11 stories that rose above the news cycle in 2020

A pandemic, social unrest, an election. In this topsy-turvy year, impactful reporting topped our most-read stories.


Few of us could have imagined the difficulties that 2020 would bring. In early March, the global coronavirus pandemic hit home, forcing people indoors and businesses shut. In June, George Floyd’s death at the hands of police inspired a nationwide reckoning with racial inequity, as people took to the streets in even the most remote Western communities. And then, in late fall, came a presidential election — with a sitting president who refuses to accept defeat. As this tumultuous year comes to a close, we’re taking a moment to highlight the stories that rose above the noisy news cycle. Our readers spent a lot of time with these deep dives, which probed difficult, uncomfortable questions and ultimately had a tangible impact on the West.

Land-grab universities: Expropriated Indigenous land is the foundation of the land-grant university system by Tristan Ahtone and Robert Lee, published March 30, 2020 in partnership with The Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which distributed public domain lands to raise funds for fledgling colleges across the nation. Now thriving, the institutions seldom ask who paid for their good fortune. Their students sit in halls named after the act’s sponsor, Vermont Rep. Justin Morrill, and stroll past panoramic murals that embody creation stories that start with gifts of free land. 

Behind that myth lies a massive wealth transfer masquerading as a donation. The Morrill Act worked by turning land expropriated from tribal nations into seed money for higher education. In all, the act redistributed nearly 11 million acres — an area larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. But with a footprint broken up into almost 80,000 parcels of land, scattered mostly across 24 Western states, its place in the violent history of North America’s colonization has remained comfortably inaccessible.  

In the wake of HCN’s investigation, land-grant universities across the country — including Cornell University, the largest beneficiary, Penn State, the University of Missouri, the University of California and many others — are re-evaluating everything they built from those stolen lands.

Border wall construction as seen near the entrance to Guadalupe Canyon in early October.
John Kurc

Border wall construction brings environmental destruction to Guadalupe Canyon: In a mountain range too steep to cross, the Department of Homeland Security is spending millions of dollars on five miles of border wall by Maya L. Kapoor and Ariana Brocious, published Oct. 30, in partnership with Arizona Public Media.

Racing to fulfill President Donald Trump’s campaign promises, the Department of Homeland Security is dynamiting cliff sides and carving switchback roads up incredibly steep mountains to build a 30-foot-tall border wall through Guadalupe Canyon. Not only is the construction expensive, it will have little impact on undocumented immigration into the U.S. It will, however, destroy an important North American wildlife corridor.

Biden/Harris supporter Cindy Honani stands outside the Navajo Nation Council Chamber while holding a sign above her head to protect herself from the snow in Window Rock in late October.
Sharon Chischilly/Navajo Times

How Indigenous voters swung the 2020 election: In Arizona and Wisconsin, Native turnout — which often leans liberal — made the difference in Joe Biden slim but winning margin by Anna V. Smith, published Nov. 6.

In battleground states, Indigenous voters turned out in historic numbers to help former Vice President Joseph Biden clench his victory over President Donald Trump.

As the 2020 election comes to a close, James Harvill Cherokee, chief of staff of the nonpartisan group VoteAmerica, which worked directly with Navajo Nation and community partners to get out the vote, says this election illuminates the importance of the Native vote, which is likely to only grow because of an increasing young population aging into the electorate and a strong level of community support. “When we’re looking on to the next several years, we’re going to see that Native American voters become one of the defining members of the electorate, much like we’re seeing of Latinx and Black voters.”

This story was shared far and wide by outlets such as USAToday, CBS News, Mother Jones and many others, and topped our most-read stories online.

A person displays a Gadsden flag during a Reopen Oregon rally outside of the State Capitol building in Salem, Oregon, on May 2, 2020. Hundreds gathered at the hours long event demanding Oregon reopen businesses during Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-at-home order.

The Gadsden flag is a symbol. But whose? How a Revolutionary War-era flag evolved into an anti-government symbol by Leah Sottile, published May 18.

In recent years the classic rattlesnake symbol, known as the Gadsden flag, has come to mean something very different from its intended meaning. Some of the most violent and vehemently anti-government figures in the West have recast the ready-to-strike rattlesnake as a warning against the American government itself. Still, some Westerners say they’re not ready to cede the Gadsden flag to those who would use it as the new logo for right-wing extremism.

Cliven Bundy, for 20 years, had neglected to pay grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management, citing his belief that the federal government couldn’t own land. When it appeared that the BLM was finally going to impound his cattle, Bundy called on militias for help. They came, their members bearing .50 caliber machine guns and Gadsden flags. “I really don’t want violence toward (the government),” Jerad Miller told a TV reporter. “But if they’re gonna come bring violence to us? Well, if that’s the language they want to speak, we’ll learn it.”

The Gadsden flag has “become a symbol of anti-government, Patriot and militia members,” Travis McAdam, program director at Montana Human Rights Network, said. The revival and repurposing of the Revolutionary symbol makes sense to McAdam: “So many of the militia folks that are out there view themselves as the modern-day version of this country’s founders.”

A crowd of photographers line up to capture the sunrise at Mesa Arch near Moab, Utah, in Canyonlands National Park on an early fall day in 2016.

The danger of self-isolating from COVID-19 on public lands: Gateway communities grow wary of out-of-town crowds by Jessica Kutz, published March 20. 

In Moab and other tourist-based towns, the message that their backyards were still open to out-of-town visitors during the early days of the pandemic made both residents and park employees fear that their communities and workplaces would become the next COVID-19 hotspot. Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit located in Bluff, Utah, that runs a visitor’s center for Bears Ears National Monument, a popular climbing area, urged visitors to reconsider their travel plans. Citing a surge in camping and tourists into public lands across the West, the group said: “This flood of visitors negatively impacts the sensitive landscape we strive to protect, but even more importantly, in a time of great uncertainty, an increase in visitation has the potential to put remote gateway communities at risk.”

High Country News obtained hundreds of pages of documents that included maps, permits for archaeological digs and internal emails. The documents show how graduate student archaeologists excavated human remains in Mariposa County, California, in 2009.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

A whistleblower speaks out over the excavation of Native sites: In California, archaeologists unearthed Indigenous burials 11 years ago, but the remains have yet to be repatriated by Tay Wiles, published Nov. 12.

In 2009, while excavating prehistoric artifacts, graduate student archaeologists from the University of California-Davis found Indigenous funerary objects and fragments of human bone. But despite what the law requires, according to internal documents obtained by High Country News, the archaeologists kept digging at the site. They continued the excavation, and apparently left a local tribe in the dark about their findings for years.

The remains were likely relatives of either the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation or Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, who are based in Mariposa and Tuolumne counties in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The researchers collected at least 72 fragments and much of a human skull. At the time of this article, officials with the Bureau of Land Management — the agency that approved the digs — had not repatriated the remains, despite requests from tribes.  The case illuminates the often-fraught relationship between archaeological study and Indigenous rights, and the BLM’s failure to hold violators accountable.

The Harshaw Cemetery is the final resting place for many of the Soto family’s relatives, dating back to the late 1800s.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Once a boomtown, now a ghost town. Always a hometown: Over generations, the Soto family has lived through cycles of mining booms and the broken promises that come with them by Clara Migoya, published Sept. 28.

The Soto family has been in the West for nine generations, since before it became part of the United States. They came from Mexico in 1775, with the Spanish expeditions that founded San Francisco and Los Angeles. However, after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, they suddenly found themselves foreigners in their own land, when the U.S. failed to honor the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and took their property rights away. The Sotos believe this is what pushed Angel and Josefa, their great-grandparents, to leave California in the 1870s. During the gold rush years, the couple headed eastward, jumping from mining camp to mining camp until they finally reached Harshaw — then a town bustling with 2,000 people, 30 saloons, several breweries and shops, a church, a school and a post office. Only 8 miles away, in the town of Patagonia, the Pacific Railroad connected the local mines to the rest of the West. The Soto kids grew up running around barefoot, without tap water or electricity. “We were poor, but we had everything,” said Angelita.

 Now, more than half a century later, mining is coming back to Harshaw: South32, an Australia-based polymetallic mining company, estimates that there are still at least 155 million tons of high-grade metals hidden deep underground. It is currently doing exploratory drilling half a mile away from the ghost town, acquiring permits and gearing up to operate in the near future. But whether modern mining — with its much greater profits and the promise of better environmental safeguards — will leave a better legacy this time around remains to be seen.

This tale of a family whose lives span generations of mining in the Arizona mountains was picked up by the national travel magazine Atlas Obscura and was, for a time, the most-read story in HCN

A common strategy for anti-fascists is black bloc. PopMob reframes the public’s image of antifa. Members of PopMob form a “Banana Bloc” band to oppose a KKK rally planned in Portland, Oregon.

What really is antifa?: An ‘everyday anti-fascist’ talks about President Donald Trump’s threat to designate the movement as a terrorist organization by Leah Sottile, published June 5.

In a conversation with High Country News contributor Leah Sottile, Effie Baum, a spokeswoman for PopMob, a de-escalation anti-fascist organization, corrects some of the misunderstanding of what antifa really is.

“You don’t have to ‘join’ antifa. It is a self-designated thing. If you are anti-fascist, you are antifa. Where it gets muddy is that the media representation of ‘antifa’ is often images of people utilizing a tactic known as ‘black bloc,’ which is big groups of people dressed all in black that you see on television. And the issue with that is that, in addition to equating antifa only with that specific tactic, it does a huge disservice to all of the work that anti-fascists do besides that one very small thing, which is community defense. Ninety-eight percent of the work that anti-fascists do does not happen in the streets. Black bloc is a tactic — it is not an organization or a group,” Baum says.

A badger and coyote hunt prairie dogs together at Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota.
Charles G. Summers Jr.

A viral coyote-badger video demonstrates the incredible complexity of nature: A behavioral ecologist breaks down the importance of an adorable wildlife clip by Jennifer Campbell-Smith, published Feb. 14.

Somewhere in the Southern Santa Cruz Mountains of California, a coyote playfully bowed to an American badger just before they both duck into a culvert under a highway; the coyote casually trotted along with the badger waddling close behind. When the Peninsula Open Space Trust and Pathways For Wildlife shared this remote video of the crossing online in early February, it went viral. The video is part of a project to help wild animals move around safely in high-traffic, dangerous areas, something critical to maintaining populations’ genetic health. However, what makes this particular crossing exceptional, to me are the deeper implications of the video itself. Notably, there isn’t a consistent “natural rule” that coyotes and badgers get along; in fact, the two species sometimes kill and eat one another. This demonstrates the flexibility in natural processes.

Sarah Gilman/High Country News

The mystery of mountain lions: Despite decades of research, myth and fear still surround the animals by Sarah Gilman, published March 1.

Last winter, I went walking on a gray afternoon between storms in the narrow Methow Valley, on the east slope of Washington’s North Cascades. I turned my head and froze. Through the trees, a brown shape closed in. Not coyote. Not bobcat. Rounded ears; a long bow of tail. Seeing itself seen, the cougar dropped to a crouch a few paces from me. It was still woolly with kittenhood, but big enough to send a chill down my spine. Its golden eyes locked on mine. 

The familiar woods felt upended. I walked them now with a sense of vertigo, disoriented by these fleeting brushes with a creature of foreign compass, who navigated the serrated mountains and the tumbling tributaries of the Methow River, the small towns of Winthrop and Mazama and their Nordic skiing trails, according to experience and rules wholly its own. To recover my bearings, I called cougar researcher Lauren Satterfield and asked if I could follow her following cats.

Gilman’s feature-length essay, paired with her evocative illustrations, resonated deeply with our readers, as she interrogated our relationship with some of the West’s wilder and rarely seen inhabitants. For bonus content, read a conversation with Gilman about her process, in which she blends her goals as a writer with her passion for illustration. 

Vinnie Cervantes talks to people about new programs and lawsuits stemming from police response to protests in Denver.
Carl Payne/High Country News

There’s already an alternative to calling the police: A 31-year-old program in Eugene, Oregon, is a model in de-escalating situations that could end with law enforcement violence by Anna V. Smith, published June 11.

As citizens across the country fill the streets to protest police killings of Black people, the violent response from law enforcement has added urgency to a national conversation about police brutality. Pressure is mounting to reform or abolish police departments. City officials in Western urban centers like Los Angeles are reducing police budgets — L.A.’s currently totals $1.8 billion — and reinvesting in underfunded social initiatives. Minneapolis City Council members pledged in June to disband its police department entirely. As cities look for what’s next, there is already a proven system of de-escalation for the high volume of mental health calls that police respond to, which often end in violence.

Mobile, community-based crisis programs employ first responders that are not police to address disturbances where crimes are not being committed. One of the nation’s longest-running examples is CAHOOTS — Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets — in Eugene, Oregon. CAHOOTS has inspired similar programs in other cities in the region, including the Denver Alliance for Street Health ResponseMobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland and Portland Street Response in Oregon.

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