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Politics & Government
KUER’s Southeast Utah Bureau is based in San Juan County. The Southwest Utah Bureau is based in the St. George area. Both initiatives focus on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues, faith and spirituality and other topics of relevance to Utahns.

COVID-19, Dropping 'Dixie' And Public Lands: The Year’s Biggest Stories From Southern Utah

A photo of protestors.
Lexi Peery
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KUER
It may be an understatement to say a lot happened in Utah in 2020, both on and off the Wasatch Front. KUER southern news bureau reporters Kate Groetzinger, based in Bluff, and Lexi Peery, based in St. George, spoke with All Things Considered host Caroline Ballard about some of the biggest stories they covered in 2020.

Caroline Ballard: Kate. You're based in southeast Utah and cover the Navajo Nation, which has suffered some really high rates of COVID-19. How did you see the pandemic playing out there?

Kate Groetzinger: COVID has been absolutely devastating on the Navajo Nation, and that's been covered pretty extensively in the national media. I've written some stories about why it's so bad down here, but I've really been focused on education. That has been a huge challenge because all of the students on the Navajo Nation are still doing school at home and very few of them have internet access at home. So I've been following the district's efforts to actually build an internet network and put up towers to get internet to those students. I'll be continuing to cover that into the new year.

Just north of me in Grand County, COVID has had a really big effect on tourism. It really shut down Moab for about two months. The hotels were closed and a lot of local businesses suffered. Then tourism came roaring back this summer and everyone came down with their ATVs and drove around. Moab had record numbers of visitation in September, and all of that ATV driving has been driving local residents crazy. That's a story we should be seeing play out in the legislative session. I think we're going to see some attempts to regulate ATVs on city streets.

CB: The police killing of George Floyd sparked protests nationwide, including large ones in Salt Lake City. Lexi, how did the national conversation play out in St. George?

Lexi Peery: There were actually several protests this summer in St. George. And while those were going on, there was also the conversation about the word "Dixie" in southwest Utah. And just a little history lesson, founding pioneers called this corner of the state Dixie because of their mission to grow cotton here, and the nickname is stuck. Local residents are really proud of it because of their pioneer heritage, but at the same time the word has ties to the Confederacy. The debate really picked up when local leaders tried to remove Dixie from the name of the convention center in St. George. But they quickly reversed it because of public backlash. More recently, Dixie State University has started the process of dropping Dixie from its name. And now it's up to the state Legislature to make it happen.

CB: Lexi, public lands are frequently front and center in that part of the state. What big stories were you following this year in that part of your beat?

LP: There are two large Washington County infrastructure projects that have been talked about for years and this year was big for them. The draft environmental impact statements for the Lake Powell Pipeline and Northern Corridor were released and reviewed. And just a quick refresher, the Lake Powell Pipeline would bring water from Lake Powell 140 miles west to Washington County. Those for it think the county needs another water source and those against it are concerned about how much it will cost and taking water from Lake Powell, which is already overdrawn. And the Northern Corridor is a proposed highway that would cut through protected Mojave Desert tortoise habitat to alleviate traffic in the county.

Also something to note — this year has been a historic year for wildfires in Utah. Over 75% of them have been human caused and fire officials have linked that to more people recreating outdoors because of the pandemic.

CB: Speaking of public lands, as we look forward to 2021, Kate, one thing you've been following since basically you started reporting here is the Bears Ears monument. It's been a sort of focal point for both the Obama and Trump administrations to stake their positions on public lands. And it looks like the Biden administration will also be paying special attention to it. Tell us about that.

KG: [President-elect Joe] Biden has actually promised to restore the monument as well as Grand Staircase. And other than that, he's given very few details about how that will happen. So no one really knows what that will look like. But there's also a court case that is talked about less but is actually really important. It's the court case that would decide whether or not a sitting president could reduce a monument created by a former administration. A lot of people who are proponents of the monument want to see that lawsuit play out and be decided in their favor.

CB: Kate, what else are you going to be watching in the new year?

KG: I'm really excited to cover the vaccine rollout down here. I think it'll be especially emotional on the Navajo Nation, considering the death rate in San Juan County is five times higher than that for the rest of the state of Utah. I'm hoping that that will be a positive and hopeful story that I can bring to the rest of the state.

CB: Lexi, what do you have your eye on in the next year?

LP: I'm looking forward to seeing how the Dixie State University named change plays out in the Legislature. There have been a few southern Utah legislators that have already come out against changing it because of how locals feel about it. But others have remained mostly quiet about what they'll do. And the final decisions for the Lake Powell Pipeline and Northern Corridor are expected in 2021, and it'll be interesting to see what's next for these major infrastructure projects.

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