society of environmental journalists

Live in the woods? Prepare for an era of DIY firefighting; and why we need to rethink our firefighting strategies

MISSOULA, MT – Only you can prevent forest fires from obliterating your house. This twist on the old advice of Smokey Bear* is what the U.S. Forest Service is telling homeowners nowadays. But the agency is having some trouble getting the word out.

The Forest Service’s chief of firefighting, Tom Harbour, left his D.C. office and flew to Missoula to relay that message to reporters here for the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, which wrapped up today.

 Even with more than 10,000 federal firefighters ready to roll every fire season, the Forest Service simply can’t protect the throngs who have chosen to move into the woods in the last few decades, Harbour said.

“When that fire is coming over the ridge at your house, it’s too late,” Harbour said. “From an ecological perspective and a social perspective, we only face two choices: We’re either going to act as a society, or we are going to get acted upon. … The choices we have made as a society have put us in this position.”

Those choices include a century of suppressing fire in the woods, a policy kicked off by the more than 1,700 wind-fueled blazes that coalesced from eastern Washington to western Montana on Aug. 20-21, 1910.

 Next came the individual decisions by so many Americans to move into the woods over the last four decades. Many others moved to suburbs set amid fireprone grasslands or chaparral such as the acreage scorched annually by the Santa Ana winds in southern California.

“It may be the most significant internal migration we’ve ever had,” Harbour said.

Those folks living in the woods and fields are the ones Harbour and other fire scientists want to take action.

Obama's supposed transparency again belied by hush-hush press conference rules at EPA

Osha Gray Davidson's post on the Society of Environmental Journalists' listserv was at least one funny thing that could be written about the very unfunny way U.S. Environmental Protection Agency squelched open and honest communication with the public today:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of  openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

-- Senior administration official.

The quote, of course, is from President Obama, who issued the seemingly sweeping statement of support for government transparency shortly after taking office. As we've pointed out before, though, at least one agency is clearly failing to live up to this mandate: The U.S. EPA.

Today the agency, for the second time in three months, held a news conference on a major announcement and ordered reporters not to reveal the names of EPA officials addressing the public through the news media.

What is the meaning of this? Who are they afraid of?

The first incident happened when U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson held a news conference upon the release of the Obama administration's proposed annual budget in early February. Reporters who phoned in, their phones on mute so they could not object, were told that any EPA assistant administrators or others who spoke were "on background," meaning reporters were free to quote these officials, but not to identify them.Journalists were told if they stayed on the call or at the news conference they were agreeing to these rules. Is this what democracy looks like?

Obama administration tries to sell itself as more open and transparent; don't believe it

Friends, it's Sunshine Week, the annual push by those who would democratize our government by opening up our government to make our case. So Dateline Earth is taking a one-week hiatus while I populate InvestigateWest's From The Field blog with tales of how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is failing to engage with me and other journalists; how the EPA routinely drags out simple requests for public records; how the Obama administration is going to court to fight numerous requests for public records; and how the Obama administration is no better than George W. Bush's when it comes to squelching government scientists. Finally, courtesy of the Society of Environmental Journalists, we'll provide a list of important information sources for citizens, citizen journalists and yes even full-time journalists to use in prying information out of the government. It's all over at our From The Field blog.

-- Robert McClure  

Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal kill enviro-news blogs – is there a need for them?

Do you enjoy reading Dateline Earth? Is there a need for environmental news blogs? I hope the answer to both those questions is yes…. but if not I’d like to hear from you. Tell me: Is this a worthwhile enterprise? Because there are a lot of stories we’d like to get to out there – documents to read, people to call, data to analyze. All that takes time, and writing Dateline Earth costs me time.

Lest you think I’m fishing for compliments, I should point out that my inquiry is prompted by a post today on Columbia Journalism Review’s Observatory blog discussing how the Christian Science Monitor and The Wall Street Journal have discontinued their enviro-news blogs.

Both of these publications have storied histories and high journalistic standards.So CJR’s Curtis Brainerd checked in with editors at both sites, asking: whassup?

The answers are, it goes without saying, complex. The WSJ didn’t engage with Brainerd, which is a real shame, because a lot of us out here would like to know what they were thinking.

At the Monitor, sadly, the answer mostly seems to be that they just don’t have the horses any more.

A series of e-mails from Monitor Editor John Yemma to Brainerd offered that the environment is no longer a specialty – so true! Reporters on the city hall and business and feature beats, to name just a few, need to be familiar with what is sure to be the story of the century.

But Yemma also said that the Monitor’s Bright Green blog – the publication’s very first blog, instituted back when the copy had to go through the paper's cumbersome computer editing process for print stories – was discontinued in part because writer Eoin O’Carroll is busy doing something other than environmental journalism:

Off to have a blast in Lubbock with SEJ board

rm iwest mugI didn't even get through all my back e-mail left over my jam-packed week of learning at the Knight Digital Media Center, and yet I'm headed for the airport. I'm off to Lubbock, Texas, home of Texas Tech University, where I'm due at a meeting of the board of directors of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Texas Tech is considering hosting one of SEJ's excellent annual conferences, and it turns out the university has some acumen in the world of environmental sciences. For instance, in my recent piece on cancer-causing substances flowing off parking lots and driveways, I noted that Texas Tech researchers help demonstrate how the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons harmed aquatic creatures in Texas streams.

So I'm eager to see what else TT has to offer. I just hope we don't hold the meeting in the chemistry department. :>)

-- Robert McClure

U.S.-China climate pact: Why so late? We try to ask Al Gore (with a little help from KUOW)

The news today on the climate front is a pretty big honkin' deal: President Obama, on a visit to China, signed an agreement with China calling for the United States to offer a proposal for near-term cuts in greenhouse gases. In return, China will say what it plans to do about not frying the planet to kingdom come.

(I know: It doesn't sound earth-shattering. But it's a big enough deal that it's currently topping Google News. You have to realize that China and America are No. 1 and No. 2 in the list of the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.)

If you want more on today's developments, I recommend Jake Schmidt's piece over at

But here at Dateline Earth, I can't help but ask: Why didn't the Clinton-Gore administration convince China to show such good faith? At the time of the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, even some members of the U.S. delegation to the climate talks knew that selling the deal to the U.S. Senate meant convincing senators it would spawn expanding alternative-energy industry that would make money for Americans.  (At least in part by selling the stuff to China.)

Yes, the global political and economic scene was different then. But it seems the idea that Americans might benefit to some degree had to be sold. And then an R&D rampup had to happen. But it wasn't. And it didn't.

In fact, I may actually get to ask Al Gore about this, courtesy of the good folks at KUOW, the public radio news-and-information station. Gore, the leader of the American delegation to the 1997 Kyoto talks, is appearing from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday on The Conversation with Ross Reynolds. (It's at 94.9* FM if you're here in Rain City.

SEJ didn't single out journo who questioned Al Gore

There's been a lot of back and forth in the last few days about the incident at the recent Society of Environmental Journalists' conference in which a journalist trying to question Al Gore saw his microphone cut off.

Lots of folks out in the blogosphere are saying SEJ censored a journalist. I'm here to tell you it ain't so, and explain that at journalism conferences and press conferences, where lots of journos are waiting with questions, we just don't give other journos carte blanche to dominate the microphone. I'll also point out how the supposedly censored filmmaker could have been a lot more effective.

[caption id="attachment_5035" align="alignright" width="150" caption="This Gore mug's a little dated, but at least I am sure it's in the public domain."]This Gore mug's a little dated, but at least I am sure it's in the public domain.[/caption]

(Full disclosure: I'm a member of SEJ's board of directors. So I'm predisposed to defend the organization. But I'm also a journalist who, were I to mar my body with a tattoo, would have "Question Authority" stamped indelibly onto my wrist or forehead or some other conspicuous place. Also consider that I came on the environment beat in the late 1980s amid an explosion of stories about this new threat called global warming. I asked a lot of skeptical questions before finally seeing by 1997 that the science was being proved out.