These leaders, artists, adventurers and entrepreneurs will change the West in 2022.
Guardian of ancestral land
Starting in the 19th century, the Department of the Interior was instrumental in uprooting centuries-old tribes from their land and meddling in Indigenous culture. Now, that same department is headed by one of those it once sought to eradicate.
Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, climbed through the ranks of the Democratic Party to become, in 2018, one of the first two Indigenous women ever elected to the U.S. Congress. As secretary of the interior, she’s poised to strengthen Native nations’ sovereignty and investigate Indian boarding schools, where many Native children died. When President Joe Biden restored Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two national monuments that are sacred to Native Americans, many saw her influence within the Cabinet.
Haaland is sure to leave her mark on the West, says Eric Henson, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard and an enrolled tribal member. Contested water rights, droughts and wildfires all fall under her mandate.
“It really is more than just symbolism,” he says, “having someone like that having a seat at the table.”
Five years ago, the Chobani founder and CEO made a stunning announcement: The company’s 2,000 employees would receive shares worth up to 10% of its value. Today the yogurt maker could be worth as much as $10 billion, so when it goes public in the coming months, some factory workers could become millionaires.
This includes employees at the world’s largest yogurt-making plant in Twin Falls, Idaho. Ulukaya has poured hundreds of millions into the facility, which doubles as a research and development center. But he’s also heavily invested in workers. Rather than avail himself of the state’s cheap labor costs, he’s moved to pay them at least twice the federal minimum wage and offer benefits rivaling those at blue-chip companies.
A Turkish Kurd who left his country due to Turkey’s repression of his ethnic group, Ulukaya has also hired hundreds of refugees: The company says 19 nationalities are represented in its two U.S. factories. Such moves have gained Ulukaya strong allies in the region, including Shawn Barigar, president and CEO of the Twin Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Chobani’s investment in Twin Falls,” says Barigar, “has been the gift that keeps on giving.”
New sheriff in town
In February 2021, when Appelhans was sworn in as sheriff in Albany County, where 92% of the population is white, he became the first Black sheriff in Wyoming. It was a time of great scrutiny for local law enforcement. Three years earlier in Laramie, the county seat, a deputy shot and killed a man with a history of mental illness — a reminder that the role of sheriff in southeast Wyoming is about a lot more than just law enforcement. In addition to wildfire response and search and rescue, it’s about mental health checks and substance abuse mitigation.
Appelhans intends to work closely with hospitals and treatment programs so that people don’t just end up in a detention center. Appelhans is intent on addressing distrust in his community, on dissolving barriers between the police and the policed; if you call the Albany County Sheriff ’s Office, Appelhans is the person who picks up the phone.
“We really can change somebody’s life,” he says, “and it’s a huge responsibility.”
Swain has found a unique kind of fame explaining how climate change affects communities across the West. He holds a joint appointment at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, but his work also includes spending a good portion of his day on social media. He gathers information across disciplines, chats with firefighters as they hold down a fire line and sifts through the data to turn it into a Twitter thread.
Educating us all on these matters serves more than our need to scroll. Without a good grasp of science it’s impossible to craft solutions to the problems plaguing the West. And without understanding the main causes of, say, wildfires — climate change, urban expansion into the wildlands, forest management — policymakers might throw tax dollars solely at stamping out arsonists. (Swain recently had to correct the media on the misconception that arson plays an outsize role in the cause of blazes.)
“My goal is to help people sort of access the level of collective understanding,” he says. “All of the solutions are global in scope. But most of the impacts are local.”
The cowboy state’s real maverick
When the Wyoming representative voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, she paid a price: She was ousted from House Republican leadership, despite a deeply conservative voting record.
Cheney has stuck to her guns, insisting that the valley between Trump and real conservative values is wide. Her refusal to back down has inflamed a formidable 2022 reelection fight. Nearly 70% of Wyoming voters threw their support behind the former president in 2020, and money from out-of-state donors keeps pouring in for Cheney’s Trump-endorsed opponent, Harriet Hageman. (Trump ally and Silicon Valley mogul Peter Thiel recently cut a check to Hageman’s campaign.)
Still, Cheney holds the support of some old-guard Republicans, including former President George W. Bush. The outcome of the race may be a bellwether for the future of conservatism in the West — and whether traditional GOP principles can win the day over Trumpism.
Land use mutineer
Since becoming embroiled in two armed standoffs with Bureau of Land Management agents — at the Nevada ranch owned by his father, Cliven, in 2014 and at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 — Bundy has turned into a folk hero in certain quarters of the far right and something of a roving consultant, advising ranchers on property disputes, all while running a long-shot bid for Idaho governor.
A Latter-day Saint, Bundy “truly believes that he’s being divinely directed to protect America and the Constitution,” says Betsy Gaines Quammen, the author of “American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God & Public Lands in the West.”
What sets him apart in anti-government circles is that “he is earnest, relatable and measured in ways that others are not,” she says.
This doesn’t make him any less dangerous than militias, however. “I don’t think he will be violent himself,” she says. “I worry about those he inspires.”
Whitney Wolfe Herd
The buzzy matchmaker
Wolfe Herd wants to find you a boyfriend. And a girlfriend. And a best friend. And a business partner. The 32-year-old CEO and founder of Bumble has turned the online dating app she launched in 2014 into a brand worth billions.
A Salt Lake City native, Wolfe Herd has carved out a place in a crowded market with an ingenious idea: What if women made the first move? On the app they have 24 hours to engage in a conversation after they’ve matched with a man, or the match goes away. For men, using the app is “a way of signifying that you’re open toward women taking a little bit more control,” says Amanda Miller, a sociologist at the University of Indianapolis.
Bumble claims more than 42 million monthly users and, as of 2019, it was the most popular dating app in two Western states, Oregon and Washington, according to a PC Mag survey.
But Wolfe Herd’s clout now reaches well beyond the tech world. Last year, her company successfully backed a Texas law that made sending unsolicited lewd pictures a misdemeanor.
Sentinel of the monarchs
The population of the Western monarch butterfly, a wildflower pollinator and protein source for birds and other animals, has declined 99% since the 1980s. The loss is primarily due to the disappearance of milkweed, which the butterflies consume as caterpillars in the fields where they once thrived. Restoring milkweed has become Taylor’s mission.
Officially, she’s founder of Utah Friends of Monarchs and a research associate for the Southwest Monarch Study. Unofficially, she’s “butterfly lady,” the Johnny Appleseed of the fluttering-winged world.
She and her colleagues have helped establish monarch way stations across the region. Most recently, Intermountain Healthcare called Taylor to ask for help to create a monarch migration path from each of their hospitals.
Garden by garden, Taylor is working to reverse the course of wildlife degradation. “If you plant it, they will come and we’ve proven it.”
Living in your van and bumming around the West in search of red rock or granite to scale used to be a subculture reserved for only the most hardcore climbers. But now that the West’s outdoor culture and commerce have expanded, telling your friends and family that you’ll be taking time off to drive around in your Sprinter van won’t elicit quite as many raised eyebrows.
While many forces have changed the way people know and see the West, one man has helped spur change in a particularly flashy way. Honnold stunned the world when he ascended El Capitan, the 3,000-foot granite wall in Yosemite Valley, without a single rope — a climb lauded as one of the greatest athletic feats of all time.
His ascent, and the 2018 documentary “Free Solo,” which chronicled his journey, helped revitalize climbing as a sport and romanticized the climbing lifestyle in the western U.S. If you feel you’ve seen more Sprinter vans on the highway, their cargo holds full of shaggy rock jocks, you may have Honnold, who calls Las Vegas home, to blame. Without a doubt, his yen for scaling walls without a safety harness has made an otherwise niche sport part of the mainstream consciousness.
Cartographer of the missing
This much is known: The murder rate of American Indian and Alaska Native women is nearly three times that of non-Hispanic white women. And up until recently, there was very little media coverage and too few attempts to truly understand the scope of the problem.
In 2015, Lucchesi set out to change that. She created a list, which became a database, of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada. And she collected the data in a way it never had been before, centering victims’ families and survivors of violence as the experts, and incorporating tribal language, desecration of victims’ bodies after they were killed and proximity to extractive industries.
Three years later she released the report, which covered 71 cities across the United States. It was a watershed moment. “For the first time we had members of Congress speaking about the issue,” she says. “We had national media outlets covering the issue.”
States have since created task forces to better address violence against Indigenous women, and, in April 2021, the Department of the Interior launched a Missing & Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Long before the murder of George Floyd led to a national moment of reckoning on race, Sklute set out to make ballet more inclusive. As the artistic director of the Salt Lake City-based Ballet West, Sklute has moved to hire dancers of color, break down racial stereotypes in productions and audit the ensemble’s practices and procedures.
With Sklute at the helm, the company has done away with skin lighteners used to “whiten” dancers performing classical roles in “Swan Lake” or “Giselle.” It has also ditched pink tights and shoe straps to allow dancers to wear garments that more closely match their skin tone.
Additionally, Ballet West started a panel discussion looking at racism in classical ballet and, alongside 15 other companies, has committed to do more to attract young dancers of color. Sklute says he’s also working to broaden the pool of students at Ballet West Academy, which trains professional dancers.
“I dream of a day, a time when my company will have no one racial majority,” he says.
The cipher of Arizona
Few politicians defy labels like Sinema, who grew up in a Latter-day Saint family but is openly bisexual, started her political career in the Green Party but switched allegiances to the Democrats, and, after her election to the Senate in 2018, backed half of the bills brought to a vote by Republicans.
That political plasticity might explain how she’s become so powerful. She’s blocked major items in President Joe Biden’s agenda, including a multitrillion-dollar package that would help fight climate change and beef up social benefits for millions. In doing so, she’s riled her constituents and offered pundits a puzzle: What does she want? And why does she seem so keen on foiling the progressive base that helped her flip a seat long held by Republicans?
“Her actions are likely to hurt Democrats running for office across the country next year, including in Arizona,” says Emily Kirkland, executive director of Progress Arizona, a grassroots organization that supported Sinema’s Senate run. “Most importantly, her actions will hurt hundreds of millions of people affected by the policies under debate.”
Zhao is painting the West in a different color, one film at a time. In “The Rider,” an Indigenous cowboy learns that a way of life is only as important as the character of those who participate in it. In “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” she delves into the vicious circle of poverty that entraps members of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. And in “Nomadland,” which won an Oscar for best film, a drifter played by Frances McDormand departs Nevada for a pilgrimage around the western U.S. to find herself.
Zhao, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who is originally from China, has talked about her fascination with the Old West, and her movies are in the continuity of previous films about life there, says Andrew Nelson, the chairman of the department of film and media arts at the University of Utah.
But what sets her films apart is that they “examine the legacy of the stories we’ve told ourselves about the West, often dramatizing the friction between those stories — the myth of the West, if you will — and reality,” Nelson says.
A gentler GOP-er
In October 2020, in the run-up to his election, Cox appeared in an ad with his gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Chris Peterson, to make a plea for civility in political campaigns: “We can disagree without hating each other” and “Let’s show the country there’s a better way,” Cox said.
While Peterson never had much of a chance of winning in deep-red Utah, the novelty of two pols standing together was a notable departure from the partisan rancor that’s become de riguer in politics nationwide. The move led one international media outlet to applaud Utah’s conservatism, praising the Latter-day Saint right for not following “white evangelicals’ descent into grievance politics.”
And while some right-wing outlets and pundits have criticized him, the people Cox governs like the job he’s doing: he’s consistently received the approval of over 60% of Utahns.
Says Republican political consultant and lobbyist LaVarr Webb, “I think Cox would do well to demonstrate his conservative principles, even while maintaining his moderate tone. So far, he’s been doing just that.
Only about 5% of venture capitalist partners in the U.S. are women, and less than 3% of venture capital is invested in companies founded by women. The industry may remain a boys club, but Miura-Ko, once touted as the “most powerful woman in startups,” is out to change that.
As a partner at Floodgate, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, she was a key early investor in tech companies like Lyft, altering the way Americans move through the world. Based on that track record, she was able to co-found and launch All Raise, a company that supports women in venture capital.
In May 2021, she told us she credits her background in math modeling for her ability to invest in highly technical companies. But the true key to transforming an industry from within, she said, is diversity. “I’ve seen what different voices can do to improve decision-making.”
Benevolent land grabber
Few philanthropists have made as big an impact on land conservation in the West as Wyss. In the past decade, the Swiss billionaire, who made a fortune selling his medical device company to Johnson & Johnson in 2012, has bought hundreds of thousands of acres of natural habitat, funded conservation projects and helped train the next generation of environmentalists.
From Wyoming, where he lives, he oversees The Wyss Foundation, which partners with local communities and nonprofits to preserve wildlands and waters. He bought back federal oil and gas leases in Wyoming in wildlife migration areas and contributed $35 million to acquire timberland in Montana, among other efforts.
Hansjörg Wyss has created a lasting conservation legacy in the western United States, says David Banks, chief conservation officer of The Nature Conservancy, which has received funding from Wyss.
Wyss has pledged to donate $1.5 billion of his fortune to protect 30% of the planet’s surface by 2030 — one of the single largest commitments in history for conservation by an individual.
Jon Huntsman Jr.
The comeback exec
Many election-using politicians quickly leave the public eye. Not Huntsman. The two-term governor of Utah has managed to stay relevant, despite a failed run in the 2012 Republican presidential primary and a gubernatorial reelection defeat last year.
In early 2021, Huntsman parlayed his extensive experience as a political leader and ambassador to China and Russia into a tailor-made gig: He’s now vice chairman of policy at Ford, with a reported $1 million annual salary. Huntsman’s tasked with advising CEO Jim Farley on issues ranging from electrification to sustainability.
Ford has committed to spend $30 billion on electric cars, a massive pivot for the second-largest automaker in the U.S. And Huntsman could play a role nudging the Biden administration toward developing the EV infrastructure necessary to make electric cars mainstream, says Sarah Wright, the executive director of Utah Clean Energy, a nonprofit that promotes renewable energy.
Huntsman has “a major opportunity to help our country lead in making electric vehicles available and affordable to all Americans,” she says.
Defender of the unhoused
Soaring housing costs in the West mean that more people find themselves at risk of becoming homeless. Some cities have answered by prosecuting those sleeping in the street. This included Pamela Hawkes. She was cited 12 times by Boise police between 2006 and 2007, even when packed shelters wouldn’t take her in.
With five other plaintiffs, she challenged police enforcement codes, prompting the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to rule in 2018 outlawing sleeping outdoors on public property amounted to unconstitutional and cruel punishment. The ruling affected ordinances in California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Nevada and Arizona, in addition to Idaho. Earlier this year, the city of Boise agreed to settle and invest $1.3 million in homelessness programs and made sleeping in public legal when no shelter space is available.
Once they no longer have access to shelters, “What is it that people are to do?” asks Marc Schlegel-Preheim, the mission coordinator at Corpus Christi House, a day shelter in Boise. “I feel like there’s a recognition of that reality.”
One of the BYU head football coach’s biggest achievements has little to do with assembling the best players. It has to do with staff diversity, the lack of which has plagued college football since its early days.
Sitake made news when he become the first Tonga-born NCAA football head coach in 2015. He immediately made moves to bring in a diverse staff: The following year, eight out of 13 people Sitake picked as coaches and staffers were of color.
This approach has served him well. Sitake managed to rekindle the Cougars’ flame and help them leap back to a No. 11 ranking last year, their best since 1996. For a few weeks, the team even clung to the No. 8 spot.
Sitake credits his success to all in the BYU ecosystem, from the players to the coaches and the fans.“We emphasize and try to develop a culture based on love and learning,” he says. “Everyone makes a difference and has a unique and diverse story.”