By BILL KOVARIK and KEN WARD JR.
A young Virginia Tech scientist is standing up in a canoe, gesturing at the river around him. "Imagine this," he says. "It's 300 million years ago. There are no trees – just giant ferns. There are no birds or flowering plants. There are no dinosaurs – they won't show up for many millions of years. Everything about the landscape is utterly different. But in the river – the fish – are the same then as they are today."
A hundred miles away, a short man with a determined gleam in his gimlet eyes stands in front of a landscape devastated by mountaintop-removal mining. "Is there anything in life that you hold so precious that money could never buy?" he asks. "For me, it's the mountains, it's Appalachia, it's a whole way of life they are destroying here."
These are just two of the scenes that we have witnessed as reporters, and hope to share with you at SEJ's next annual conference, hosted by Virginia Tech Oct. 15-19, 2008. The conference is set for Roanoke, Va., amid the Appalachian mountains at the height of their fall leaf season.
Expect stunning vistas, top science briefings, incisive political discussion and supportive craft sessions tailored to your needs. Even with SEJ's extraordinary history of annual conferences, we think SEJ 2008 is shaping up to be one you just can't miss. One reason is the location – and its significance.
The Appalachian mountains are, geologists say, among the oldest on earth, and they are beautifully carved by ceaseless water and wind. Botanists and biologists marvel at their diversity. Historians see the Appalachians as America's first and last frontier. Writers have explored their gothic social tragedies. We intend to introduce you to the best of these.
When you arrive, you will find the mountains ablaze with orange, red and yellow colors of fall foliage. You will also find that the region has become the epicenter of a fiery global debate over climate change and the future of our planet.
Roanoke is located at the transition point between the coal fields and the coastal plains. It is the railroad town for the coal fields, and the endless stream of gondolas rumbling down the mountains pass only a few yards away from the conference center. They continue on to the rail yards and ports of the Piedmont and the Chesapeake Bay. Nearly all of this coal is burned for electricity.
Energy and climate will be a major focus for the SEJ2008 conference with a special emphasis on coal. The opening plenary will focus on it, one of the tours will explore a mountaintop-removal site, and coal field flyovers are in the works. Later, you'll hear some of the top writers, scientists, industry speakers and environmentalists speaking on mountaintop removal, water contamination, sludge pond hazards, air pollution and carbon sequestration.
The region has also been the focus of controversy over alternatives to coal. One tour will explore the science and environmental issues behind mining an enormous uranium deposit located close to the conference site. Another tour will explore the construction of a wind power facility and a pumped hydro storage unit. Expect strong debate over biofuels and nuclear power as well.
The Appalachians are also the headwaters for much of the nation's water supply, and tours of the New River and the James by canoe and kayak will get SEJ members outdoors in the most spectacular way. A hike to McAffee's Knob – one of the most photographed spots on the Appalachian trail – is also featured in the tour lineup.
Sustainable forestry and land care, organic farming, and Blue Ridge Parkway eco-tourism complete the tour lineups, ensuring that we'll have something for every interest.
We also felt a special responsibility to focus on poverty, justice and the environment, and have a morning plenary that will bring in experts in this area. The role of environmental issues in the presidential election is very significant, and we are inviting candidates and their environmental advisers to speak at the conference.
You'll also find that book authors will be celebrated this year with a Sunday morning authors' breakfast and readings by many SEJ members. Appalachian authors and environmental history will be special points of focus. We want to make it easy for you to experience the rapidly expanding field of environmental publishing.
Another feature of this year's conference is a full computer lab with concurrent craft sessions on GIS, multimedia production and web design. We hope this will be especially helpful for freelancers or others making transitions in the changing media world.
The conference center is within easy walking distance of the computer lab, the beat dinner restaurants and the Saturday reception at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. This means that it will be easy to meet up and socialize with other SEJ members.
For regular updates on the conference, please check the SEJ website beginning in March. We'll look forward to seeing you there.
** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2008