Boots on the Ground at Annual SEJ Gathering

April 15, 2012



Texas conference to bring sneak-preview screening, numerous sessions, Big Bend tour


What the photographer posted about this dust storm in Lubbock, Texas: “You'd think that agricultural practices might have changed in response to the Dust Bowl of the 1920s and 1930s. Turns out that at least in this part of Texas, you'd think wrong. Oh, and it rains mud here too.” PHOTO: TIMANDKRIS VIA FLICKR.


Let’s start with the hyperbole: In mid-October, as the summer heat wanes, the greatest gathering of environmental journalists, doers, and thinkers in the world will take place in a region of legend and drama — the Southern Plains.

Now for the reality check: It’s all true.

Nothing quite compares with the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists. It’s a journalism meeting conceived, planned, and run 100 percent by journalists, with support from SEJ staff. It’s a science meeting where the scientists get questions their peers never thought to ask.

It’s a politics conference without a political party. It’s a social-issues meeting where the participants learn first-hand from those affected — and those doing the affecting — rather than from a corner office in a think tank. It’s a how-to conference where everybody has something to contribute, and does.

Screening planned for Ken Burns documentary

SEJ has many good habits, but choosing great venues for the annual conference is among its best. From California to Massachusetts, from Oregon to Florida, SEJ has gone to places where the environment and the human experience are most closely intertwined. We go to places where society, for better or worse, does the hard work of trying to keep itself alive.

This year, from Oct. 17-21, we’re in a place where Comanches and the cavalry faced off in box canyons. Where people saw their lives blow away in the Dirty Thirties. Where people learned to tap an ancient, unsustainable aquifer to feed and clothe millions, but now wonder where their water for drinking will come from.

It’s a place where the land and water matter every day, not just in the abstract. It’s a place where climate change is, quite literally, a matter of life and violent, skyborne death.

So it’s fitting that we’ll get an exclusive-to-SEJ first look at The Dust Bowl, a new film by Ken Burns that airs on PBS on two nights in November. Dayton Duncan, the film’s co-producer and screenwriter, will lead us through this unforgettable tale.

We’ll visit, on our Thursday tours and our post-conference tour to Big Bend National Park, some of the iconic but troubled places of the great Southwest — places with globe-changing history still happening today.

And stay tuned as we pursue a truly multimedia experience — a combination of live, world-class music and perspectives on the land like nothing else in SEJ history. Keep your fingers crossed on that one.

Tours visit bat caves, canyons, ranches, nuclear facilities

The daily rundown is as rich as we’ve ever had at SEJ.

We’ll start Wednesday with an all-day workshop on the business of freelancing. From multimedia to copyright law, new or experienced journalists will learn from veteran contributors to The New York Times, National Geographic, Scientific American, and many other publications.

Wednesday night we’ll have our traditional SEJ kickoff, including the annual SEJ awards. We’re working on top-notch speakers and plan a live, remote hookup with those across the world who are fighting to save the land.

Our Thursday day tours will include some of the best that the Southwest has to offer. Carlsbad Caverns is the destination to discuss bats and human impacts. The huge and legendary 6666 Ranch prompts questions about the land and food. The nation’s newest nuclear fuel plant and newest radioactive waste facility are on the agenda. So is Palo Duro Canyon, where natural grandeur and history merge with cutting-edge climate research. Environmental justice in the Oil Patch and a standoff between oil and an endangered lizard are also in the mix. Other tours will look at wind, water, and wildlife.

Thursday night we’re back at the Overton Hotel in Lubbock for our annual independent hospitality receptions and a sneak peek at our paid exhibitors. And we might find a chance for some late-night, expert-guided stargazing under the stupendously clear West Texas sky (clear, that is, when the dust doesn’t roll).

Friday includes plenaries on journalism’s proper role in communicating climate change and on the vital but misunderstood links between land, water, and food. Friday also includes our first concurrent sessions, ever-popular network lunch and the annual SEJ membership meeting.

Friday night’s “dinner and a movie” will include highlights from The Dust Bowl, which depicts a tragedy that wracked West Texas like a slow-motion tornado and made conservation a cause to embrace.

The Saturday agenda includes more concurrent sessions, a lunch plenary previewing the upcoming presidential election — high-level invitations have been sent — and Saturday afternoon’s mini-tours to Texas Tech labs, a working feedlot, and other attractions.

Post-conference tour to take in Big Bend National Park

Saturday night is boots time. We’ll be at the National Ranching Heritage Center, a beautiful Texas Tech museum, for a barbeque — great vegetarian fare included — and live music on the patio beneath a West Texas sunset.

On Sunday morning, the venue moves to the American Wind Power Center, a fascinating museum set high on a hill that displays the history, technology and human factors of wind energy. There we’ll have breakfast, a conversation with noted authors on the Southwest, and our annual book authors’ pitch slam.

The post-conference tour promises to be among SEJ’s best yet. Big Bend National Park hugs the Rio Grande and the Mexican border. Stunning scenery and desert-mountain quiet can’t hold off the pressures of habitat and climate change, a fight over water, and budget woes. But there’s also globally renowned birding, the effort to create a protected ecosystem bigger than Greater Yellowstone, and the classic Texas hike: the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains, always rewarded by a view never to be forgotten.

So plan on joining us in Lubbock Oct. 17-21. Most likely, you haven’t seen anything like it. Most definitely, you’ll be very, very glad you did.

Randy Lee Loftis, of The Dallas Morning News, is chair of the SEJ Lubbock conference 2012 sponsored by Texas Tech University.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2012. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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