the observatory

Salazar Calls for Coverage

Interior Secretary highlights underreported environment stories
October 25, 2011

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar had a few tips for environmental journalists last week about under-covered stories on their beat.

Speaking at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ twenty-first annual conference here in Miami, Salazar said that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 revealed that Americans were “hungry” for news about its causes and consequences, and that they care “deeply” about land, water, and wildlife.

The spill also laid bare a larger truth about the importance of journalism, he said:

A second lesson from the coverage of Deepwater Horizon is that Americans aren’t just passionate about conservation, they also demand knowledge and information about the natural world and how it’s changing.

Yes, our attention spans are shorter in the digital age. And yes, there is a demand for sound bites, bulletins, and punditry. But Deepwater Horizon proved that there is also a huge appetite—and appreciation—for complicated information, scientific perspectives, and nuanced reporting.

How else do you explain that “loop current,” “blowout preventer,” and “hydrates” became familiar terms in American households? The oil spill put a premium on good reporting. It put a premium on good reporters.

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Complimenting spill coverage by NBC’s Anne Thompson and the Houston Chronicle’s Jennifer Dlouhy, he asked journalists to pay more attention to three other “big” environmental stories.

The first was “the countless locally-driven, consensus-based conservation efforts that have taken root across the country,” he said. “They don’t get much attention because there’s often no conflict involved, but what’s happening along the rivers of America, what’s happening in the Dakota Grasslands and the Flint Hills of Kansas, and what’s happening right here in the Everglades, is nothing short of a revolution.”

Salazar explained that the following day he would lay four planks on a boardwalk at the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge near Vero Beach, Florida inlaid with the names of the four latest areas to join the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s conservation system: the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area of Kansas, the Dakota Grassland Conservation Area of South Dakota and North Dakota, the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge of Pennsylvania, and the Tulare Basin Wildlife Management Area of California.

The second story that the Secretary said deserves more attention is “the inextricable connection between the health of land and water and the health of our economy” evinced by the Gulf oil spill.

“The fact is: America’s great outdoors are a massive economic engine for our nation,” he said. “The extent to which our land, water, and wildlife fuel our economy is not adequately understood or reported—and, unfortunately, that knowledge gap can have real consequences when people make decisions about investments and fiscal priorities.”

Lastly, Salazar asked for reporters’ “help explaining what is at stake for conservation at this moment in our history.” He highlighted the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, saying that over the last two years, the Obama administration had “moved mountains to provide additional funding and to move Everglades restoration from planning to on-the-ground results.”

The following day, the Secretary toured the Tamiami Trail Bridge Project where construction is under way on a one-mile bridge, to be completed by 2013, which will help restore water flows to the Everglades. Such conservation projects, in the Everglades and around the country, are “in jeopardy,” Salazar said.

“It’s not simply a matter of budgets, although the House Republican budget would force the closure of an estimated 100 national wildlife refuges to the public,” he said. “It’s also about a fundamentally different vision of who we are as a nation and what we can do as a people.”

Indeed, as The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin recently reported, House Republicans have targeted the Land and Water Conservation Fund for “drastic cuts,” yet resistance to environmental goals extends far beyond Capitol Hill.

Florida governor Rick Scott travelled to Washington, DC in early October for a two-hour meeting with Salazar, during which he asked for more time and money to reach a clean-water target for the Everglades, according to an article by Miami Herald reporter Erika Bolstad and St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman. Originally, the state was supposed to cut the flow of phosphorous into the Glades to ten parts per billion by 2012, but the state legislature pushed the deadline back to 2016. Scott said he now needs another six years on top of that, requesting that the deadline be extended to 2022.

Asked about Scott’s request in Miami, Salazar said:

The state of Florida in our last three years has a very effective partner with us in accomplishing what we’ve been able to accomplish. We hope that the same thing happens with the new governor, but I will saying honestly that the jury is still out, and the plan that he has presented is a plan which we are currently evaluating … But we are encouraged that we have a positive dialogue moving with Gov. Scott, but we’ll see where that takes us over the next several weeks.

Salazar’s hint of skepticism notwithstanding, he caught a bit of flak from author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen, who spoke after him and called the Secretary’s optimism about working with Scott “somewhat amusing.”

“This is the same guy who only shortly after taking office was interviewed wearing a pair of alligator-skin boots, announcing that if it were up to him, he would just shoot the alligators,” said Hiaasen, a native Floridian. “This is who is now custodian of the future of the Everglades in Florida. Every time I think about giving up the column to just work on these novels that I write—mostly as psychotherapy—Florida does something like Rick Scott, and how could I possibly sit on the sidelines for the next four years?”

Indeed, in introducing him, University of Miami president Donna Shalala called Hiaasen “South Florida’s rakish champion of the environment and scourge of the wrongdoer,” adding that, “no one wants to be exposed in a Hiaasen column.”

He joined the paper in 1976 and worked as a general assignment reporter, magazine writer and investigative reporter before starting his now weekly column in 1985.

Apart from the wry criticism of Scott, Hiaasen would likely have endorsed Salazar’s calls to better cover conservation programs and the environment’s wide-ranging economic importance. Yet he was characteristically cynical about the dog and pony show that politicians put on for the media.

“Twenty years ago, it was very rare to hear very many candidates for political office ever mention the Everglades,” he said. “You never heard a word about it because it was all about pouring concrete, and that was the engine of growth in Florida—growth for the sake of growth. We had the same exact political philosophy as a cancer cell…

“Now, there isn’t anybody running for office, either within the state or nationally, that doesn’t make the pilgrimage to the Everglades—the photo op on the Anhinga trail, and we’re gonna see this before the presidential primary. You’re gonna watch these numb-nuts pile into Florida for the next few months. Seriously. When they get to South Florida, there’ll be a trip; someone will give them some khakis to put on, they’ll loosen their ties, and they’ll go pose in front of the Chamber of Commerce alligator on the Anhinga trail and they will be conservationists for one freakin’ day, and that is it. Because we’re dealing with a mentality right now in Washington that questions whether science is viable, whether science is even real or not.”

Hiaasen chastised Republicans’ efforts to peg environmental regulations as killing jobs and economic growth. Columnists at Time and Forbes, and editorials at the Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News, have likewise criticized the GOP’s assault on rules that protect valuable natural resources and public health. They’re not alone, either. Still, there could always be more.

Salazar clearly highlighted stories that he thinks would best serve the interests of the current administration, and help it survive the coming election, so journalists should, as always, take his tips with a grain of salt. [Update: For example, an article by Pittman at the St. Petersburg Times tempered Salazar’s optimism about the Tamiami Trail Bridge Project, reporting that raising only the one segment of highway will not provide enough new water flow to save the Everglades by itself.] But that doesn’t make the Secretary wrong. Environmental restoration and conservation efforts, and all their political and economic reverberations, are something reporters nationwide should be paying more attention to.

Note: Audio recordings of Salazar’s and Hiaasen’s remarks can be found here and here, respectively, on the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference coverage page.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.