What gets lost in the moniker of “Big Sky Country” — now by brand association most closely associated with Montana but could just as easily apply to Wyoming — is the reality that it’s not actually home to more sky than the rest of the country enjoys.
It’s just easier to see.
That increased visibility comes in large part from the region’s dearth of trees. Northeast Wyoming’s sparse tree coverage comes a lot from their refusal to grow, along with harsh conditions for those that manage to survive. The past year has been one of turbulent weather patterns that has resulted in a large number of local trees passing on to meet that big wood-chipper in the sky.
WeatherUnderground, a website and mobile application with weather-data sources numbering in the hundreds of thousands, tracks and summarizes data by day, week and month. One of its data sources is an Automated Surface Observation System at the Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport.
The system monitors, among other things, temperature, precipitation accumulation, wind direction and speed, sea-level pressure, cloud height and visibility, and is a coordinated weather data-gathering effort between the National Weather Service, the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Department of Defense.
WeatherUnderground’s history function visualizes that data and allows users to view the highs and lows from a given month as a graph. Wide temperature fluctuations throughout the months of October and November last fall are apparent, and when charted on a graph you’d think you were looking at the silhouette of a mountain range with 50 or more degrees separating the peaks from the valleys.
Oct. 11, 2019, set a record for the lowest temperature recorded for that day at a teeth-chattering 11 degrees. The trend continued into November. One Saturday saw a high of 64 degrees, then two days later the low bottomed out at minus 8 degrees, a 72-degree swing.
Diane Monahan, a Campbell County Master Gardener and proud owner of two rather unique trees for the area, lost at least one of them as a result of the weather fluctuations. The trees, one a purple locust and the other a catalpa, were at least 25 and 30 years old, respectively.
Now nearly a year later, the true damage done by the weather is manifesting.
Monahan described the catalpa in her street-side yard on Warren Avenue in the old part of downtown as looking “real full,” but then “about 18 feet of dead on top of it.”
“This catalpa that I have was actually featured 20 years ago in the Campbell County Conservation District,” she said. “It used to be the littlest tree on the block, and now it’s the biggest tree on the block.
“It’s just sad,” she said about what the weather shock has done to it. “It’s really, really sad-looking.”
The purple locust is in Monahan’s backyard and will have to come down, she said. But the catalpa on the street raises more questions.
“We were just talking about it this morning, my husband and I, saying, ‘Well, have we waited long enough? Is this as much as is going to come out? Can you trim off the dead stuff?’” Monahan said.
The size and age of Monahan’s trees accentuate the loss, but as Gillette City Arborist Wendy Clements pointed out, Monahan’s trees also are rather unique by Wyoming standards. Clements couldn’t decide which was more unlikely: that Monahan’s trees had grown as old as they had in Wyoming in the first place or that after doing so, one severe temperature swing would have been enough to kill them.
But Clements wasn’t ready to throw in the towel on Monahan’s catalpa just yet.
“I do have a scales of justice in my mind, as far as, ‘Would it be better to wait another year and see if it comes back out of it?’” she said. “You’ve already got 15-30 years invested in that tree, and that’s time you can’t buy back.”
The weather hasn’t just affected unique trees.
Darin Edmonds, sexton for the Campbell County Cemetery District’s, said he lost 35-40 trees, “almost exclusively ash trees,” because of the temperature swing last October that caught the trees unprepared for winter.
But it wasn’t the oldest ones in the cemetery under Edmonds’s care that suffered. It was the trees less than 4 inches in diameter — those between 10 and 15 years old — that died as a result of the fall weather.
“They’ve been thriving for the last, in some cases, 10 years, and they didn’t make it through this,” Edmonds said. “It was just kind of weird. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Campbell County Parks Supervisor Roy Holdeman was likewise perplexed, calling the events of last fall “peculiar.”
He said he lost more than 30 trees at various parks and facilities in the county, significantly more than the 10-15 trees Holdeman said are lost in a typical year.
Holdeman has a theory about what happened to the trees last fall.
When temperatures start dropping, the living cells of a tree become more permeable to allow water to move out of cell membranes and into the space between cells. Then the tree starts converting starch into a sugar inside the cells, he said.
He calls this a type of “antifreeze” inside the cells that, coupled with the water that had moved out of the cell, freezes and provides insulation in a process that helps a tree withstand winter.
All of this is normal and likely happening last fall. But at the root of the die-off is the weather fluctuations, the massive swings from hot to not. When the mercury rises, that whole process began to undo itself and water flows back into the cells, Holdeman said. Then the temperatures dropped below freezing before the trees could go through their insulating process all over again.
Clements agreed and said the phenomenon extended into the spring.
“This spring went from 60 degrees one week to 90 degrees the next,” she said. “Usually, you’d have the 60 degrees going into 70 degrees and you would have that gradual uprise.
“The other part of it was when we had those 90-degree days, we went down to 40-degree nights. That can be kind of hard on a tree. Usually you only have a 20- to 30-degree difference between daytime and nighttime temps.”
Big swings week-to-week coupled with big swings day-to-day were just too much for many of the area’s trees, she said.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a trickster, full of conceit and hubris. Zeus punished him for this by dooming him to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a steep hill. But before Sisyphus reached the top, the enchanted boulder would inevitably roll back to the bottom and he would have to start all over again.
Today, we still refer to tasks that seem futile and maddeningly frustrating as Sisyphean.
Such is the task of an arborist in northeast Wyoming.
Clements and Holdeman, who are both arborists, and Edmonds all despaired softly, with all the force of a leaf dropping to the ground, at the area’s tree deaths and losses the past year. Their comments were tinged with resignation to the uncontrollable — sad but not despondent. Mother Nature claimed those trees and all anyone can do is try to replace them.
Trees are a precious commodity in Campbell County, especially those that manage to live long and prosperous lives. An ecoregion represents “areas where ecosystems (and the type, quality, and quantity of environmental resources) are generally similar,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
To get technical about it, the EPA and U.S. Geological Survey classify our ecoregion as the Northwestern Great Plains, an area where agriculture is restricted because of “erratic precipitation and limited opportunities for irrigation.”
Edmonds said basically the same thing.
“If you look around Gillette, trees thrive where there’s irrigation,” Edmonds said. “A tree needs so much moisture, inches of moisture, gallons per day, to thrive and when they don’t get it, they get stressed. Then they’re susceptible to pests and other environmental factors ... because they just don’t have the energy that they need to fight.
“Just like a human, when you get sick, if you don’t take care of yourself and drink enough water, you’re going to be more susceptible and when you do get sick, it’s going to be worse than if you were healthy.”
Then there’s the weather.
“The weather conditions are rough,” Holdeman said. “Early/late freezes, the heat, the drought. Moisture is a big thing ... (and) ours is pretty low. About anything you plant here you’re going to have to irrigate in some way. It’s just High Plains desert … just a hard place to grow trees.”
These modern-day Sisyphuses toil away against inhospitable odds, pushing their boulders up a metaphorical northeastern Wyoming butte and hoping that every step forward isn’t followed by two more backward. That’s not to say their efforts are pointless and there isn’t room for hope.
Clements said the city’s trees, which number about 8,300, are doing better than they once did. Holdeman said that of the trees he’d tagged for removal because of damage after last fall’s cold spell, about 75% recovered after being given some time.
It’s bad news and good news. It’s both and neither. It’s paradoxical, as Clements tried to describe whether or not the past year’s aberrant weather and numerous tree deaths were a big deal or an arboreal anomaly.
It’s both, she said.
“These sorts of things happen, but I wouldn’t say it was a record-breaking event,” Clements said. “But it did set us back a little bit ... so I wouldn’t say it was record-setting, but it was something notable.”
This year’s die-off of trees matters because it took some of the more established, hardy specimens.
“The most noteworthy thing is these were pretty well-established trees, even those that were lost at the cemetery, those still had been in the ground 10 or 12 years,” Clements said. “That’s what was so depressing about it, really. Those are the ones that usually stand through everything. It’s hard to kill a cottonwood or an ash. It’s hard to get them growing, but once you get them growing, it’s kind of hard to kill them.”
Wyoming’s big sky is picturesque, but it’s unpredictable in almost every other way. All things that stands beneath it must be rugged or perish. And sometimes even the rugged don’t make it.
“Mother Nature is different, and she gives us something different every year,” Clements said. “This year may be a snowstorm, last year was a cold spell, the year before that could have been a drought. It really just depends on the year and what Mother Nature is doing, and there really isn’t a way to predict that.”
A former treasurer of two youth wrestling clubs in Gillette will serve 30 days in jail and pay $50,000 in restitution for money he stole from them.
In June, Steven Johnson, 45, pleaded guilty to theft and agreed to pay $50,000 in restitution for money he stole from the clubs: $20,500 to the Camel Kids Wrestling Club and $29,500 to the Gillette Wrestling Club.
Wednesday afternoon, District Judge Thomas W. Rumpke sentenced Johnson to two to four years in prison, suspended in favor of a 30-day split sentence in the county jail to be followed by three years of supervised probation.
Rumpke called the wrestling clubs “incredibly vulnerable victims” that trusted Johnson “almost blindly” to handle their finances.
In exchange for Johnson’s guilty plea, prosecutors recommended a two- to four-year prison sentence, suspended in favor of a 30-day split sentence in county jail to be served weekends. This was approved by both clubs.
Instead of just spending weekends in jail, Johnson will have to serve the whole 30 days at once, Rumpke said. Johnson will get credit for three days served.
Johnson said Wednesday that he takes full responsibility and accountability for his actions. He said he took the money to support his family after he got laid off from the coal mines in 2016 and lost his house and car.
He apologized to the children and the families in the wrestling clubs and said he is working on becoming a better person.
“I have to live with my actions. I am a felon,” he said. “I deserve this. I was wrong.”
Johnson said most, if not all, of the $50,000 will be repaid in the next month.
His attorney, Steven Titus, said Johnson never denied wrongdoing, cooperated with law enforcement and expressed remorse for his actions. He asked that Rumpke suspend all of the jail time so that Johnson can keep his job, which he needs to pay the clubs back.
Titus said that if Johnson were a woman, prosecutors would have recommended him for straight probation with no jail time. He cited past cases in Campbell County and Wyoming where female embezzlers were sentenced to probation.
Marcella Hall, who stole nearly $40,000 from the Campbell County Treasurer’s Office, was recommended to be on probation and serve no jail time. She ended up spending a few weeks in jail. Micky Culey got straight probation after stealing thousands of dollars from the Gillette Hockey Association.
Titus said there is a “clear discrepancy” based on gender when it comes to these types of crimes.
“His gender doesn’t matter. His actions matter,” said prosecuting attorney Steve McManamen.
McManamen said Johnson’s crimes “hit the Gillette community right in the heart.” He asked how many people will now think twice about donating to either of the wrestling clubs because of Johnson’s actions.
Rumpke said he does not believe there is a gender disparity as Titus claimed. He cited two of his own cases. Sherry Fuller, who took $6,600 from the Gillette Babe Ruth League, spent 90 days in jail. And Yelizaveta Zolotova, who stole tens of thousands of dollars from Volunteers of America clients, served 180 days in jail.
“Nothing in this (Johnson’s) case warrants straight probation,” Rumpke said.
Mike Johnson, representing Camel Kids Wrestling, said Steven Johnson was selfish and thought only of himself instead of the children.
“I question his remorse more than anything,” said Mike Johnson, who is not related to Steven.
Steven Johnson’s actions left “130 kids in a bad predicament,” Mike Johnson said, and the club had to jump through a lot of hoops just to have a season.
After he serves his jail time, Johnson will be on three years of supervised probation. Rumpke will instruct Johnson’s probation officer to limit his access to cable TV and high-speed internet to free up more money to pay the clubs back.
The clubs originally identified $64,827 missing since October 2017 when Johnson became treasurer of the Gillette Wrestling Club. He became treasurer of the Camel Kids Wrestling Club in June 2018.
In late August 2019, the Camel Kids Wrestling Club had gathered evidence about Johnson’s alleged personal use of the club’s debit card, many of the charges made on Amazon and at Walmart. The board confronted Johnson about the charges and he allegedly admitted to spending the club’s money for his personal use, according to an affidavit.
He agreed to pay back the $11,000 that the club thought at that time was missing. But board members decided to report the embezzlement to police instead after learning he also was allegedly embezzling from the Gillette Wrestling Club, according to the affidavit.
The Gillette Wrestling Club discovered Aug. 31 that its account at Wells Fargo Bank had been closed because it was overdrawn. Board members also learned he’d drained a different account at Campco Federal Credit Union and had opened a new account at Pinnacle Bank with a $4,000 donation to the account, and it was in arrears, according to the affidavit.
The Camel Kids Club believes that the thefts began about a week after Johnson was elected treasurer. A board member was alerted to problems in May 2019 when a Casper hotel called to report that it hadn’t received payment for rooms that were reserved for an upcoming event. Johnson said he would take care of it. But it still hadn’t been paid a few days later when the board member got a second call from the hotel, according to the affidavit.
She began to investigate and found fraudulent charges that totaled $11,170 on the club’s debit card in August.
But as the club continued to investigate, it found more money missing, according to the affidavit. The money generated from two raffles and registration fees also came up short. The total deposited should have been at a minimum $63,180, but only $47,000 had been deposited, a difference the club attributed to cash payments.
Between the debit card payments and the short deposits, the club figured it lost $26,650.
For the Gillette Wrestling Club, the board found $30,167 worth of fraudulent withdrawals from two bank accounts, which were spent on a variety of things like contact lenses, a city utility bill, Amazon orders and hotel rooms at tournaments.