Southeast Utah: 2020 in Review

I reported over 100 articles this year. Here are some highlights.

Hi there,

Readers have been asking how to stay current with my latest reporting from San Juan County and beyond, so I decided to bring back my old Canyon Echo newsletter to provide periodic updates. Once or twice each month, I’ll send out a summary of my recent articles and other links to rural Utah news. You can sign up for future newsletters here if you’re not already on the email list from the Canyon Echo:

For the inaugural post, I thought share some highlights from this long, strange year. Anyone remember January?


Sutherland Institute’s campaign against Bears Ears was relentless, effective and mostly funded by a tight circle of activists

This investigation looked at the conservative Sutherland Institute’s campaign to reduce Bears Ears National Monument in 2017, which involved Koch-linked funding sources and an elaborate PR campaign. Sutherland delivered talking points to then-San Juan County commissioners and other Bears Ears opponents, and communicated with Trump administration officials in the lead up to the reductions.


In February, I wrote a profile of Bluff-based DJ Neon Nativez. I visited the Navajo Nation community of Westwater near Blanding, which was scheduled to receive $500,000 from the Utah Legislature to finally connect to water and power services (an appropriation that was later delayed due to COVID and needs to be renewed next year). And I dug into the $440,000 San Juan County spent in an unsuccessful attempt to gain a three-mile right of way in Recapture Canyon.


Like everyone else, I spent March trying to adjust to the new pandemic reality, and I worked mostly on breaking news for The Tribune. The second half of my book tour for Confluence (2019, Torrey House Press) was canceled, but luckily Zoom events with local bookstores and book clubs kept it alive through the spring and summer. Outside magazine included the book on their list of Earth Day picks, and I was interviewed by Utah Public Radio and the River Radius Podcast. A huge thank-you to the professors and teachers at Colorado College, Colorado Mountain College, Colorado Rocky Mountain School and Central Washington University who have assigned Confluence in their classes. (If you happen to be reading Confluence with your students or book club and want to schedule a Zoom, email me.)


National news outlets began reporting that the Navajo Nation had a higher per capita rate of COVID-19 than any U.S. state. Our report on the Navajo Nation’s testing rates, which also outpaced most states, helped add nuance to this story as it unfolded.


My pick for May might return to the news in 2021 as the voting districts in San Juan County are redrawn with Census data gathered during the pandemic:

2010 census changed voting maps in San Juan County, but fears of an undercount loom for 2020


June brought Black Lives Matter protests to rural southern Utah towns, coverage of a local aid effort led by Diné raft guide Louis Williams and a profile of the Martin Sisters, two young Diné musicians (who are my heroes).


My July favorites all featured incredible photos from Tribune photographer Leah Hogsten:

1. Utah oil field leaves a mixed legacy for members of the Navajo Nation

2. For many on the Navajo Nation, getting water requires travel, a wait in long lines and lots of patience

3. Remote Navajo Nation homes in Utah have running water for first time thanks to nonprofit DigDeep


Leah and I collaborated on two more stories in August:

1. Garfield County residents say their votes are being suppressed by clerk’s registration hurdles

2. Navajo Nation health care workers develop innovations to control the spread of COVID-19


September brought continued coverage of plans to import radioactive material from Japan and Estonia to San Juan County.


This feature was selected for the Solution Journalism Network’s top stories of 2020:

San Juan County expands in-person voting on the Navajo Nation during the pandemic


November was monolithmania: I visited the Utah’s mystery sculpture, wrote an essay on the viral phenomenon for Slate and talked to Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

I also covered ranchers’ opposition to plans to mine copper in Lisbon Valley using a controversial new method.


And the big news from December:

Long-awaited bill to settle Navajo Nation water rights in San Juan County passed by Congress

San Juan County asks President-elect Joe Biden to immediately restore Bears Ears National Monument

Utahns react to Biden’s history-making choice of Interior secretary


That’s it. Thanks for reading and supporting local news!

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Future newsletters will be shorter. Feel free to tell your friends!

Zak Podmore