SUBLETTE COUNTY – Can’t remember what all happened in Sublette County this past year? You’re not alone. With new headlines, news and events happening on almost an hourly basis, one could be forgiven for not recalling them all.
That’s why the Examiner is here and happy to help.
Brady Oltmans, editor of the Sublette Examiner, took time to revisit all of the stories the Examiner ran during 2021 and compiled a quick recap of the top 10 that kept readers interested.
He also wanted to thank readers for continuing to support the local newspaper. Historical coverage coinciding with the Sublette Centennial is planned throughout 2022, giving readers an opportunity to look back upon the county’s history. Until then, a recap of 2021 will have to satisfy the history buffs this week.
Hospital District’s decisions
Sublette County voters approved the formation of the Sublette County Hospital District in 2020. The newly created Hospital District held its first meeting in January and elected board members. The news, seemingly, never stopped after.
Following extensive interviews, the board chose Star Valley Health as a managing partner for the Hospital District. Then came the hiring of legal counsel, the resignation of a board member and backing out of initial legal counsel, hiring of permanent counsel, selection of a new board member, merger with (and dissolution of) Sublette County Rural Health Care District, merger with the Sublette Center, submission of a USDA loan application to build a critical access hospital and development of relief for staff retention.
All of that came during a pandemic, when health-care needs in the county were elevated to near all-time highs.
The pandemic’s death toll
Sublette County experienced a spread of COVID-19 cases during Wyoming’s spike towards the end of 2020. Gov. Mark Gordon issued a mask requirement that ran into the first months of 2021. Meanwhile, the Wyoming Department of Health confirmed a sixth Sublette County citizen died of COVID-related illness during the final briefing issued on Jan. 3.
By the end of 2021, cases and deaths com- pounded. Sublette County Public Health is- sued its final briefing of the year on Dec. 17. In that, it was reported the county experienced 1,517 total cases with 23 deaths.
At least one county resident died of COVID-19 each week in a stretch that ranged from October to December.
Dr. Brendan Fitzsimmons received the first COVID-19 vaccine in the county at the start of the year. By the last update, 3,247 Sublette citizens received the vaccine. That’s about 33.03 percent of the population – among the lowest in Wyoming, making it among the lowest in the country, and falling well below health-care professionals’ targets for herd immunity.
Public Health stretched
Caring for residents in a rural community holds inherent difficulties. Those difficulties are compounded during a pandemic. Sublette County Public Health officials encountered all of that throughout 2021.
Public Health started the year fighting the initial spike of COVID-19 cases in Sublette County. As cases declined, hospitalizations did as well. Then came the arrival of vaccines, which Public Health worked tirelessly to accommodate, including the efforts of bringing in standalone cargo hangars. Public Health members administered drive-through vaccination clinics for weeks at a time in the spring into summer. Then they pleaded their case to keep the Public Health building as plans to build a critical access hospital included the building’s demolition.
The arrival of the Delta variant brought a massive influx of COVID-19 cases. At one point, Public Health Nurse Manager Janna Lee said they were taking multiple patients a day to regional hospitals for further care. A total of 17 county residents ultimately passed away from COVID-19 between the first and final Public Health updates of 2021.
Library renovations begin
The new Sublette County Board of Commissioners gave the final approval to start renovations on the Big Piney Library, setting in motion a project that had been discussed for years and even given preliminary approval by a previous board of commissioners.
Relief from this decision brought reprieve. Following months of uncertainty, the library was being brought back up to speed.
That relief subsided to work when it came time for the library to move into its temporary home at the rec center, as well as small bits of its inventory scattered around the community. Big Piney students volunteered to help library staff complete the temporary move.
Construction on the library itself has come with hiccups. Plumbing issues were discovered, exposure to COVID-19 stopped work for over a week and supply-chain issues created longer waits on the project.
Work on the library will continue into 2022.
Former student brings lawsuit
A former Big Piney High School student, along with her parents, filed a lawsuit against officials at Sublette County School District No. 9 claiming she was denied an equal opportunity at an education – as per Title IX – when she was subjected to sexual harassment from a former teacher at Big Piney High School.
Filing under the pseudonyms “Jane, James and Mary Doe,” the plaintiffs allege the family’s reports a teacher’s ongoing sexual harassments and assaults were not properly investigated. The lawsuit states they also experienced “hostile” retaliation at school and in the community.
The lawsuit has been amended since its original form that was filed on May 26, as the number of defendants was reduced. Following different court filings over the course of months, a judge ruled the plaintiffs could file under the pseudonyms.
A jury trial is scheduled to start Jan. 9, 2023.
Tax exemption discussions
Sublette County’s history of oil and gas development is both well known and well documented. A slight rebound in the industry allowed some rigs to return to work this year. But the biggest developments happened outside of the fields.
After being approached by Jonah Energy representatives, the Sublette County Board of Commissioners discussed granting potential exemptions to the recently passed Senate File 60 in the Wyoming Legislature.
Months of discussions occurred. Commissioners discovered the dire gap in funding they’d see in the county should all producers adhere to payments as outlined by Senate File 60. Ultimately, several oil and gas producers applied for the ex- emption and commissioners granted them in order to maintain some sort of payment schedule.
The county also got some financial relief due to a settlement reached with Vanguard, years after the initial court proceedings.
Sublette County’s financial outlook was underlined during those discussions. The county’s gross domestic product has dropped over 75 percent since the most recent boom in 2008 and, without alternative revenue or a rebound of revenue, a financial shortfall was forecasted.
Rammell found guilty after all
The story of Rex Rammell and his brand-inspection tags developed further in 2021, even including a trial that ended with a jury’s guilty verdict.
Rammell, a former Rock Springs veterinarian and gubernatorial candidate, was found guilty of not possessing proper brand inspection tags in 2019 for four horses and a colt back in May. This came after nearly two years of court developments, which included out-of-county judges and appeals.
The judge sentenced Rammell to 30 days in jail for each count, to run at the same time, and then suspended them. He also ordered four rounds of six months unsupervised probation to also run concurrently, along with a payment of $1,255 in fees.
Rammell since appealed the jury’s decision and continues to claim the laws are unconstitutional. He represented himself in court, like he has throughout the course of the court proceedings.
That appeal suffered another delay as the county said Rammell submitted exhibits far too late in the case. Judge Marv Tyler disagreed and ordered the appeal to continue.
Main Street work
Marbleton Town Council members started their work in 2021 by talking about a section of patchwork concrete and asphalt that was essentially abandoned for traffic with Highway 189’s route through town.
Councilmembers were told, through preliminary sketches, that work needed to bring the solid surfaces to grade level to protect the existing sidewalk, manholes and slotted drains in the area.
Eventually, the council accepted the low bid on the project during its March meeting.
That project has been rather uncontroversial throughout the year as the town continues to look through various improve- ments.
Possible federal infrastructure dollars could be coming in the future to Sublette County, some of which might benefit projects like this in Marbleton.
New face, same challenges
During the summer, Sublette County School District No. 9 officials introduced Dr. Charles Jenks as the new superintendent of the district. Dr. Jenks comes to Sublette County from Wind River, where he continued to work with the schools in Pavillion.
He’s jumped into the role, answering the public’s questions and guiding the district throughout its challenges – some inherent and some new.
Last year it was announced that SCSD9 once again experienced smaller enrollment than the year before. That matches an overwhelming trend over the past 15 years. As the district shrinks enrollment amid education budget shortfalls, the stakes get higher in terms of gaining resources.
He’s also faced new challenges, like the dwindling number of bus drivers for the district. Recently, Big Piney High School basketball and wrestling teams had to stay home because there weren’t enough bus drivers available to take the athletes to their events and drive students home. Dr. Jenks predicted that could be an issue at an earlier school board meeting.
Soda Lake fire contained
The American West experienced massive wildfires this summer. Thankfully, Sublette County experienced only one fire of major proportions.
A wildfire outside of Soda Lake was spotted on July 27. Command of the fire transferred to a regional crew on July 30. The fire was originally estimated at a few dozen acres but quickly grew to near 80 acres the day after the fire was reported.
Surrounding environments worried crews for the possible spread into a massive wildfire just outside of Big Piney. But a quick response from U.S. Forest Service and Sublette County Unified Fire crews, as well as joining institutions, were aided by consistent rain and mild temperatures at the time that lim- ited the spread to just 97 acres a week into its burn.
Local responders credited their plan of attack, favorable conditions and a well-established platform of communication among entities for keeping the blaze from getting too far out of hand.