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Brisk Business for Environmental Journalists

From White House to our house, no end to despoilers

May 8, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

It’s not often that a political event trains the national spotlight on the work of the nation’s environmental journalists. But that’s precisely what’s happened in the last few weeks as George W. Bush launched his absurd program of limiting government's authority to protect public health and the nation’s natural treasures.

Environmental journalists dug up the facts and explained the significance of Mr. Bush's decisions to halt U.S. efforts to reverse global warming, sideline rules to protect 60 million acres of wilderness, suspend new safety limits on arsenic in drinking water, and support drilling in the Arctic. By Earth Day in late April public revulsion to the President's "growth at any cost" governing strategy had grown so intense that the White House sent waves of top aides to cable talk shows to vainly promote the President's "good environmental record." 

A Calling
Indeed, for serious writers who need a boost every now and again, the last few weeks have been marvelous. In a media age that cares more about Oprah's weight than about vital civic debates, the President's sobering attack on sound policies proved once again that reporting on the environment is a noble pursuit.

I admit right up front, I'm biased. As a freelancer, local newspaper reporter, national correspondent with the New York Times, and now as program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, my life has been an environmental writer's feast. There's no end to the scoundrels who judge their value to humanity by how quickly they can screw up a beautiful place. And I find hardly anything more compelling than watching a mother of three swallow hard, leave her secure life, and become a heroine by successfully taking the despoilers on.

It's true. My perspective has changed a bit. As a newspaper reporter I dispassionately reported the facts without fear or favor. The goal was solely to inform.

Now, as an environmental writer and advocate, I deploy the same tools of investigative journalism not just to inform, but to go one important step further: to mobilize public support for useful social policy goals. In other words, I still connect the dots for readers, but I also have the opportunity to help explain what they really mean, and how to use the facts I've gathered to help citizens reach a satisfying conclusion. The foundation of both approaches, nevertheless, is the same: Sound reporting. Solid fact gathering. Fairness and accuracy.

Land Grab on South Fox
Take developer David Johnson's gambit to expand his private Shangri-La on South Fox Island. Mr. Johnson, a prominent developer, wants to wrest control of more than a mile of breathtaking beach on the Lake Michigan island west of Charlevoix that the public currently owns. The single salient fact that underlies this land grab is that Mr. Johnson is one of the largest political campaign donors to the state and national Republican parties.

That helps to explain why senior aides to Governor John Engler personally accompanied Mr. Johnson to an out-of-state meeting to help seal the deal. And it explains why the front office of the state Department of Natural Resources has the nerve to call Mr. Johnson's exercise a boost to the public interest.

That's simply not true. Reporting on the link between the campaign donations and the top-level behind-the-scenes maneuvers stirred public interest and made it much more difficult for Mr. Johnson to use his considerable insider clout to complete a land pact that principally benefits himself.

Profound Influence

Plainly, such reporting is harder than, say, speculating about the last "Survivor." But it's useful nonetheless. Indeed, few areas of journalism exert more profound influence on public opinion and government decisions than the work of environmental writers.

Why? Because the free market — for all the good that it does to produce wealth that improves the standard of living — is lousy at managing its excesses, especially its wastes. Two great disciplines of environmental journalism evolved to report on the consequences of capitalism to man and nature, weigh the competing interests, and explain to citizens and policy makers how to reduce them.

The first is daily environmental journalism, which began in the 1950s with the work of Gladwin Hill, a California-based New York Times correspondent who covered the consequences of radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing of American nuclear weapons at a desert site west of Las Vegas.

Probably the most important thing daily environmental journalists do is collect and interpret facts that show how the market system distorts the natural world and often endangers public health. More recently, they've also shown how making a profit is compatible with protecting the environment and public safety. Daily journalists refrain, though, from advancing a point of view. 

Advocacy Journalism
That's the domain of an older tradition of environmental journalism, begun in the 19th century, in which writers join penetrating reporting with carefully-crafted political advocacy. These writers, among them Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and Bill McKibben, often are the first to frame solutions to some of the nation's emerging and ultimately most important social problems.

The advocacy tradition started with John Muir, the great writer, naturalist, and founder of the Sierra Club. In the late 1880's, Muir returned to roaming California's High Sierra range after more than a decade of raising a family and farming. He invited Robert Wood Johnson, the editor of Century Magazine, a prestigious New York-based monthly, to join him for a camping trip in Yosemite Valley. During the three days they slept under the stars, Muir and Johnson hatched the idea of establishing Yosemite as the nation's second national park. For two years afterwards, Muir wrote penetrating and lyrical dispatches about Yosemite and the need to forever protect it as a wild place. Johnson gave the articles prominent display, and then personally traveled to Washington to lobby members of Congress, which in 1890 approved legislation to protect Yosemite.

Another stirring example is Howard Zahnhiser's work in the 1950s and 1960s as the editor of the Wilderness Society's magazine. As a reporter, Zahnhiser identified many of the last large tracts of publicly-owned wilderness in the United States. As an advocate, he called for new federal legislation to permanently protect these last great places from any industrial development, especially mining and logging. Zahnhiser's reporting attracted the attention of prominent Senators and Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall, who championed passage in 1964 of the Wilderness Act.

Local Journalism
In few places in the United States are the great traditions of environmental journalism more ardently pursued, or more successful in helping to safeguard an extraordinary landscape and way of life, than here in northwest Michigan.

Among the regional journalists who do a terrific job of covering environmental stories are Dave Fortin of TV 7&4, Bob Allen of Interlochen Public Radio, Brendan Straubel and Keith Matheny of the Traverse City Record-Eagle, Jeff Smith of Traverse Magazine, Joel Donofrio of the Cadillac News, and Robert Downes of Northern Express. Their work consistently serves to identify the significant environmental issues in the region, and to validate the people and organizations working for solutions.

At the same time, environmental advocacy journalism also is thriving in northwest Michigan, particularly at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Again, in the interest of fully disclosing my bias, I helped both to found the Benzonia-based organization in 1995, and to design it as an activist newsroom.

Role of the Institute
The Institute recruits first-rate environmental writers and in the tradition of John Muir, trains them to be grassroots organizers. Three of the most talented environmental journalists in the Midwest — Patty Cantrell, Kelly Thayer, and Andrew Guy — are my colleagues. Time and again during the past six years, the Institute joined probing investigative journalism with grassroots advocacy and helped to produce significant new policies that improved our quality of life and the environment.

In the mid-1990s, for instance, the Institute discovered that the oil and gas industry privately negotiated a sweetheart deal with the Engler administration that accelerated damaging energy development in state forests. The deal cut the industry's royalty payments to the state by at least a third and drained an estimated $8 million a year from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, a publicly-managed account used to buy open space and recreational lands.

The agreement's discovery, and the Institute's persistent reporting about its consequences, aroused the public, embarrassed the Department of Natural Resources, and weakened the energy industry's credibility in Lansing. In 1996, the Engler administration rescinded the agreement and millions of dollars were recovered from natural gas companies. Two years later, the Legislature approved five new laws to strengthen public oversight of energy development in Michigan.

Region Under Fire
Those of us who report the news and work in the trenches know how hard it is to sift through all the competing interests in our dynamic northwest Michigan economy, and still defend the singular environmental assets that make this such a choice place to live. There's no end to the blockhead proposals — highway bypasses, big box stores, giant subdivisions, mindless state sales of large parcels of public land, coastal developments of every kind — that threaten to make our beautiful and thriving region just like everywhere else.

Ever so slowly, though, our neighbors and elected leaders are awakening to the potential of new thinking about how to grow in a way that is more sensitive to the environment and our small town way of life. Spend the millions of dollars now planned for new highway bypasses on less-polluting and less costly public transit. Develop community designs that draw people together instead of spread them apart. Enforce local and state laws to protect wetlands, water quality, and public lands. Invest in local market programs, regional distribution systems, and other common sense economic incentives that keep farmers in agriculture, and their land in crops and livestock instead of parking lots.

We are fortunate to have such a strong stable of regional publications, broadcast stations and public interest organizations that consistently produce trenchant environmental journalism in northern Michigan. Today, just as it has for more than a century, valiant reporting and insightful commentary gives serious consideration to new ideas about environmental protection, and lends credibility and prestige to Michigan leaders courageous enough to put them into effect.

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