Environmental Journalists, Idling in Idaho

May 3, 2023

In the search for clean energy stories, SEJers follow a geothermal pumping system to its outlet. Photo: David Helvarg.

SEJ News: Environmental Journalists, Idling in Idaho

In a pernicious tradition akin to rooster fighting, fox hunting and wet-wipe flushing, the editors of SEJournal have once again capitulated to our (putative) resident wag, David Helvarg, for his annual blow-by-blow of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference. Below he sets down his miscellany from this year’s April 19-23 bison call in Boise. As always, we take not a jot of responsibility for his pun-ish perspective. Enjoy!

By David Helvarg

Given that we environmental journalists were about to head to a state that had recently passed laws to ban abortion, target the LGBTQ community and allow an open season on hunting wolves, the SEJ decided it would be best to release a pre-conference statement promising it would be a safe space for women, gay people and wolves.

Of course, straight white males were encouraged to enjoy Idaho’s friendly hospitality. That is, unless they were registered Democrats, for which there is a limited hunting season. There is also a new law to punish anyone who helps a wolf leave the state. … Oh wait, no, that’s a woman seeking an abortion.

We began the conference with all-day Wednesday workshops, which I gave a miss. But I’m pretty sure the answer to the workshop “Rethinking How We Cover Extinction” is from the afterlife.

The opening dinner had a kind of parallel universe feel, in which a President Tromp was a tall stately woman who believed in science and promoted her school’s lab for DNA and nanotechnology (although I’m told that nanotech is not such a big thing).

In this universe, there was also a Republican congressman who listened to fish biologists and thought removing dams to protect salmon was a good idea.


Gov. Little’s cool smile made me feel

about as welcome as a Wall Street

Journal reporter in Moscow.


Just as I was wondering if there was something in Idaho’s water other than trout, Gov. Little appeared on screen to give a brief talk whose content lived up to his surname. Idaho’s environmental commitment apparently includes forest clearing (can’t burn if it’s not there) and asking outsiders to stay out. His cool smile made me feel about as welcome as a Wall Street Journal reporter in Moscow.

An 18-year-old Boise school board member then lectured us on how the media could get youths into the halls of power if it wanted (or stop laying off its reporters if it wanted) and how he was under attack for using obscenities to fight climate deniers. I was so inspired I’ve decided to double my use of f-bombs.


Fired up … or burned out?

Speaking of schools, Thursday was field trip day. I don’t mean to grouse but a 4:30 a.m. departure to see sagebrush birds? Then there was the raptor tour, which got me rapping: “I’m a raptor I fly through the sky, I’m a raptor, owl tell you why … hawk, hawk, hawk. If your mama is an eagle then to shoot her is illegal. If your daddy is a vulture, that’s a whole other culture. Osprey words for killer birds.” Dare to hear the live version?

I don’t know if it was the five hours of driving or the tow truck that was needed to ease the tour bus out of a mud puddle but those on the “Living With Fire” tour said they felt burned out. “Ranching With Wolves” turned out to be an effective method to keep sheep in line. People on the mining tour said it was the pits.

I took the salmon tour. And while some seek to apply science and treaty rights to restore Snake River salmon, given that the fish are anadromous, the Idaho legislature is considering a bill forbidding them to read stories to kids in libraries. So what does a salmon say when it hits its head? Dam!

Thursday’s hospitality reception included a discussion of marine biodiversity over lump crab cakes, also more free pens and Frank Maisano hats.


Where the buffalo poop

Friday’s opening plenary — “Clean Energy and the Land” — included Biden’s Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning identifying climate as the major environmental threat to our public lands, as opposed to Trump’s BLM director who once told us the big threat was wild horses and burros. So, more contradictory data for SEJ reporters to investigate.

“The Hunt for Critical Minerals” panel included Erica Ocampo from The Metals Company (you may have seen their off-planet harvest operations in Avatar 2). She explained why industrial mining of the deep ocean is essential for the green energy transition. And it’s hard to question their commitment given the mining industry’s long history of environmental leadership.

The “Hot Topics for Power Grids” panel on hydrogen was a real gas, while the talk of small modular nukes radiated with promise. “The Problems With Solutions Journalism” panel left me in a hopeless dilemma.


A preview of Ken Burn’s “American Buffalo”

documentary included a bison taking a poop

between the sandwich and dessert courses.


Friday’s luncheon preview of Ken Burn’s “American Buffalo” documentary included a bison taking a poop between the sandwich and dessert courses, proving SEJ takes no crap unless it's in slo-mo and narrated by Peter Coyote.

Speaking of yucky parts of nature, I was told the “Bugs, Disease and the West” panel linking pathogens to climate change really ticks some people off and I’m not Lyme.

On Friday afternoon, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and some of her top people including Stone-Manning and Fish & Wildlife Director Martha Williams were truly inspiring in their commitment to equity, climate action and broad generalities. Their response to journalists’ questions needs “no comment.”

The “How to Be an Ally for Environmental Journalists of Color” panel was informative but after hearing Cameron Oglesby’s acceptance speech for her “Hogwash” student award story I was moving more along the lines of fanboy. She really exposed the environmental justice issues associated with too many pigs in North Carolina and also with the hogs they raise for profit.

Friday’s beat dinners covered rivers, parks, biodiversity, energy, what to do when AI chatbots replace us and how to maintain the ecological balance between heavy appetizers, alcohol and entrees.


Soaking up the stories

I wanted to catch the Saturday morning panel on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s climate work because, honestly, FERC’s just a funny name. The panels on environmental lawyers and the rights of nature emphasized litigation, formulation of new laws and the opportunity for you, the reader, to insert your favorite lawyer joke here.

Another panel found that the science remains unclear whether climate change is a contributing factor to the recent proliferation of literally millions of invasive podcasts like mine.

I took the Saturday mini-bike tour (or was it a bike mini-tour?) to a geothermal pump station, where valley hot springs used to be a gathering place for different tribes' healing and recreation. We peddled back along the flooding Boise River, stopping by the house of some guy named Rick to soak our feet in his rock-rimmed geothermal hot tub and drink chilled beer and wine, because environmental journalists will do whatever it takes to get the story.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to cover other presentations on spreading wildfire, floods, smoke, trauma, the disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis on women and LGBTQ youths, collapsing fisheries, extreme weather or how we’re being poisoned by our gas stoves, since I had to get ready for the SEJ Cognitive Dissonance-themed Saturday night dinner and dance party.

The party was held at the Idaho State Museum, with its exhibits designed to reflect the random nature of history, including Mustang auto grills, revolvers, parachuting beavers (look it up), fake dynamite, art deco, etc. The Basque paella (the Basques first arrived in Idaho to herd sheep and piss off cattlemen) was delicious and the Idaho musicians of Afrosonics made my feet jump to a brass-driven beat. The building’s ambient noise levels, however, could have deafened bats.


Stragglers gathered at Zoo Boise to hear

fiction authors, interrupted (sometimes

in a timely manner) by howling monkeys.


On Sunday morning, we were still being treated like animals, as stragglers gathered at Zoo Boise to hear fiction authors, interrupted (sometimes in a timely manner) by howling monkeys.

Later that day, flying back to California, I heard a low growling from across the aisle. I looked over to see a very hairy grandmother with a long snout and sharp teeth reading the Idaho Statesman. Another wolf seeking liberty?

If the San Francisco Bay Area doesn’t work out she might consider the site of next year’s election-year conference, Philadelphia, where they say liberty was first cracked.

David Helvarg is a writer, author and founder of Blue Frontier, an ocean policy group. He is co-host of the Rising Tide Ocean Podcast, one out of one billion podcasts presently streaming.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 18. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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