Though some may wish it flushed into obscurity, 2020 will occupy an indelible spot in history.
It was a year defined by tumult and change, a year when “unprecedented” was used so many times it nearly lost its meaning. It was a year of bitter divisions and traumatic loss.
Most of this tectonic shifting was wrought by COVID-19 and the global pandemic it ushered into the world.
That pandemic hit Wyoming in March, disrupting life as coronavirus infected what would become at least 35,000 residents. Shutdowns followed, and loss, isolation and frustration rippled through the state. The economic blow worsened an already dire financial picture. Protests and debates underlined political chasms.
Running parallel to that, however, were tales of communities coming together, business owners getting creative and heroic frontline workers.
Though COVID dominated the headlines, other news stories sounded key notes in the tale of Wyoming; stories of wildlife health, of transitions in the energy industry and the state’s ambitious pursuit of a massive land deal.
WyoFile’s 2020 year in review maps the extraordinary 12 months in 10 stories.
1. A pandemic hits Wyoming.
The arrival of the novel coronavirus upended every aspect of life in Wyoming. Gov. Mark Gordon shut down schools and restricted businesses. Thousands of residents lost jobs, State Health Officer Alexia Harrist became a household name overnight and residents acquainted themselves with the concept of social distancing as toilet paper disappeared from grocery store shelves.
The pandemic’s impacts extended to everything from education to trucking, real estate to travel, businesses big and small, the energy industry, hospitals and newsrooms. Testing presented early challenges — with mixed results. The Legislature met in special session to address the crisis, and debates erupted over the proper role of government.
Wyoming fared OK over the summer as businesses reopened and infection numbers remained relatively small. Schools reopened in the fall, colder weather pushed more people inside, and a devastating spike in cases arrived. Residents bitterly contested health orders and mask use as patients filled hospitals around the state, straining their resources. The pandemic’s death count rose.
By year’s end, a glimmer of hope arrived as the first vaccinations were administered to frontline healthcare workers and active cases declined. As of this writing, the state had lost at least 373 residents to COVID-19-related causes, including at least one elected official.
2. Wyoming’s budget crisis.
The pandemic’s economic impact coupled with a crash of oil, gas and coal activity pushed Wyoming over the fiscal precipice it had been tottering on for years. Within weeks of passing the state’s two year budget, analysts warned that a staggering revenue drop had cut the state’s legs out. Even cutting the state’s “entire payroll” wouldn’t right the ship, officials warned. WyoFile profiled the cautious governor who thought he had more time to confront the problem, and investigated lags in the state’s investment returns that further limit options.
3. Energy transitions accelerate.
Wyoming’s energy industries were well into protracted decline at the outset of 2020. The pandemic accelerated those trends too. In April, two coal producers announced massive layoffs in their Powder River Basin operations, setting the tone for a year of scaling back and withdrawing. A September court decision blocked the merger of two huge coal companies, leading to speculation of further closures and instability. Wyoming, meanwhile, scrambled to prop up and defend the fossil fuels industries. WyoFile took a deep dive into coal transitions with a project that examined how communities in Wyoming and Appalachia might learn from one another, and another into the state’s investment in pro-coal dark money campaigns.
4. Statehouse politics shift right.
Critical debates over the state’s future will play out in a political landscape that shifted ever further right this year as a former Democratic stronghold in Sweetwater County fell. The Republican supermajority in the Wyoming Legislature increased even as schisms in that political bloc hardened. The Wyoming Republican Party demanded the end of public-health orders during the height of a case-load spike and many lawmakers pushed Gordon to fight President Trump’s election loss.
5. State pursues massive land deal.
Beginning during the legislative session and carrying well into the pandemic, Gordon’s administration pondered the possible purchase of 1 million surface acres and 4 million mineral acres from Occidental Petroleum. The land and minerals stretched across southern Wyoming, and Gordon pitched the purchase as both an investment and an opportunity for public ownership of the land. Accusations of secrecy at times dogged the pursuit. WyoFile tracked the politics of the purchase and the players involved. After weeks in which the public could only speculate, Gordon ultimately announced the state’s $1.2 billion bid had fallen short.
6. Protests shine light on racial justice.
In towns all over Wyoming people took to the streets to express solidarity with protests over racial injustice and the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In Laramie, the marches developed into a sustained movement fueled in part by anger over the 2018 killing of resident Robbie Ramirez by a sheriff’s deputy. Wyoming has its history of racial tensions, and WyoFile caught up with two members of the Black 14 to get their perspectives on the uprising and record their personal experiences with discrimination.
7. Decade of the elk, discovery of CWD.
The day after Wyoming Game and Fish Department launched an initiative to address the inevitable arrival of Chronic Wasting Disease at 23 elk feedgrounds west of the Continental Divide, a hunter in Grand Teton National Park shot a cow elk found to be infected with the incurable malady. Because the animal was part of the Jackson Elk Herd, the discovery activated a plan at the nearby federal National Elk Refuge that requests a reconsideration of the size of the herd. Federal officials may try to convince the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to adopt an objective for fewer elk — and presumably less disease-spreading density. Discovery of CWD in a feedground elk herd came amid what one biologist called the “decade of the elk,” with statewide numbers at 112,900 and field estimates 32% above population objectives.
8. Oilfield waste plan lurches on.
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality in January backed off a plan to allow Moneta Divide oilfield operators to increase the pollutants they dump into creeks above Boysen Reservoir. The approval came despite efforts by Sen. Eli Bebout to allow higher flows. While the agency proposed new monitoring of existing salty effluent, operator Aethon Energy secured an alternative dumping site when regulators OKed its controversial request to pump pollutants into the underground Madison aquifer. Aethon still needs approval to dispose of millions more gallons of produced water before the gas- and oilfield can be developed to its potential.
9. Mullen Fire makes history.
Wyoming experienced what officials believe was its largest wildfire from a single start. The Mullen Fire, which began in the Savage Run Wilderness west of the Laramie Basin, burned 176,878 acres, prompted hundreds of evacuations and indelibly altered the character of the Medicine Bow National Forest. It also sparked an interesting story on noted University of Wyoming economist Jason Shogren, as he prepared his own home for the kind of disaster he’s long studied.
10. Criminal justice controversies.
WyoFile wrote a few stories about a statewide law enforcement agency, the Division of Criminal Investigation. Agents at DCI spread rumors about “antifa” protesters traveling through Wyoming on their way to the Sturgis motorcycle rally. The agency also raided a hemp farm and Laramie County prosecutors charged the farmers as drug traffickers. A judge tossed the case, which wasn’t the only instance of possible law enforcement overreach in a budding Wyoming industry. In other criminal justice news, Albany County’s sheriff retired as a lawsuit hit over Ramirez’s death, and budget cuts threatened criminal justice reform.