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Looking Back At The Decade In Utah News

Photo of Welcome to Utah sign.
Brian Albers

The past ten years were marked by doings and undoings in Utah. From changes to public lands management and ballot propositions, to church policies and liquor laws, Utahns may come out of the 2010s with a bit of whiplash.

Footage of Utah nurse Alex Wubbels went viral, prompting a nationwide conversation about hospital safety and nurses’ rights. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch retired after more than 40 years in office. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ President Thomas S. Monson died, and the Church said it didn’t want to be called the LDS or Mormon anymore. It also announced it would cut ties with the Boy Scouts of America. Anti-federalism reached a fever pitch, culminating in a standoff on a wildlife preserve in Oregon where a Kanab man was killed. Utah also saw its largest wildfire in recorded history. 

Here’s more on some of the biggest stories of the decade:

Bears Ears National Monument Is Created And Then Dramatically Shrunk

Photo of Bears Ears Buttes.
Credit Erik Neumann

Bears Ears National Monument was established during the last days of the Obama administration in 2016. It protected more than 1.3 million acres, including an array of cultural artifacts and natural resources in southeastern Utah. The move was heralded by tribes and conservation groups but vehemently opposed by the state’s conservative congressional delegation and two San Juan County commissioners. 

Within the first few months of the Trump administration, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke began reviewing national monument designations across the country – including Bears Ears. On Zinke’s recommendation, President Trump reduced the monument’s size by 85 percent in December 2017. Environmentalists and tribes filed a lawsuit and the decision is currently under litigation. — Nate Hegyi

Read more about the national monument controversies.


Kitchen v. Herbert Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage In Utah

Derek Kitchen has said he was surprised it didn’t take longer. He and his then-partner Moudi Sbeity were part of the 2013 lawsuit — Kitchen v. Herbert — that challenged Utah’s constitutional ban on gay marriage. On Dec. 20 of that same year, a district court judge ruled in their favor, and couples rushed to the Salt Lake clerk’s office to exchange vows. Within weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Utah’s request for a stay, and marriage was once again off the books for LGBTQ people — leaving more than 1,000 Utah marriages in legal limbo.

Five cases from across the country wound their way to the Supreme Court – including Utah’s. But on Oct. 6, 2014, the court declined to hear any of them. With that, same-sex marriage became legal in Utah. Kitchen and Sbeity married each other in a public ceremony at Gallivan Center in downtown Salt Lake City in May of 2015.

Derek Kitchen now serves in the Utah State Senate and is the Democratic minority caucus manager. And in a final footnote, he and Sbeity announced earlier this year that though they would remain business partners, they were ending their marriage. In a Facebook post they said, “Within our fight for marriage equality, we fought for all the challenges and rights that come along with it.” — Elaine Clark

Read more about the road to same-sex marriage in Utah.

The Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints Announces — And Later Reverses — The "November Policy"

In November of 2015, just months after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, a new LDS Church policy shocked Mormons and outsiders alike. The children of same-sex couples would not be permitted to be baptized unless they received special permission from Church headquarters and condemned their parents behavior. It was a gut punch to the Mormon LGBTQ+ community and their loved ones, and hundreds of Church members revoked their membership

This April, in an equally surprising move, the policy was revoked. Church President Russell M. Nelson told BYU students both the implementation and the removal of the policy were “motivated by love.” No apology was offered. Voices from the Mormon LGBTQ+ community said it was too little, too late and that irrevocable damage from the policy had already been done. — Lee Hale

Read more about the LDS Church's policy on same-sex marriage.

Image of Temple.
Credit Brian Albers / KUER
Utahns Are Hit Hard By The Opioid Epidemic

The opioid crisis came to a head during the 2010s across the country, and Utah was not immune. In fact, throughout the decade, Utahns died from opioid overdoses at a higher rate than the national average. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported opioid overdose deaths peaked around 2016 when 635 people died from prescription opioids, synthetic opioids and heroin. State data shows that rural communities in Carbon and Emery counties were hit hardest, with urban areas along the Wasatch not far behind.

Critics blame the overprescription of opioids for the spike in abuse of the powerfully addictive painkillers, as well as overmarketing from drug companies that downplayed the drugs’ risks. The Centers for Disease Control says doctors wrote 63.8 prescriptions per 100 people in Utah in 2017. That year, more than a dozen counties across the state filed civil lawsuits againstopioid manufacturers and distributors. In 2018, Utah filed its own lawsuit against prescription drug company Purdue Pharma. While opioid overdoses have been on a downward trend, experts have been cautious to celebrate. — Chelsea Naughton

Read more about how Utah was impacted by the opioid epidemic.

Homelessness And Operation Rio Grande Dominate The Conversation In Salt Lake City

In the late aughts and the early teens, Utah had embarked on an ambitious program to end chronic homelessness. It was called “Housing First,” and in 2015, the state made national headlines with a more than 91% reduction — finding homes for some 1,800 people. But the individuals that met the definition of “chronic” homelessness accounted for just one-fifth of the 14,000 homeless population.

By 2017, Operation Rio Grande had moved to the forefront of Utah’s conversation around homelessness. State and local governments launched the action in August 2017 in an attempt to address crime in the area in downtown Salt Lake City where The Road Home’s shelter was located. The area was known as a hotbed for homicide and drug deals. 

The operation was broken up into three phases that focused on goals such as: public safety and restoring ordering; assessing, treating and supporting individuals with mental health and addiction needs; increasing employment opportunities.

Government officials decided to close the downtown shelter for good. To replace it, three homeless resource centers were built and spread out within Salt Lake County. Those shelters opened up after August 2019. A debate continues over whether the new facilities provide a sufficient number of beds to meet Salt Lake City’s needs. — Elaine Clark and Rocio Hernandez

Read more about homelessness and Operation Rio Grande in Salt Lake City.

Lauren McCluskey's Death Sparks Outcry At University of Utah

More than a year after the murder of University of Utah track star Lauren McCluskey, the Salt Lake City institution has faced criticism for the way it handled the case and what it has and hasn’t done since her October 2018 death.

Photo of University if Utah logo.
Credit Brian Albers / KUER

This summer, the McCluskey family filed a $56 million civil rights lawsuitagainst the university and officers involved in the case. The university then came under fire for the way it responded to the lawsuit in its motion to dismiss. It’s legal defense suggested that the institution is not constitutionally required to protect its students from campus visitors. 

The Utah Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the university, said that the legal defense did not mean the school is ignoring its responsibility to student safety. 

In December, the university announced that it had hired New York University’s senior vice president of public safety Marlon Lynch to be the U’s first chief safety officer. That position will oversee the U’s police department and other safety aspects of the campus. The university is still in the process of selecting a new police chief. That position became vacant after former police chief Dale Brophy retired in October. — Rocio Hernandez

Read more about campus safety at the University of Utah.

Utah Legalizes Medical Cannabis

Ten years ago, who would have predicted that one of the most conservative states in the nation would legalize medical marijuana by popular vote?

After years of pushing the Legislature but seeing little progress on the issue, patient advocates took matters into their own hands by launching a ballot initiative to legalize the drug. In Nov. 2018, it passed with nearly 53% approval.

The aftermath has been complicated, though. Less than a month after the initiative passed, Utah lawmakers angered advocates by convening a special session to roll back parts of the law, like shrinking the list of qualifying conditions and restricting some edibles. Later, lawmakers had to gather in another special session to remove a portion of the bill that allowed county health departments to dispense the drug. In the spring of 2020, card-carrying patients will be able to start purchasing medical cannabis products. — Nicole Nixon

Read more about medical cannabis in Utah.

San Juan County Redistricting Results In First Ever Majority-Navajo Commission

The last decade has seen an ongoing power struggle in San Juan County. The county, located in Utah’s southeast corner, overlaps with part of the Navajo Nation.

In 2012, the Navajo Nation sued the county, saying that its voters had been disenfranchised in county politics. The court agreed in 2017 and imposed a new voting map with three county commission districts.

San Juan County elected its first majority-Navajo commission in 2018 — an election that was embattled with a lawsuit over now-commissioner Willie Grayeyes’ residency and eligibility for office.

But, the fights didn’t end with the election. A ballot initiative this year asked voters whether the county should consider changing its form of government. The proposition failed by a narrow margin, but the San Juan County clerk is now under investigation for electioneering in that election. The Utah County attorney’s office has taken over the investigation and will decide whether to prosecute. — Elaine Clark and Kate Groetzinger

Read more about politics in San Juan County.

Photo of County building.
Credit Judy Fahys / KUER
Liquor Laws Get A Little Looser

The 2010s saw small but significant loosening of state liquor laws, which are notoriously strict.

It was only a few years ago when Utah bartenders had to hide behind a wall (or, at the Eccles Theater, in a closet) to mix cocktails. That changed in 2017, when the so-called “Zion curtains” fell around the state.

And just last month, grocery stores and gas stations began selling slightly stronger beer (and in many cases, more brews to choose from) after the Legislature approved raising the cap from 4% alcohol by volume (ABV) to 5%. Small victories for Utah drinkers, but victories nonetheless. — Nicole Nixon

Read more about the changes to Utah's liqour laws.

Explosive Population Growth On The Wasatch Front And Across Utah

Utah’s population is booming, and it’s not because of the birthrate. The state surpassed 3 million people in 2018. That growth has stretched the state’s infrastructures thin, resulting in problems like increased traffic, affordable housing woes and a shortage of school teachers. As one of the driest states in the union, Utah’s water future remains uncertain — especially in the fast-growing St. George area. 

The surge of people in the Beehive State has brought with it some economic benefits, though. The governor’s office reported that Utah ranked first in the nation for job growth in 2018. Still, it’s yet to be seen how the state will accommodate its ever-growing population — the state is projected to be the home of nearly 4 million people by the end of next decade. — Chelsea Naughton

Read more about Utah's population growth.

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