Lander, Wyoming — Ask Tom Bell what keeps him going these days, and he rattles off a list of pills for dizziness, blood pressure and cholesterol, plus a diuretic and an antidepressant. “Don’t ever get old,” he says wryly. “It’s terrible, awful.”
He’s made it to 86, mostly thanks to the fire in his belly. An eye patch conceals a wound from a World War II bombing mission, where German flak blew out his right eyeball. The dizzy spells — caused by a chronic inner-ear problem — force him to walk extra carefully, and he wears two hearing aids.
Yet Bell is pleased to show me some of the places that shaped his Western brand of environmentalism. He puts on a tan cowboy hat and a leather jacket against the chill of the late-spring snowy day. We climb into his car, a 2005 Toyota Prius that he bought used last year. He fumbles a bit with the car’s computer touch-screen and the controls for the heater and windshield-washer. He gets 35 miles per gallon in town and 44 on the open road, but adds, “I’m still trying to learn all the gadgets on the darn thing.”
He drives out of town through the roll of sagebrush and pastures where he has deep roots. “All these hills used to be full of grouse,” he says, pointing to the draw where he flushed a great explosion of the birds more than 75 years ago — still a vivid memory. He recalls other childhood encounters with coyotes, foxes, skunks, deer and flocks of geese feeding in the fields.
We pass the house his great-grandmother built in 1888 and the place that was his great-grandfather’s saloon. One of his grandfathers was a coal miner, as was his father — without the fossil fuel industry, Bell and High Country News would not be here. His mother worked as a waitress, among other things. A dirt road takes us by the two small ranches his parents bought as they tried for a better life. He grew up here during the 1930s Great Depression, when his family never had more than a handful of cows, horses, sheep and pigs. He remembers milking a cow at dawn looking out the barn door at Red Butte as it turned scarlet in the sunrise. It was so cold, the milk formed icicles on his fingers. “A beautiful place,” he says.
Farther down the road is the old Grange Hall: He used to walk to it for the Saturday night dances where he scavenged coins in the dirt — quarters and half-dollars dislodged from the pockets of young men fighting over girls. He took the coins home to his mother, who welcomed the extra income.
This is where Bell learned to work hard for little money, and to love Wyoming’s landscape and plentiful wildlife. Here in Lander, he fathered not only High Country News magazine (no based in Paonia, Colorado), but also the state’s leading environmental group, the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which he founded 43 years ago. They are his legacy to the West, living proof of his belief that concerned and informed people can make a difference.
This story is supposed to be inspirational; after all, we’re celebrating High Country News’ 40th anniversary this year. But Tom Bell won’t sugarcoat things. Out of the blue, he volunteers his view of what environmentalists have accomplished — and what the future holds for humanity. “In my mind,” he says, “we’ve cut our own throat.” That’s the message he wants to pass on.
The arc of Bell’s life coincides with the rise of the modern environmental movement. He got a scientific upbringing at the University of Wyoming, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife conservation and game management in 1948 and a master’s in zoology and ecology in 1957. That led to two stints with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, where he worked a total of five and a half years in roles such as fish biologist and upland bird biologist.
In the wildlife agency, Bell resisted political influences that corrupted the science. One face-off had to do with magpies, which prey on pheasant eggs and chicks: His bosses wanted him to destroy magpie nests so that hunters could have more pheasants. He told them it violated ecological principles: “The reality is, magpies will get some pheasant nests, but if you have good pheasant habitat, they can hide their nests well enough, you have plenty of pheasants. It made me so mad!”
Bell became more assertive after he left Game and Fish. As president of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, he rode a horse onto public land to verify that a rancher had erected miles of illegal fencing along with “No Trespassing” signs. Bell took photos and wrote about the rancher’s attempt to grab public land, made it a statewide story and testified in a congressional hearing. “BLM just turned around and permitted the fence (anyway),” he says. But “they did force (the rancher) to take down the ‘No Trespassing’ signs.”
The problems he recognized back then included the first big push for coal strip-mining, forest clear-cutting, and a plan to use underground nuclear blasts to access deep natural gas. Intent on rallying conservationists, he founded the Wyoming Outdoor Coordinating Council (eventually renamed the Wyoming Outdoor Council) in 1967 and ran it for four years. Working with a few other volunteers and groups, he drove around the state organizing hunters and anglers, Audubon members, garden clubs and some fellow ranchers. “It was the only way I could see to bring in the number of people … to bring some influence into the state Legislature. There were no (environmental) laws back then.”
To amplify the conservation voices, in 1969 he bought Camping News Weekly, a small paper aimed at anglers and hunters. He renamed it High Country News in 1970 and turned it into a bi-weekly aimed squarely at environmental issues. He wrote most of the stories, did investigations, and helped push the Wyoming Legislature to pass laws for strip-mine reclamation, clean air and more careful industrial siting. He also “kept up a drumbeat to change the complexion of Game and Fish” by replacing amateurish political cronies with wildlife science professionals.
Bell’s blasts against ranchers who poisoned eagles and mismanaged the land made him a bit of an outcast in his own community. “I lost some friends during that period,” he says. But he also made new ones who shared his goals. Overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress passed most of the key environmental laws — for wilderness protection, endangered species and so on — in a dramatic run from 1964 to 1980, around the same time Bell ramped up. That national awakening was spurred by a series of disasters, including the 1969 oil spill that fouled the beach at Santa Barbara, Calif., and the disappearance of wolves and grizzly bears. There was a huge increase in the number of environmental groups and their staffers and members.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council and High Country News shared in that growth, but even then, Bell had developed a tendency to see an apocalypse looming ahead. “Tom is an extremely dedicated individual — and intense. He feels things very, very strongly” and sometimes that’s “counterproductive,” says one old ally.
In 1974, for instance, Bell warned the Casper Kiwanis Club, “(We’re) hooked on energy. … And like a man hooked on heroin, we’ve got to get off of it, in order to survive,” according to the Casper Star-Tribune. He was working himself nearly to death, came down with Meniere’s Syndrome dizziness and suffered terrible migraine headaches. He even sold his own small ranch to raise money for his environmental work. Shortly after his Kiwanis talk, he left HCN and moved to Oregon for several years, trying to live as a survivalist growing his own food. “I was flat-out burned out,” Bell recalls. “I thought if I tried to hang on (running HCN) they’d have me out at Evanston (the state mental hospital).”
It’s tempting to characterize Bell’s dark forecasts as the result of his own personal tragedies. That string began with his first home: He was born in a Union Pacific Railroad coal camp called Winton, in southern Wyoming, in a house owned by the company. When the mine closed, Winton disappeared. “The last time I went out to old Winton to see where I was born — nothing, just a sagebrush slope,” he says.
When he was 18, a world war raged; he enlisted and became a bombardier, riding in the nose bubble of B-24 bombers, lining up the crosshairs on targets in German-occupied territory. He made 22 flights through artillery flak and machine-gun barrages from German fighter planes, watched many planes go down and dozens of friends die. On May 10, 1944, at 25,000 feet altitude, a flak burst shattered the Plexiglas around his head. With one eye destroyed and the other damaged, concussed and going into shock, he crawled to the bombardier’s compartment, trying to complete the mission despite his crippled condition. (He didn’t realize that the pilot had already released the bombs.) That won him the Silver Star for “courage above and beyond duty.”
His sister, Lois, suffered polio. His wife of 54 years, Muriel — who went by the nickname “Tommie” — eventually got dementia. He took care of her in their Lander house for a year as she declined, until she passed in 2001. “She died a terrible death,” he says. “She was such a vibrant person,” but at the end, she was angry, out of her head, didn’t even recognize him. He has six kids, three of whom were adopted; one of them struggled with drug abuse and other serious problems.
But many events outside Bell’s life could also give rise to pessimism. Public support for the environmental movement has eroded; many people now view environmentalists as zealots intent on controlling every aspect of their lives. Our addiction to fossil fuels has not slackened; drilling and mining, along with wind and solar development, are taking over more of the West to power air conditioners and iPod chargers. Meanwhile, the emerging disasters include countless pharmaceutical drugs flushed through sewer systems and ending up in river ecosystems and drinking water. Hormone disruptors sneak into our bodies from a myriad of sources such as flame retardants and wood sealants; global deforestation is rampant; and the biggest threat of all, climate change, is caused by our relentless industrial emissions of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.
Climate change is already slamming the West with record forest fires and forest beetle infestations, worsening droughts and water shortages. And we’re not doing much to limit global emissions. China and India crank out new coal-fired power plants, while the U.S. Congress refuses to enact even weak carbon controls. Almost no one mentions agriculture’s large role in emitting methane and CO2. “A big part of this is the culture of this country — make as much money as you can and stash it away in huge homes and yachts,” Bell says. “There’s no regard for wastefulness” and “overconsumption” of natural resources.
Some of the environmental laws that Bell helped create have been gutted, and there’s been no progress at all on other issues. In 1968, he wrote Wyoming’s first instream flow application — seeking water rights for fish and recreational use; it was rejected, and fish in the state still have no right to minimum flows. Almost all of Wyoming’s streams are “over-appropriated” — agriculture and cities claim more water than exists. “This river running right through Lander,” Bell says, “you could almost piss as big as it is in the fall, because of all the diversions for ag.” His local Fremont County commissioners pass unenforceable resolutions banning wolves and grizzly bears from the county, expressing their rage against the environmental movement.
Bell cites tons of evidence like that to explain why he’s come to believe the whole human race is doomed. Especially “climate change — I think that’s going to call everything to a halt. Just like the wreck of the Titanic, what we’re facing is so big, it’s too late to make enough changes to avoid it.”
If he’s issuing his drastic warnings with a slim unspoken hope that more people will listen to him and make changes, he won’t admit it. Anyway, he’s part of a growing chorus of climate-change doomsters. Dozens of recent books predict climate catastrophes, including Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth in 2006, along with Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines by Richard Heinberg (2007), Climatic Cataclysm: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Climate Change by Kurt M. Campbell (2008) and The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate by David Archer (2009). (See Doomster chorus in the margins of pages 17-19.)
James Hansen, the federal scientist who sounded the alarm as far back as the 1980s, warns in his new book, Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance To Save Humanity: “Continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself. … Most of what politicians are doing on the climate front is greenwashing — their proposals sound good, but they are deceiving you and themselves. … Ultimately, nature and the laws of physics cannot compromise — they are what they are.”
In Bell’s Lander home — a modest one-story with six-inch-thick walls and dual-pane windows — he keeps a beautiful orange canary that chirps and trills, hopping around its cage. He calls it “Birdie” or just “Sweet.”
“My mother always kept canaries (and then) my wife and I started keeping a canary,” he says. “When she died, I thought, ‘I’m going to get myself a canary to keep me company.’ ”
The house is just 1,188 square feet but an array of potted plants make it feel somewhat jungly. Cardboard boxes on the floor hold many issue-oriented files, and magazines like Western Water and Biodiversity Journal are scattered around. Bookshelves display Bell’s interest in herbs, Lewis and Clark, Mark Twain, tai chi.
His passion for environmentalism clearly generated little financial reward. He mostly used his own money to support it, including his military retirement and his one bonanza — the $50,000 or so that he earned from uranium claims and uranium-company stock. (He relishes that irony.) His regular paychecks were always small: He was a teacher in elementary and middle schools for a total of 13 years, also worked for the Lander newspaper, spent time in a sawmill and drove a fuel-delivery truck. His last job — 18 years with the pioneer museum, where he wrote a newsletter about local history — was “the same old deal,” doing something just because he loved doing it.
Despite his bleak outlook, Bell still spends hours every day poring through environmental reports, talking with conservationists, writing op-eds and gathering material for a memoir. He’s outlasted most of his old enemies while winning lifetime-achievement awards from national groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and The Wilderness Society. He’s widely regarded as an inspiring man.
“I’ve learned a lot from Tom — he got me interested in conservation,” says Leslie Petersen, now a 60ish Democrat campaigning to be Wyoming’s next governor. When Petersen was a young girl, her parents, who were ranchers, took her to the Outdoor Council’s first meetings, where Bell talked about the need to make fences wildlife-friendly. “There was no concept of that — Tom was quite a beacon on that.” She also remembers Bell’s early warning about the plan to use nuclear weapons to reach natural gas: “That woke up the whole state.”
Bill Budd, who’s 80, often clashed with Bell during the 1970s, when he was a Republican legislator and head of the Wyoming Mining Association. “We were adversaries on some issues (such as clear-cutting and mine reclamation standards) but I always respected Tom. 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.”
Bell is determined to hang in there as long as he can, as if he’s a metaphor for our beleaguered species. He takes his medications and swears by a healthy breakfast ritual: berries, one quarter of a kiwi fruit, half a banana, wheat germ, flax seed, whole-grain cereal and whole-wheat toast. Most days he takes a brief walk in town, maybe down to the new Safeway and back.
He also takes comfort in his faith. He became a born-again Christian in 1974, when he walked to the front of a Lander church congregation and announced, “I’m turning my life over to Jesus.” His walls are decorated with a stained-glass cross and religious sayings, such as: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change …” Even though God has “gotten us out of many scrapes,” Bell says, “God won’t save us now. I think God is going to let the string run out on us. He’s finally lost his patience.”
Senior Editor Ray Ring, based in Bozeman, Montana, wrote his first HCN cover story 25 years ago.
This story originally appeared in the August 30, 2010 issue of High Country News (hcn.org).