Bell, then an emeritus board member, still informed.
“He read about the issues extensively,” Bergman said. “He was a clipping maniac.”
Board members received large packets with op-eds and articles that began to contain more and more information on climate change. Climate change became the issue Bell worried about most, Bergman said.
“He beat that drum really hard for the last 10 years of his life, and rightfully so and I’m glad he did,” Bergman said. “That’s the thing I would like to emulate in Tom, his willingness to speak out.”