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Know the West

The stories that defined the West in 2018

The year in essays, analysis and investigations from across the Western U.S.


High Country News covers the people, communities and landscapes of the West — but we don’t do it alone. We’re proud to be a part of the community that, this year, produced everything from an investigation into former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s dirty dealings to an essay exploring what it means to be a queer former Mormon, each examining a different aspect of the complicated place we call home. Here are a few of our favorite stories about the region published in 2018, from our writers and our colleagues at other publications.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke speaks with California Governor Jerry Brown and FEMA Adminstrator Brock Long as they tour the Camp Fire wreckage in Paradise, California, in November.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


Watchdogging Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

Amid a flurry of ethics scandals, President Donald Trump announced on Dec. 15 that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would be stepping down at the end of 2018. During his tenure as head of the Interior Department, which oversees about 500 million acres of public lands, mostly in the West, Zinke boosted oil and gas drilling and oversaw the rollback of environmental regulations. Between Coral Davenport’s reporting on his ethics inquires for The New York Times, Jimmy Tobias’ investigation of the web of ties between Zinke and industry interests for Pacific Standard/The Guardian and Elizabeth Shogren’s look at his anti-science policies for Reveal, a bevy of publications have kept a spotlight on Zinke this year.

Country pride: what I learned growing up in rural America

By Sarah Smarsh, The Guardian

In this excerpt from her book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, Sarah Smarsh writes of her Kansas childhood, much of which was spent on her grandparents’ farm, and turns a critical eye to the ways in which conservative forces have co-opted “country” experiences in recent decades: “I’m suspicious when I see these tropes trotted out proudly to represent the rural, working-class experience,” she writes, “often by people who have things my family never could have afforded.” Smarsh’s description of the cultural evolution of the rural-urban divide will resonate with readers across the West.


Why don’t anti-Indian groups count as hate groups?

By Anna V. Smith, High Country News

The definition of a hate group is one that promotes animosity, hostility and malice against people different from the organizations’ members, such as people of a different race or ethnicity. Yet the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, doesn’t include anti-Indian organizations in their tracking. In this analysis, HCN Assistant Editor Anna V. Smith examines the complicated reasons why, including racism and mainstream ignorance of tribal sovereignty.

California fire: What started as a tiny brush fire became the state’s deadliest wildfire. Here’s how

By Paige St. John, Anna M. Phillips, Joseph Serna, Sonali Kohli and Laura Newberry, The Los Angeles Times

On Nov. 8, California’s deadliest wildfire, the Camp Fire, swept through the town of Paradise and the surrounding area, killing at least 87 people. In this minute-by-minute dispatch, survivors recount the chilling details of that day, from the terrifying gridlock that trapped residents as they tried to evacuate to the feeling of a steering wheel melting in a driver’s hands and the sound of car tires exploding in the heat.


These volunteers are battling Idaho’s government to expand Medicaid

By Anne Helen Petersen, BuzzFeed News

On Election Day, Idaho passed a ballot measure to accept federal funding for expanding Medicaid, a move that could extend health care coverage to more than 60,000 people. This story, published before the election, traces the genesis of the forces that led to that victory: a cadre of dedicated volunteers, tapping into popular support for access to affordable health care in a deeply conservative state.

Dragonman, the man who sells “people-hunting guns”

By Michael Paterniti, GQ

If America’s preoccupation with guns could take the form of a physical place, that place would be Dragonland, a “home, shop, shooting range, and military museum outside Colorado Springs.” This feature dives into Dragonland’s complicated history, and the tensions inherent in building a life around selling lethal weapons.


Zero tolerance: Trump’s immigration policy at the border

By Staff, ProPublica

In June, ProPublica published an exclusive recording of migrant children crying for the parents they had been separated from at the U.S.-Mexico border; three days later, President Donald Trump signed an order largely ending the practice. Since then, the nonprofit newsroom has continued to follow up on the aftermath of the separations, in this series of dozens of stories — including a video showing how one child, featured in the June recording, has bounced back since being reunited with her mother.


Meet the new Mormons

By Sarah Scoles, Longreads

“The Mormon worldview shaped mine … even though the two now stand apart, like puzzle pieces where the outcropping of one is the cavern of the other,” writes Sarah Scoles in this personal essay on being gay and having grown up in the church. “Only together do Mormonism and I make a full picture.” That picture also includes enduring ties among family and friends that are, it turns out, stronger than the religious dictates that threatened to sever them.

The FBI of the National Park Service

By Rachel Monroe, Outside

Just 33 special agents staff the National Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch, the little-known law enforcement agency tasked with investigating the most serious crimes committed on the service’s 85 million acres of land. This feature tells the story of one of those investigations, after a suspicious death in a remote corner of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Emily Benson is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor