COVID takes the top spot in year’s stories
The top local news story of 2020 could not have been predicted as the year started.
For the past few years, our top stories list included ongoing issues, significant events or projects, and of course whatever natural disasters visited us during the previous 12 months. Some of them were “top stories” for several years running.
But it was a mega-event that we could not foresee that ended up dominating everything else this year: the COVID pandemic’s local effects.
Coronavirus coverage could have been broken down into several sub-stories: schools, the economy, health system responses and more. We grouped them all under one overarching headline because they are interconnected and, in fact, inseparable from one another.
Thanks to everyone who participated in the balloting. As always, it will be interesting to see what the next year brings. History has taught us to expect the unexpected.
The COVID pandemic — and its effect on virtually every aspect of life — topped the list of major stories for 2020.
After Washington confirmed the nation’s first case of COVID-19 in late January, the state and Okanogan County launched their first preparations and precautionary measures in early March. The county’s health care providers sought to ensure they’d have adequate protective equipment and set up isolation units to treat COVID patients.
By mid-March, Gov. Jay Inslee had closed all schools throughout the state, and the schools stayed closed through early fall — half a year. Students and teachers struggled to adapt to a “remote” model where students learned over the internet and from packets of printed worksheets. On Sept. 14, the Methow Valley School District was among the first in the state to offer in-person classes for the 2020-21 academic year.
The Methow Valley and Okanogan County didn’t see their first COVID case till early April; the county lost its first resident to COVID later that month. But in July, per capita COVID infections in the county surged to the highest in the state. In November, a COVID outbreak at North Valley Extended Care in Tonasket took the lives of 16 residents and sickened dozens of residents and staff.
With just a few days left in the year, the county had recorded 1,693 COVID cases — 57 in the Methow — and 32 deaths from the disease.
Washington state began recommending the use of face masks in April, but many people were slow to adopt the precaution until the governor mandated masks in all businesses and public spaces in June. With a nationwide shortage of masks for health care providers, local residents sewed thousands of free masks for the community.
In the spring, the state shut down all but essential businesses, throwing construction workers, hair stylists and most restaurant employees out of work. Most laid-off and self-employed workers ultimately collected unemployment and an extra weekly benefit, but many are still struggling after almost a year without work. Since then, restrictions on businesses have loosened, only to tighten again when COVID cases rise.
Early on, grocery stores struggled to keep staples on the shelves as people stocked up on essentials and the virus upended manufacturing and distribution networks.
The state-imposed bans on social, spiritual and recreational gatherings and closed state lands. Local organizations and businesses canceled their entire season of arts, sports and social events.
Despite a statewide prohibition on non-essential travel (which is still in effect), the valley’s tourism industry flourished after the North Cascades Highway opened in May, ultimately drawing larger crowds than usual, as many people canceled other vacations and looked for options closer to home.
In August, after a six-fold increase in infections, the Okanogan County commissioners — still navigating differences about how seriously to treat the risks of the pandemic — issued a statement urging residents to act responsibly to control the spread of COVID.
As more people began to work remotely during the pandemic, the Methow Valley experienced a COVID land rush, with an influx of people fleeing urban areas for a more remote and tranquil place. The “Zoom town” phenomenon created a super-charged real estate market in 2020, with buyers competing for a scarce supply of homes and land. The frenzy drove prices up and raised questions about how the deluge of newcomers might impact the valley’s unique sense of community — and whether people who currently live and work here would be priced out of the market.
Although health care workers and others at high risk of infection got the first COVID vaccines in mid-December, people will still see limits on economic, social and recreational activities well into 2021. Public health officials continue to beg the weary population to avoid gathering with friends and family and to stay home.
2: Recall Jim DeTro
Outrage over Okanogan County Commissioner Jim DeTro’s posting of a bloodied and battered semi-truck on his personal Facebook page with the caption, “Just drove through Minneapolis. Didn’t see any protesters” ignited a movement to remove DeTro from office. DeTro’s posting came in the wake of protests around the country over police violence against African-Americans in May.
Reactions to DeTro’s truck meme ricocheted through social media, with hundreds of people lashing out at the commissioner on his Facebook page and other online forums. An online petition to remove DeTro from office got more than 6,000 signatures and county residents called in to a county commissioners’ meeting, demanding an apology and DeTro’s removal.
As a long-time trucker, DeTro said the image was meant to be funny and was not racist, while he attacked what he called the hypocrisy of people on the left. His fellow commissioners reminded him of their shared responsibility to represent everyone in the county.
A week later, DeTro apologized to the other commissioners, his wife and to those who had been civil in their criticism. He reminded people that he’s always said he’s not politically correct and said he intended no harm.
DeTro remains in office. His term (his third) is up in 2022.
3: Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires
Powerful winds on Labor Day weekend propelled a fire that started in Omak more than 60 miles south in just a day, driving it across the Columbia River. The Cold Springs Fire — and its spawn south of the Columbia, the Pearl Hill Fire — consumed more than 645 square miles of grass and brush before firefighters controlled the blazes about a week later. The Cold Springs Fire destroyed 80 homes and 60 other buildings and the Pearl Hill Fire destroyed 26 homes and commercial structures.
The Cold Springs Fire took a deadly toll on a young family, killing a 1-year-old boy and leaving his parents with third-degree burns as they tried to escape.
The fire and other damage caused by the strong winds knocked out power, phone and internet service for much of Okanogan and northern Douglas counties for a day — and much longer for people directly in the path of the blaze.
The flames spared the Methow Valley, but the mammoth blaze deposited a thick shroud of smoke and “unhealthy” air over Twisp and Winthrop.
The fire caused massive destruction to the power infrastructure of the Okanogan County Public Utility District and on the Colville Reservation, and to communications equipment operated by Okanogan County and phone companies.
The cause of the fires is still under investigation.
4: Grizzlies in the North Cascades
A six-year environmental study on restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades was abruptly terminated in July by the Trump administration, angering conservationists who have been involved in grizzly bear restoration planning for years.
The decision to end the planning process faces a legal challenge from the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a lawsuit on Dec. 16. The lawsuit argues that the termination of the environmental study violates the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws, and asks the court to order federal agencies to proceed with planning for grizzly restoration.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, the two agencies leading the planning process, have 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.
The North Cascades ecosystem, a 9,800-square-mile area in North Central Washington and British Columbia, has been identified as one of five potential recovery zones in the United States where grizzlies could be successfully restored to habitats they formerly occupied.
U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced the decision to end further grizzly restoration planning at a meeting in Omak hosted by U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, who has opposed plans to reintroduce grizzly bears to the North Cascades. Newhouse said that farmers, ranchers and other constituents don’t want grizzly bears in North Central Washington.
The Environment Impact Statement (EIS) process has involved numerous public hearings and informational meetings, including an open house in Winthrop that drew 140 people in 2017. The process has generated more than 143,000 public comments, 130,000 of which were labeled as favorable, according to information obtained by Conservation Northwest, an organization supporting grizzly restoration.
The EIS outlines three alternatives to restore a self-sustaining population of 200 bears through the capture and release of grizzly bears into the North Cascades Ecosystem. The U.S. portion of the ecosystem includes North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest (which includes the Methow Ranger District) and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. No verified sightings of grizzly bears have occurred in the U.S. portion since 1996.
5 (tie): Westman’s legacy
Longtime Methow Valley activist and benefactor Ken Westman continued to influence life in the valley with a $1.7 million bequest to support local nonprofit programs.
The bequest will be managed by the Community Foundation of NCW, which will transfer funds to the Methow Valley Fund each year for distribution to the valley’s nonprofits.
Westman, who died in July 2019 after a long illness, “was an active participant with many local organizations that served to enhance the quality of life in the Methow Valley,” according to a Community Foundation press release. “This bequest will have a significant impact on the quality of life for the Methow Valley for generations”
A 2019 Methow Valley News story noted that Westman’s legacy “can be found in the many Methow Valley community organizations and residents that are stronger for having known him.”
Westman’s volunteer service to the Methow Valley community included the Winthrop Westernization and Architecture Committee, the Winthrop Auditorium Association board, a term as an Okanogan County District 6 Fire commissioner, five years on the Okanogan County Development Council, 17 years on the Okanogan County Electric Co-op board, and four years on the board of Room One. He was appointed to the Mazama Advisory Committee and chaired the Communications District Board for years. In 2014, he served as Grand Marshal for the Winthrop ’49er Days along with Grand Lady Lois McLean.
Westman was a member of Kiwanis, an early booster of the future Winthrop River Walk, and supported valley nonprofit organizations that elevated social services, the arts, recreation, women’s rights, the environment, literacy and education. He was a founding member of Methow At Home.
Westman was the first adviser to Friends of the Winthrop Library (FOWL), the nonprofit group that is building a new library in Winthrop. He also was an advocate for Classroom in Bloom and Little Star Montessori School.
5 (tie): Portman retires after 34 years
For more than a generation, Sally Portman was the face of the Winthrop Library, making book recommendations, running Story Hour, connecting book club members with their assigned reading, scheduling guest speakers, and helping library patrons find the answers to life’s persistent questions. She retired at the end of March after 34 years as Winthrop’s librarian.
Portman became the Winthrop librarian in the spring of 1986, besting 16 other applicants to get the job. She had been in charge of the kids’ program at Sun Mountain Lodge. Her first library was housed in a tiny space in downtown Winthrop, between the public bathrooms and the town hall. Later, the library moved from downtown to a vacant classroom in Little Star Montessori School, then to its current location across from the ballfield.
Portman is also an author whose works include “Ski Touring Methow Style,” “The Wildflowers of Sun Mountain,” “The Birds of Sun Mountain and the Methow Valley,” and “The Smiling Country: A History of the Methow Valley,” which was published in 1993 and is reported to be the first comprehensive history of the valley.
“I love this job and I love the patrons,” Portman said. “As the librarian, you can make everybody happy. You can’t imagine how gratifying it is to be a part of something that only does good for people. Thirty-four years just flew by. And then all of a sudden it was time to retire.”
Portman was replaced by Ree West, who took over at the Winthrop library in mid-October.
5 (tie): Subdivision moratorium
A ban on most subdivisions of property in the Methow watershed will remain in place through the end of September 2021 so that the county can study water availability and the provisions of the Methow Rule, which allocates a limited amount of water for specific uses.
The subdivision moratorium ordinance was initially implemented in December 2019 in response to legal opinions that the county could be at risk from people concerned about water availability (both physical and legal) and from property owners who face uncertainty about whether they would have water to build a house.
The ordinance contains some exceptions. People with an existing house can divide a lot to build one more residence. People can divide land for agriculture or non-residential use. And property that draws from the Columbia River, not the Methow River, is also exempt.
Issues to be researched while the ban is in place include how much water is already used by residences, and how much of the water allocation for the Methow is left. The county will also look at court rulings and agency interpretations regarding subdivisions and single versus group use of a well.
8: Twisp Restoration Project
A public comment period on the proposed Twisp Restoration Project ended Dec. 18, resulting in more than 1,000 comments submitted to the Methow Valley Ranger District on the huge and complex project that proposes extensive forest thinning, prescribed burning and habitat restoration in the Twisp River and nearby drainages.
More than 400 individual comments were submitted to the project website, and another 600 were submitted in response to an action alert by Conservation Northwest.
The Methow Ranger District released an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the project in October and extended the comment period twice to allow people more time to read the proposal and supporting documents, which total more than 500 pages.
Many individuals and organizations commented that the immense scale and complexity of the proposed project, and lack of detail in the plan, require more public engagement and/or analysis of the project through a more in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The ranger district has conducted only two one-hour public meetings about the project over a two-year period, and one of them was held virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings, according to comments from the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC). MVCC advised Forest Service officials to wait until COVID-19 regulations allow for in-person public meetings and site visits before releasing an updated draft.
The ranger district will evaluate comments to determine if there is significant impact that would require an EIS.
The Twisp Restoration Project is the largest forest restoration project ever attempted in the Methow district, and would take 10-30 years to complete. It encompasses more than 77,000 acres (120 square miles) from McClure Mountain to Twisp River to Wolf Creek. It would take place in 11 watersheds and a dozen forest types, from lush forest along rivers, to dry forest on steep slopes, to some of the few stands of old-growth forest near the Methow Valley.
The project calls for thinning forests on 52,200 acres and prescribed burning on 59,000 acres. Commercial logging would take place on almost 20,000 acres, producing 106,645 thousand board feet (106,645,000 board feet) of timber, according to the project EA. It includes changes to recreation including adding new trails, closing unofficial trails, and providing a new 22-mile all-terrain vehicle route.
9: French Creek Road
The gate that blocked French Creek Road on and off for half a century was unlocked in April, following a ruling in Okanogan County Superior Court in December 2019 that found the road has been an Okanogan County road since it was formally established and surveyed in 1889, before Washington became a state.
The French Creek gate has been at issue in a long-running legal dispute between Gamble Land and Timber and Cascade Holdings Group and Okanogan County. The two companies own property along the road and contend that a 3-mile stretch of French Creek Road beyond the gate is a private-access road to their property.
The French Creek gate swung open after Okanogan County worked out a compromise with an attorney for the property owners to open that gate and another one on Texas Creek Road. The compromise allows the gates to remain open — but remain in place — while an appeal in the state Court of Appeals is pending.
The Okanogan Open Roads Coalition, a citizens’ group that supports public access to back roads, is also a party in the lawsuit, helping to unearth 19th-century maps and surveys that they say prove the century-old status of the road as a public thoroughfare.
10 (tie): Local elections
Incumbents held on to their positions in elections affecting the Methow Valley, although two first-time candidates from the valley generated significant local support.
2019 top stories
1: Methow Headwaters Campaign
2: Grizzlies in the North Cascades
3: Methow Housing Trust
4: French Creek Road
5: Chewuch River Water transfer
6 (tie): Twisp Civic Center/Winthrop library
6 (tie): Homestream Park
6 (tie): Local elections
9: Fire season
10: TwispWorks turns 10
Both incumbents running for re-election to the Okanogan County Board of Commissioners were re-elected. For the District 2 position, which includes the Methow Valley, incumbent Andy Hover, a Republican, bested challenger Katie Haven, a Democrat and Methow Valley resident. Hover, who also lives in the Methow Valley, drew about 60% of the countywide vote. In the primary, Haven actually edged out Hover within the District 2 boundaries.
In District 1, incumbent Chris Branch, who declares no party affiliation, drew about 57% of the countywide vote against challenger Shauna Beeman, a Republican.
In the race for a seat in the state Legislature, first-term incumbent 12th Legislative District Rep. Keith Goehner won the districtwide race over challenger Adrianne Moore, a Winthrop resident who ran as a Democrat for the Position 1 seat. Moore outpolled Goehner in Okanogan County, with about 51% of the vote. But Goehner led in the other three counties included in District 12 — Grant, Douglas and Chelan — and had an overall districtwide total of about 61% of the vote.
In the 4th U.S. Congressional District race, incumbent Dan Newhouse, a Republican, drew about 66% of the vote to easily defeat Democratic challenger Douglas E. McKinley of Richland.
10 (tie): District 6 levy approved
After years of working toward a new fire hall in Winthrop, Okanogan County Fire District 6 finally won approval of a tax levy lid lift to support the construction of the new facility. The proposal won about 69% of the votes in a May election.
Proposition 6 asked for a property tax increase of 17.5 cents to the existing levy of 65.5 cents, which will result in a permanent levy of 83 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The tax increase will start in 2021 and will go toward funding the construction of a new fire station, which is slated to be built on land owned by the district on Horizon Flats Road in Winthrop.
The fire district had earlier asked voters twice to pay for the construction of a new Winthrop fire station, and both measures were rejected. A bond measure failed in 2008, and the district also lost a simple-majority levy vote in 2014, when it asked for $2.4 million.
The new fire station is anticipated to cost $4 million, with $600,000 being provided by the fire district and $1.8 million by a grant, secured by the district, from the Bruno and Evelyne Betti Foundation, with the rest being made up through proceeds from the levy lid lift.
District 6 provides fire services from Gold Creek to Lost River, covering 300 square miles in the Methow Valley, and provides services to the towns of Carlton, Twisp (through a contract), Winthrop and Mazama.
Nearly cracking the Top 10 list was Give Methow’s fundraising efforts, which topped $500,000. Close behind was the continuing effort to improve broadband access in the valley. Also generating noteworthy vote totals were the ongoing battles over wolf management and protection, and community support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the valley.
Every story on the ballot drew votes. The others included the postponement of the new Twisp civic center’s construction; the retirement of “Ranger Rick” Lewis as manager of Pearrygin Lake State Park; the capture of three cougar cubs in Winthrop; the development of a new gravel pit in the lower valley; approval of the Methow School District’s proposed operational levies; the beginning of construction on a new lodge at Loup Loup Ski Bowl; the Mission Restoration Project’s court case; the settlement of a Twisp Fire lawsuit just before it went to trial; approval of a Three Rivers Hospital levy; and the U.S. Census response in Okanogan County.
Drawing write-in votes was the groundbreaking for the new public library in Winthrop.
Marcy Stamper, Ann McCreary, Don Nelson and Ashley Lodato contributed to this story.