Guns And Butter: SEJ Annual Conference Planned For October In Vermont

May 15, 2006

By NANCY BAZILCHUK

Dairy cows that generate electricity, forests that are certified "green," and hunters and journalists armed with loaded guns (but not pointed at each other!) are just a few of the highlights planned for SEJ's 16th Annual Conference on Oct. 25-29, in Burlington, Vermont.

Our theme this year is "Covering Sustainability," and we've organized a number of tours and panels that will use examples of sustainable development from Vermont and across the country to explore the issues surrounding this complex concept. In keeping with our theme, we've invited Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai to come talk about her groundbreaking work (literally!) encouraging women of Kenya and beyond to plant trees, more than 20 million at last count, to reclaim their ravaged lands.

Climate change, disaster coverage, a look at industry's attack on scientific integrity and a "pitch slam" session for freelancers are other terrific topics and panels we've got on our agenda to help guarantee you'll leave the Green Mountain State briefed on the latest news and trends and with loads of story ideas. You'll also be able to drive into the future with a "ride-and-drive" of alternativepowered cars with offerings from Detroit, Japan, and Vermont's own bio-diesel and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

We're also taking advantage of Vermont's location to reach out to our Canadian colleagues, who have invited us to visit Montreal for one of our Thursday tours. And for the first time, we're offering a one-day pre-conference Legal Boot Camp on Wednesday, Oct. 25, courtesy of conference co-host Vermont Law School. The school's lawyers and policy experts have planned a full day where journalists can get an inside view of how environmental law and lawyers work, and learn about a variety of new research and analysis tools that will help sharpen your law-related coverage.

We'll open discussions on Friday with a look at "What is Sustainability," where we're hoping Nobel Laureate Maathai will join speakers like Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute, writer Bill McKibben and others to talk about their views of sustainability in the 21st century.

Saturday's lunch plenary session will look at government openness versus national security. How much of what government wants to keep from Americans relates to legitimate protection from terrorism and how much is just covering for businesses and weak government regulation? What has happened to the free flow of information in society? Speakers including U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and NASA climate scientist James Hansen will discuss how national security and politics collides with openness in a post-9/11 world.

On Saturday we'll have breakfast sessions on covering disasters and on how political pundits like George Lakoff, author of "Don't think of an elephant: Know your values and frame the debate," view the widening divide between America's voters.

The sustainability theme will carry through several Thursday tours. One will offer a perspective on 21st century sustainable agriculture, with visits to urban farms and a farm where dairy cows not only make milk, but electricity, in an innovative approach where a methane digester transforms cow manure into megawatts.

Our forestry tour will give you a chance to look at active and recent logging operations to examine the difference between forests that are being managed for long-term sustainability and those managed for more immediate returns. The Vermont ski town of Stowe will also give us a chance to view sustainable recreational development first hand, as we look at how one of Vermont's storied ski areas coexists with the state's highest mountain, Mount Mansfield, which is replete with endangered species, a fragile alpine area, and a section of the nation's oldest long-distance hiking trail.

It may be a dangerous idea to give reporters guns, but that's just what one of our tours will do. We will look at the tensions between America's traditional conservationists – hunters and anglers – and modern day eco-warriors in green sneakers. Participants get a chance to visit the sublime Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge on the shores of Lake Champlain and also to shoot skeet and talk with hunters, anglers and trappers.

No visit to Vermont would be complete without a walk in the woods, so we've planned a hike up Camel's Hump, Vermont's signature mountain (just look at the Vermont quarter), to see how acid rain and other forest assaults have played out in a mountain landscape. For others, Vermont is synonymous with American history, so we've also designed a trip to the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, where participants can visit the first national park in the country that focuses on the history and evolution of land conservation in North America.

If water is your interest, you'll want to take the boat trip on Lake Champlain to examine water quality and the effects of invasive species, or journey to the Hudson River to our west, where we'll look at the mother of all Superfund cleanups as General Electric Co. dredges PCB-laden muck out of the riverbed. Urbanites will want to sample the French delights of Montreal, as our Canadian colleagues tour us around one of North America's oldest cities and we see the fascinating research being conducted at the Biosphere and the Montreal Botanical Gardens.

Saturday's mini-tours will include a visit to our co-host University of Vermont's Proctor Maple Research Laboratory, where scientists plumb the sweet secrets of Vermont's most famous tree, and several walking tours of Shelburne Farms, the 1,400-acre former estate of Dr. William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb, now a non-profit environmental education center with a working dairy and cheese operation. Saturday night will be capped by a savory slow-foods event at the Coach Barn at Shelburne Farms – which also happens to be a great place to dance.

We'll cap our five-day extravaganza on Sunday morning with readings by New England environmental writers in the elegant surroundings of UVM's Billings Student Center. And, for those who still didn't get enough, this year's post-conference tour will take attendees to "The Wild, Wild East," New York State's Adirondack Park, where you'll kayak and hike and learn how a park with 150,000 residents within its boundaries can still claim to be "forever wild." So clear your calendars, keep an eye on SEJ's website at www.sej.org for further developments and start planning now for this not-to-be-missed event in the Green Mountain State.

Nancy Bazilchuk, formerly of the Burlington Free Press, is a science writer and editor in Trondheim, Norway. She is chair of SEJ's 16th Annual Conference. 

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2006 issue

NANCY BAZILCHUK