The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Media Excellence Award recognizes an outstanding contribution in journalism, publishing or media that furthers the values and goals of Farmers Union in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. In 2011, the award is given to Tom Bell, the founder of the bi-weekly High Country News.
Tom Bell, a Wyoming cowboy born in Lander, started his environmental newspaper 41 years ago. High Country News is now headquartered in Paonia, Colorado, and Tom Bell is retired. But his vision of a newspaper focused on environmental issues from the perspective of stewardship lives on, and High Country News is essential reading for anyone in the Rocky Mountain region who cares about public policy, land use, and protecting the heritage of working land. The quality of the newspaper defines excellence, and RMFU wishes to thank Tom Bell for the vision and grit that he applied to protecting our natural heritage from corporate exploitation.
Tom Bell is no transplanted hippie tree hugger. His great-grandparents built their house in Lander generations ago, and Tom reminisces about milking cows on Wyoming mornings so cold the milk froze on his hands. In 1948, after service in WWII that cost him an eye, he completed a degree in wildlife conservation and game management at the University of Wyoming and then a Master’s in zoology and ecology. Two rounds of employment with Wyoming Game and Fish brought home to him how politics trumped science on environmental issue, and soon he was a public voice for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
In 1969, Bell bought a weekly paper for anglers and hunters. A year later it was renamed High Country News, and its focus was environmental issues. Bell’s newspaper’s investigations led to Wyoming laws to regulate strip mines, air pollution, and industrial development. “I lost some friends during that period,” Bell told High County News on their fortieth anniversary, but he never lost sight of the need to find common ground between environmental concerns and the stewardship of working land.
Bell’s grandfather and father were coal miners, and at 87, Bell keeps a canary at his home. High Country News is the canary in our coal mine, and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union thanks Tom Bell for it.