A Sneak Peak Into What SEJ Offers Penn and Philadelphia Next Spring
A question that crossed my mind boarding the plane at 6:45am on a Tuesday heading to Boise, Idaho (of all places). I was heading to a state known for potatoes and nature, and also the location of this year’s Society of Environmental Journalism (SEJ) Conference. Although this is published in May, I wrote this hardly a week after the conference is finished excited to share my experience and hopefully drum up some excitement in Philadelphia for what is sure to be an interesting experience at Penn in April 2024. While I don’t want to spoil all the fun by sharing every detail of my experience, I aim to share some highlights so that as my colleagues, students, and other interested parties read this may be more inclined to attend next year.
Straight from the horse’s mouth, “SEJ’s mission is to strengthen the quality, reach and viability of journalism that advances public understanding of environmental issues.” SEJ was founded in 1990 in Philadelphia, PA by editors and producers working for the Philadelphia Inquirer, National Geographic, Turner Broadcasting, and Minnesota Public Radio. This organization provides environmental journalists with a way to network with others in their field, acknowledge their colleagues’ work from fellow journalists through awards, fellowships, and conferences and webinars. This is certainly a society for journalists by journalists, but the very nature of journalists lends it to being a good place for other interested parties who might want to be involved.
Much like other conferences, there are panels, plenaries, talks, exhibitors (read: branded swag freebies), coffee throughout the day, catered meals, and opening/closing receptions. Having been to a variety of types of environmental conferences at various sizes, I thought I knew what to expect here. However, as I quickly learned, journalists and communicators operate differently even if their conference at a surface level seems similar to the annual meetings of Ecological Society of America or Geological Society of America. Journalists know how to get to the heart of an issue and ask the most striking questions – even when you are casually networking and discussing shared experience or interests. This was especially demonstrated during the all-day field trips (which covered a variety of environmental and energy issues in the Treasure Valley region) and the plenary talk with Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Deb Haaland.
Let’s start with the all-day field trips. I signed up for “Tour 1. Sagebrush Country: Sunrise at the Lek”. What luck that seeing a sage grouse lek is a bucket list item for me. There are several species of grouse in the United States, and they all have unique mating rituals. I first learned about Greater Sage Grouse and their cousins (e.g., greater prairie chicken) as an undergraduate in a summer ornithology course. As someone who has been birding ever since, it was on my nature bucket list to see a sage grouse lek in action and this conference gave me that opportunity. It also allowed me a glimpse at how journalists work in the field.
The sage grouse lek field trip was in part organized by Ashley Ahearn of the NPR Grouse podcast from Boise State Public Radio News. Ashley’s love for the species certainly shines through on the podcast, but even at 4:00am when we gathered and then were making the trek to the lek, her enthusiasm for the species and their conservation issues is enough to wake you up (despite the sun not having come up yet and gentle rocking and movements from the field vehicle). We were greeted by some cows who occasionally acted as roosters mooing to greet the day and it was approximately 24°F when we arrived to the lek site at 6:30am. As you’ll see in the photos below, a lek is a relatively open area which leaves the male sage grouse especially vulnerable to predators such as the golden eagle. Luckily for the grouse, we saw no such activity while out at the lek. While at the lek, we learned more about Greater Sage Grouse biology and conservation issues from Dr. Jennifer Forbey (professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Boise State University) and Michelle Commons Kemner (wildlife staff biologist, Idaho Department of Fish and Game). We were fortunate to see many male sage grouses displaying at the lek.
The trip to the lek was followed by a panel discussion of stakeholders including North American Grouse Partnership, Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, and a cattle ranch owner who work together for sage grouse conservation. Despite their varied backgrounds and beliefs, they all could agree that the main two issues facing sage grouse were invasive species and uncontrolled wildland fires (a common theme for conservation and land management issues in the western continental U.S.). From a scientist’s perspective, this field trip was an absolute delight and I used my observational skills to see how journalists approached the field trip. Between asking thoughtful and pointed questions throughout the day, taking photos, and copious notes, I dare say that journalists and scientists are not so different in the way we approach topics it’s just that our implementations for story telling are different.
Onto another highlight of the conference, keynote plenary with Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland followed by a panel discussion with Joan Mooney (Principal Deputy Assistant, DOI), Tracy Stone-Manning (Director, Bureau of Land Management), and Martha Williams (Director, US Fish and Wildlife Service) moderation from Debra Krol. Secretary Haaland highlighted some recent conservation and land management achievements, and announced some upcoming plans and projects that are sure to make stakeholders happy. These projects include $39 million from infrastructure part of the IRA towards fish passage projects in 22 states, $140 million for water projects (84 projects in 15 states) related to the Colorado River, workforce training for wildland fire fighting, and cleaning up legacy pollution.
However, there are just as many projects and plans that people are unhappy about to say the least. The first question out of the gate, once Secretary Haaland and the panel were done speaking, was about the Willow Project – an oil drilling project that could potentially release a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. While the IRA and DOI substantially reduced the scope of the Willow Project, it is still something that was approved much to the severe disappointment of environmental activists and the Native American people this project could impact.
The question asked Sec. Haaland to share her personal feelings on the approval of the Willow Project and how the DOI follows the science and law on the approval of the Willow Project. This was her first mention that as the DOI Secretary she does not have personal feelings, and went on to explain that this was a difficult and complicated decision for the administration but they are honoring leases that have been in effect (but not yet active) since the 1990s. When pressed on this point, she went on to add that this decision was remanded to the DOI by the courts due to the actions of a previous administration.
A follow up question not dissimilar to the first asked why hasn’t Biden spoken out on the Willow Project given how high profile the project is and the criticism that the President isn’t ending new drilling on federal lands and may allow more drilling. Sec. Haaland began her answer by mentioning that part of that is a question for President Biden as to whether he should speak out publicly on the Willow Project. She then went on to acknowledge that the Willow Project is high profile but by law they have to process permits and there is an obligation there to process them to allow drilling. However, Sec. Haaland then went on to say “we do the best we can. We need a transition to clean energy and wants people to talk about that” and then gave an example of the offshore wind projects, the transmission line in Arizona to getting energy to rural communities in the west. She went on to add “we’re not turning a faucet off and no one is using gas and oil”, and that she is glad there are activists speaking our as it’s their future “who are going to feel the neglect we’ve been inflicting on our earth for a long time”.
Secretary Haaland was a politician and activist before she became Secretary of the Interior. It was nothing short of impressive to see Secretary Haaland navigate the pointed questions from journalists and aim to provide answers that while may not satisfy or reveal personal feelings from Sec. Haaland, but did aim to address the questions in part. In the tone of her voice and the careful choice of words belay her political experience. The dance between governmental leadership and probing journalists was on full display during the Q&A portion of this plenary.
Similar to the sage grouse display on the lek, governmental leadership is often forced to dance in an effort to appease stakeholders. While I think this is a dance we believe we’re familiar with, it is something else entirely to witness in person the way in which leadership can be constrained by the boundaries of their office and administration. However, despite watching this tango between Sec. Haaland and journalists, I think the following poignant statement she gave perfectly sums up her beliefs even if she did provide more than one “no comment” and does not “have personal feelings” as the secretary of the interior. In the closing portion of her keynote address, Secretary Haaland said something that I think all stakeholders interested in promoting better land management practices and conservation of ecosystems and species can agree on: “So many humans reap the benefits when they [humans] get out of the way and let nature lead”.
I can say with all honestly that SEJ was one of the more enjoyable and energizing conferences I’ve attended. Perhaps it’s because journalists and communicators are a little more naturally extroverted than my academic colleagues and peers, but I think at the heart of this is also the way in which conference topics were discussed and how stories were told. No doubt that high level science was being shared and discussed, but unlike at an academic conference where I have seen heated discussions break out over the best conservation methods of an endangered snail species, the spice of these discussions were in the avoidance of answers, the directness of inquiries, and the depth of the discussions. This conference coming to Penn is of course an opportunity for academics to share their work with journalists in an effort to encourage their science to be shared. Moreover, this conference is an opportunity for academics to understand how their science is communicated at large and connect with the lively and tenacious people behind those stories.