For the second year in a row “the world’s richest journalism prize” went to a series of articles about threatened forests.
Last year, the The Economist’s James Astill took home the $75,000 Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment for “The World’s Lungs,” a broad survey of the plight of forests around the globe. This year, judges recognized The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah for an eight-part special report, “Our Dying Forests,” which zoomed in on embattled trees in the western United States.
Tribune reporter Brandon Loomis, photographer Rick Egan, and editor David Noyce will share the prize, which US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse announced at the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s annual Leadership Awards Dinner on Tuesday night. Their ongoing series, which started last September, provides a detailed examination of the factors that have decimated 40-million acres of conifer forests from New Mexico to the Canadian border: native beetles empowered by climate change; decades of forest management that has abetted fire and drought; and invasive disease.
The articles do an admirable job of covering scientific disagreements about the hatch rate of beetles, the impact of forest loss on grizzlies, the fire risk of dead trees. They weigh the arguments and attempt to give readers a sense of who makes the strongest case. For instance, a piece that explores the debate about whether climate change or natural cycles is driving beetle infestations and droughts, which happened in the 1930s and at other times in the past, included this succinct verdict:
It’s impossible to compare today’s killing zones to the Depression era in direct terms, because foresters now fly airplanes with satellite-guided charting tools instead of drawing crude maps from personal observations made on a mule’s back. But scientists, including at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Utah, agree there has been nothing like this in recorded history.
What makes this a prize-winning series, though, is that it is a broad and richly reported investigation of Western communities’ relationships with their environment. It brings together forest officials, scientists, environmentalists, the timber industry, skiers, hunters, and others to tell a tale about a variety of interests clashing and cooperating over what to do about the vast number of dying trees.
It’s a complicated situation. One article explains how Montana “foresters have rebuilt trust since the clear-cutting 1980s timber wars,” and how commercial loggers have returned to help restore forests’ health through strategic thinning. Another describes some Utahans’ misgiving that selling lumber from thinning would amount to “a commercial venture in the guise of forest restoration.”
Likewise, a fascinating story about the expensive and laborious process of collecting, cultivating, and nurturing seeds from whitebark pines describes the fraught relationship between the national Forest Service and a Wyoming ski resort. The resort is home to a 139-year-old tree that officials think might be an “‘elite’ tree worthy of prorogation,” and the piece explained:
The resort has helped preserve trees, spraying repellent on 350 whitebarks and putting anti-beetle pheromones on 1,600 more this summer. But ski planners wanted this one’s perch, because it was in line with the best spot to place a tower support for a mid-mountain lift accessing the Bridger Restaurant at a 9,100-foot crest.
Moving the lift would cost the resort, which leases Forest Service land, thousands of dollars. Picking a new tree for the program and starting over with seed collection would cost the Forest Service $30,000. The forest supervisor wrote a “strongly worded letter” and the resort moved the lift.
The general shape of the Tribune’s series is similar to The Economist’s series on threats to forests worldwide. Both projects characterized communities’ relationship with their environment, delved into relevant politics, economics, and scientific search, and relied on a wide variety of sources.
The difference is the writing and execution. One is a magazine-style treatment with long, descriptive paragraphs that are light on quotation and make an impassioned case for the value of forests. The other is classic newspaper reporting: short, efficient paragraphs that let the facts speak for themselves and include a lot of different voices. Where The Economist tells readers point blank that “destroying forests is a bad idea,” the Tribune simply highlights the impacts on water supply, recreation, and wildlife.
In both cases, the reporters were convincing, and perhaps that’s why series about trees have won the Grantham Prize, which is given by the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting at the University of Rhode Island, two years running: Forests are vitally important to human society, they are under assault, and their plight cannot be ignored.