By BILL DAWSON
Tim Thornton, a former staff member of The Roanoke Times in western Virginia, won SEJ's 2008 award for the best environ- mental reporting published by a small-market publication. Thornton's entry comprised a pair of articles from August 2007 about the use of conservation easements in Virginia and a series from November 2007 about threats to the New River.
The contest judges declared that his coverage was "informative, ground breaking, meticulously researched, extremely well written and accompanied by stunning photographs and excellent graphics."
Before he left his post at The Times, Thornton responded to questions from SEJournal about his contest entry and his other work at the The Times.
Q: First, please tell me a little about yourself and your role at the newspaper. Did you grow up in Virginia or some- where nearby? How long have you worked in journalism? How long at the The Times? Do you have duties other than reporting on the environment?
A: I grew up pretty much where I live now. The building where I went to high school is about a mile down the road. I left for about 20 years. I've been back a little more than eight years. My family's been in this general area at least since the Jefferson administration.
My first job at the edge of journalism was as a sports stringer for the local paper. That was 1976, the year I got my driver's license. I started working for newspapers for a living in 1982. I've been with The Roanoke Times since 2000. I was at the Greensboro News & Record for a while before that. They're owned by the same company. Most of my career has been at very small papers, with a side trip into alternative newsweeklies.
I was a growth and environment reporter from April 2005 until September 2007. Since then, my main jobs have been covering Radford, a small city on the New River, and Radford University, a small state school. Any environmental writing I've done since September 2007 has been on stories I began covering when I was an environmental reporter that just won't die and stories I've managed to wedge in. Some people inside and outside the paper still think of me as an environmental reporter, so they send me tips and complaints.
Q: What are the major environmental issues that you cover? Are you solely responsible for environmental coverage at your newspaper?
A: For a while, we had two growth and environmental reporters. Now we have none, though there's a rumor that the beat may come back.
The biggest environmental issue I'm still working on now is a seven-acre coal ash pile on the banks of the New River, in the little town of Narrows, Va. Folks who took the New River trip at last year's SEJ conference got a chance to see it, I think. Gene Dalton, who helped organize that trip, grew up along the river and knows an awful lot about it. We worked together on a series about the New. Gene's retired now, but he still e-mails tips from time to time.
The coal ash project — it's called Cumberland Park — is using the ash from a coal-fired power plant about eight miles down the road as construction fill. The power plant — and it's a small one — produces about 200 tons of ash a day. This project is supposed to hold about three years' worth of ash, about 254,000 cubic yards of it. It will raise nearly seven acres about 30 feet, which will put it level with U.S. 460, the highway that runs through there on the way to West Virginia. That, in theory, will create a building site.
Coal ash has all sorts of nasty stuff in it — arsenic, mercury, lead and lots more — but it's not really that dangerous as long as it's off to itself. If you eat it or snort it you'll have problems, but otherwise it's not supposed to be that big of a deal. The way to really cause problems with it is to get it wet. Then all that nasty stuff leaches out. Cumberland Park is in the 100-year flood plain. It's protected by a steel-reinforced earthen wall that's about a foot and a half higher than the 100-year flood. There's no liner under most of it. Some of it has a liner because water started seeping in from somewhere, so Headwaters, the company that's running the site for AEP, moved the ash they'd put in, installed a liner and then put the ash back.
There's some question about what happened to the wetlands that used to be near the site, but the local Corps of Engineers office closed when its one-man staff retired, so not much is happening there.
There's a citizens group fighting Cumberland Park, even though it's been operating for roughly a year.
Q: Why did you decide to write in an in-depth way about conservation easements – the subject of two of your contest- entry stories? Did these articles grow out of earlier coverage of Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's pledge to protect a whopping 400,000 acres before leaving office? Have you continued to write about that pledge and about conservation easements since the contest articles were published in 2007? Any major developments since then?
A: The reason I wanted to write about it is that I think it's incredibly important. Land conservation touches on all kinds of environmental issues — wildlife habitat, water quality, air quality, climate change. It also has cultural effects such as preserving family farms and historic sites. To me, it's a doorway into all sorts of issues.
I was at the annual Environment Virginia Symposium at Virginia Military Institute when Kaine made his announcement. So we looked at it a year later. I and other reporters have written about conservation easements since then, but it's not getting the attention it used to. I did a lot of reporting about a guy who put an easement on his property — some photos that ran with the stories you're talking about show the governor in this landowner's canoe — but editors lost interest in it. I thought it was a good illustration of the workings and frustrations of the process. Here was a guy who really wanted this to work. The governor had stood on his land and said this is just the kind of land the state wants to preserve. The governor stood on this man's riverbank and filmed a commercial promoting Virginia's state parks. And it took the landowner months and months of dealing with several land trusts to finally get the deal done. He was ready to quit more than once. It's a great story, but we never got it in the paper.
We haven't done a checkup since those 2007 stories, but the state secretary of natural resources Web page says they're up to 329,409 acres now, with less than a year to go. I'm skeptical of the state's numbers, in part because in their grand total of all the land ever protected in Virginia, they include all federal land — which includes a good bit of land on military bases, including the Pentagon. I'm not sure all that land is protected from its present owner, much less any future development.
Q: Your series on the New River is multifaceted, dealing with various threats that the river faces. Two overarching themes involve the challenges posed by new housing develop- ments along the river and the limitations of existing methods of conservation. Did you have these angles in mind when you undertook the series or did they emerge as you did the reporting?
A: We figured that development along the river, primarily housing, would be a major focus from the beginning. The idea evolved along the way, of course, but that is pretty much where we started. Of course, there were and are lots of industrial threats there, too. Some of Virginia's biggest polluters are right on the riverbank.
Q: The series featured video along with articles and photos. Was it your plan from the start to include a video component? Are video and other multimedia elements now a routine part of all major projects at the The Times?
A: The paper's interest in multimedia has gone through cycles. When we did that series, everyone was supposed to do video. That's not to say it was a gratuitous, ticket-punching kind of thing. It's decent video. It shows you things such as the spot where the river virtually disappears.
In a project that began in the late 1920s, the New River was diverted into a tunnel through Gauley Mountain to generate electricity for a chemical plant. Below the dam you can walk across the river without getting your shoes wet.
Q: The conservation easement articles in your contest entry focused on Virginia. The New River series also included articles about two other states — West Virginia and North Carolina. Was this part of the original concept? Was it a departure from your normal reporting, or do you report on neighboring states on a regular basis?
A: It's rare that we venture outside our immediate area.
The conservation stories were focused on a state initiative, a promise the governor made, so it's very heavily Virginia-centric.
Most of the New River is in Virginia, but it begins in North Carolina and ends in West Virginia where it joins the Gauley to form the Kanawha. We'd always intended to write about the whole river. One of the things we expected to show was that, while Virginia has most of the river, North Carolina and West Virginia have done most of the river-protecting.
Gene Dalton, the photographer on the series, and I started near the headwaters and covered most of the distance between there and Gauley Bridge, the West Virginia town where the New meets the Gauley. We canoed, hiked, biked and drove, not all in one trip. We fit it in wherever and whenever we could. It's not all that far from the bureau we worked out of to either end of the river. The whole thing is only 320 miles long.
Q: What kind of response did you get to the conservation easement and New River stories? Anything that surprised you?
A: I don't remember anything astonishing in the response.
Q: I noticed on the The Timeswebsite that you did some stories in 2008 — about eight months after the New River series appeared — that were pegged to a float trip on the river marking the 10th anniversary of its designation as an Ameri- can Heritage River. Tell me a little about that subsequent coverage — how it came about, how you carried it out and how it related to the 2007 series. Have you continued to report on issues related to the river since then? Any major recent stories?
A: The float trip was organized to commemorate the 10th anniversary, to try to tie the people and the communities along the river together. Since a 10th anniversary happens only once, and since I convinced my editors that the coverage would be very different from the first series — and that they'd get a story per day from the river, plus three cover stories for the tab that covers the New River Valley — they gave me and a photographer, Matt Gentry, the go-ahead. Matt grew up in Blacksburg and is an avid hiker, skier and birder and an experienced kayaker. My entire river canoeing experience was the half-day I'd spent on the James the summer before, when the governor was promoting his land conservation plan.
We traveled by canoe and kayak and outfitter's raft. We camped along the river. We stayed in some cottages along the river. Every night we'd look for a place with cell phone coverage so we could file our pictures and stories. We were out about a week, I think. Matt went back to video a nighttime running of some rapids. There were spots along the way where we knew what we would be writing about, but most of the time we woke up looking for a story. In a way, we were trying to make it not tie into the 2007 coverage. Otherwise, we couldn't have gotten it into the paper. They wouldn't want the same series less than a year later. But I think that, taken together, the two series give an interesting picture of the river.
They're planning a second, more elaborate trip this summer that will actually begin where the river is narrow enough to straddle and end where it joins the Gauley.
I think the only major river-related story I've written about since has been the coal ash development I talked about earlier.
Q: Based on your experiences covering the issues in the contest-winning articles, are there any important things you learned that you think might benefit environmental reporters in other areas as they approach or consider whether to cover similar issues?
A: I don't know that I have any great words of wisdom to pass on.
I've always thought that, essentially anyway, reporting is reporting whether the subject is mountaintop-removal coal mining or a city budget. You have to keep asking questions and you have to know that words don't always mean what they seem to. There's a 26-mile section of the New River that's designated by North Carolina and the federal government as Wild and Scenic. For much of that section, the banks of the river are protected by conservation easements. But those easements are only 50 feet wide. There are vacation homes and campgrounds and outfitters all along there. As a park ranger said, "People think because it's designated Wild and Scenic, it's wild and scenic. But it's not."
And I was reminded that it's a good thing, as a reporter and a person, to hang up the phone and get out into the environment you're supposed to be writing about whenever you can do it.
Bill Dawson is assistant editor of the SEJournal.
** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter, SEJournal Spring, 2009  issue.