Bill Mitchell was one of six young duck hunters with connections to environmental causes who bought a 1921 schoolhouse retreat in Lakeview, Montana. He created funding bases that supported the successes of many Western environmental groups, including the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Wyoming Outdoor Council and Northern Plains Resource Council. (R.T. Cox)

A couple of years ago I thought about putting together a lot of references for WyoFile’s Dustin Bleizeffer so he could write a history of the environmental/conservation/wilderness movement in Wyoming. It was another ambitious project that I never fulfilled. Those references would have included a list of names of people to interview. That list is two names shorter this summer.

This past week two events occurred which again stimulated me to think about the Wyoming conservation movement.

First, I attended a memorial service on Puget Sound’s Vashon Island for one of my closest friends since the ’70s, Bill Mitchell. Bill was one of us six young duck hunters, all with connections to environmental causes, who bought and remodeled a 1921 schoolhouse in Lakeview, Montana. You can see five mountain ranges off the front porch.

Bill was a Berkeley-educated wildlife biologist turned brilliant organization-building genius who, working out of the spotlight, created funding bases that supported the successes of many Western environmental groups, including the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Wyoming Outdoor Council and Northern Plains Resource Council. He organized remarkable, successful initiatives to clean up nuclear waste messes at Hanford, Washington. He helped fund efforts for women’s reproductive freedom and land preservation and even organized competitions for well-trained dogs. The list of speakers representing causes that Bill quietly and successfully shepherded to protect water, land and people … well, you had to be there. Two hours of moving, illuminating, inspiring testimonials. I don’t think President Obama will have more articulate, impressive, influential speakers at his memorial.

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I met Bill in Missoula, Montana in the early 1970s. His vision was decades ahead of most of ours. He coached me when I worked for PRBRC in the late 1970s. He moved to Washington, D.C. and every fall would fly to Denver, take a bus to Laramie or Cheyenne, and he and I would drive all day and most of the night to get to the Duck Club, enjoying four hours of sleep before arising for the early hunt.  After we bought the schoolhouse Bill and I became famous for sleeping in while all else arose at 4 a.m., poured thermoses of coffee and paddled their canoes across the marsh, in the pitch black.

Pretty sure that folks will need to hire mourners for my memorial. Not for Bill. He would have been totally amazed by who turned up.

Tom Bell, founder of High Country News and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, died Aug. 30 in Lander. Many hailed his work on Wyoming conservation. (Photo courtesy Wyoming Outdoor Council)
Tom Bell, founder of High Country News and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, died Aug. 30 in Lander. Many hailed his work on Wyoming conservation.
(Wyoming Outdoor Council)

So, I get home, only to see that my friend, Rone Tempest, sent news that Tom Bell died. Tom Bell is pretty much synonymous with the history of Wyoming’s conservation movement. Tom not only founded the Wyoming Outdoor Council, at one time known as the Wyoming Outdoor Coordinating Council, but also High Country News. My former wife, Kate Missett, served on the HCN board along with Bill for quite a long time, watching the painful but maybe necessary move of the paper from Lander to Paonia, Colorado.

We had a party for Tom in Buffalo in the late 1980s. (Read columnist Kelsey Dayton’s piece on Bell’s passing, including remembrances by WyoFile contributor Geoff O’Gara. Also, the Wyoming Outdoor Council produced and made available a video of the recent memorial service for Bell.)

Two giants gone. Left behind, I offer a quick and incomplete history of environmentalism in Wyoming, without names. Maybe others will contribute more and we can do a “Wikipedia” version of this movement.

  • Establishment of Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park
  • Wilderness Act of 1964
  • Wagon Wheel Project of 1971. (Proposal to use nuclear blasting to fracture tight sands around Pinedale. I am not making this up. Hydraulic Fracking opponents take note, you are dealing with a much more benign technology.)
  • Arab Oil Embargo 1973: every coal and oil company rushed to Wyoming to buy coal leases, stake federal coal, buy reservoir water rights and plan power and gasification plants.  Several environmental groups were formed to oppose these efforts.
  • Sierra Club lawsuit against coal mining 1976. (When it ended coal mine construction exploded.)
  • The Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act [SMCRA] of 1977. (A nasty SLAPP suit against a few Wyoming homeowners who protested a Peter Kiewit mine in the Tongue River bottomlands, an alluvial valley, sparked a backlash in Congress which helped get protection for alluvial valleys into this law and propel it towards Jimmy Carter’s desk.)
  • Missouri Basin Power Project, 1500-megawatt coal plant in Wheatland, 1978. (Federal court shut it down for a while until wildlife mitigation strategies were negotiated. It’s producing power now, of course — this lawsuit was the main reason why I missed dozens of classes in my first semester at law school.)
  • Eminent Domain legal reforms in 1981. (The legislature heard complaints of energy industry abuses and adopted a number of improvements which did not have much effect because of the collapse of oil prices in the 1980s.)
  • Pumped storage project on the Little Bighorn River, with massive network of electric transmission lines. (Killed by the Forest Service after PRBRC and the Audubon Society organized opposition.)
  • Long quiet period as oil prices crashed and coal prices searched for equilibrium in the 1980s and mid- 1990s. Environmentalists were starving for work.
  • Nuclear waste storage, huge issue in late 1980s. Yucca Mountain was under siege; industry needed a temporary space to store the stuff, except temporary could become permanent. A proposed site in Wyoming was vetoed by the governor after a huge outcry led to legislation which authorized the governor to do just that.
  • Then, in the 1990s, came two types of high-density gas drilling. In Pinedale, tight-sand fracking (without nukes thank you) with wells every ten acres; in the Powder River Basin, coalbed natural gas (methane), with eight to sixteen wells per square mile. Landowners used to a well on every section or quarter section were inundated with much more activity, stimulating them to action. Landowners Association of Wyoming formed and joined existing groups like the PRBRC to lobby the Wyoming Legislature to great effect. Many laws were changed, giving landowners more leverage to exact generous compensation for well sites, pipelines and roads. These changes have been effective, maybe even more so than anticipated. Ranchers are getting hundreds of thousands of dollars for well sites and roads, much more than ten years ago.

These changes are attributable to the efforts of a lot of people, who were able to build on a foundation laid by Bill Mitchell and Tom Bell.

It’s not over.  Next, the game-changer: climate change.

That’s where we are now, folks.

R. T. Cox grew up mainly in Wyoming, was educated partly elsewhere, and returned in 1975 to work for environmental groups before going to law school in Laramie.  He practices law in Gillette, emphasizing real estate, easements, litigation and conflict resolution between private landowners and oil-and-gas operators.  He represents landowners, mineral owners and oil-and-gas companies who drill and produce wells.  He sometimes pisses people off — Ed.


RT Cox is a retired Gillette lawyer who formerly served on WyoFile’s board of directors. He wrote The Sage Grouse column for WyoFile for many years.

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  1. RT-

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. Can you explain a little more about how Bill Mitchell created those stable funding bases you mentioned?

    To add to your timeline: The creation of the Yellowstone Park Timber Land Reserve in 1891 — and it’s major expansion in 1902 to become the Yellowstone Forest Reserve — were the foundation for future National Forests that encompass most of Greater Yellowstone. The Taylor Grazing Act in the 1934 had some major effects on regulating overgrazing. Also the creation of Jackson Hole National Monument and its addition to Grand Teton National Park in 1950 was a major fight. To the pumped storage on Little Bighorn I would add coal slurry pipeline proposals. Another milestone: the Wyoming Wilderness Act of 1984. would likely be a great collaborator on any comprehensive article on conservation in Wyoming.

    -Greg Nickerson

  2. RT- I think you should add Lamar Empey to your list of environmental milestones. Empey was the shephard who herded a wide variety of divergent agencies, politicians, and stakeholders into creating Wyoming’s first Wild and Scenic River, the 22 mile inner gorge of the Clark’s Fork at the foot of the Beartooth Mtns in NW Wyoming just east of Yellowstone, Empey’s son in law Dave Ryan was the inspiration for the Clarks Fork W &S, posthumously. Ryan was one of the first 2-3 kayakers who shot the wild granite gorge, a feat thought to be near impossible. Ryan later died in the climbing accident in the Tetons.

    Empey would later become a stalwart in the arduous attempts to create a cohesive environmental activist network in NW Wyoming, a task more difficult that plunging thru a granit gorge in a skinny boat. Enviros were treated like Lepers in Park County ( I know that firsthand ) , but Lamar Empey always brought dignity and focus to the effort of not letting extractive industry , Stockgrowers,, and anti-enviros carry the days.