From Colorado Contrasts to SEJ Shifts

May 15, 2019

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Oil rig with the Rocky Mountains in the distance. Photo: Pxhere, Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

SEJ President’s Report: From Colorado Contrasts to SEJ Shifts

When you attend the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2019 annual conference at Colorado State University in Fort Collins next Oct. 9-13, the drive from Denver Airport will give you a glimpse of a state full of environmental contrasts.

On one side of the freeway, you’ll have a view west to Rocky Mountain National Park, with its 14,000-foot peaks. And on the other side you’ll see running along the edge of the Great Plains countless fracked oil wells, a source of some of the gasoline you’re using to get there.

The contrasts don’t stop there. Colorado encompasses mountains, plains and deserts, and political attitudes that embrace environmentalism, sustainability and a petrochemical economy. During SEJ’s May 3 energy and climate change journalists’ forum at CSU’s Denver Center, I called this the “Colorado paradox.”

Many Coloradans deeply value sustainability, public lands protection and solving climate change as much as they love nursing their obsession with gas-guzzling Subarus so they can venture to the high country to enjoy clean-ish air, fresh powder, over-crowded and poo-infused pristine wilderness areas, E. coli-contaminated anything-goes hot springs, and a chance to join throngs of climbers to contemplate their contributions to climate change atop a Fourteener.

Unless, of course, the mountains are a raging inferno.

Driving for recreation is something many of us do wherever we live, but the allure of the ski resorts and public lands within a couple hours of home encourages a massive petroleum- (and weed-) fueled exodus from Colorado’s Front Range cities to the state’s vast mountains and deserts every weekend.

That usually results in a recreational high-mountain traffic jam, as Coloradans idle their Subies along Interstate 70 at 7,000 feet waiting to creep back to Denver on Sunday afternoons. (It should be said that Colorado ranks fourth nationally for electric vehicle sales.)

I know this because I was once a wilderness guide near Durango and later joined the procession of weekend mountain warriors for eight years when I covered the environment at newspapers in Colorado on both sides of the Continental Divide.


Colorado’s contrasts and tensions

are fodder for great storytelling.


I have a deep love for the Square State. Its contrasts and tensions — especially water conflicts on both sides of the Divide, and the odd mix of geography, oil, environmental conservation, sustainable local agriculture, weed, megachurch Christianity and the liberal urban bubble — are fodder for great storytelling.

Speaking of interesting storytelling, this is the state where the federal government detonated a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb underground to perform a rudimentary form of fracking back in 1969. No kidding.

And, thousands of homes and schools in Grand Junction were built of radioactive uranium mine tailings, prompting Time Magazine to call it “Hot Town” in 1971 — and not because of the air temperature.


Oil economy, emissions cuts

In the Front Range urban corridor, the economy is fueled partly by the crude oil that is pumped literally from the backyards of Coloradans themselves.

The state boasts more than 60,000 oil and gas wells that produced a record 167.7 million barrels of crude oil in 2018. One of the Fort Collins-area gas station chains, Schrader’s Oil, even advertises that 40 percent of the crude oil used to make its gasoline comes from Colorado and 35 percent comes from neighboring Wyoming.

Fracking in the region is inescapable, contributing to climate change, poor air quality, fugitive methane emissions, drilling rigs lit up like Christmas trees at night and acrimonious conflicts with residents who are concerned about the health effects of living in an industrial zone.

Yet, the oil industry is one of the region’s biggest employers, a huge part of the economy and, it almost goes without saying, a big political spender come election season.

At the conference, you’ll hear about how Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, and the Democratic-controlled Colorado legislature have just passed into law sweeping new greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets — including a 50 percent cut in emissions by 2030 — and new oil and gas regulations that give more power to local governments to regulate the oil industry.


Change in Colorado, change in SEJ

Change is everywhere in Colorado, and it’ll be a central theme to SEJ’s conference there this fall. Change — in climate, the fossil-fuel-based economy, federal regulation, Colorado River flows, public lands management regimes and in SEJ itself.

The Fort Collins conference will be the first for SEJ fully under the direction of our Executive Director Meaghan Parker. Meaghan has spent the last eight months doing exhaustive work fundraising, updating and transitioning accounts, learning and updating SEJ’s systems and procedures, upgrading insurance, organizing events, launching SEJ’s beautiful first-ever stand-alone conference website, securing grants and accomplishing more other things than I can count.

Meaghan is proving to a be a powerful and passionate force for growth and positive change for SEJ as the board works with her to accomplish five basic goals: To become financially stable for the long term, grow our membership, foster equity and inclusion, become an ever more prominent thought leader and have an increasing impact on environmental journalism.

There are two big changes coming to SEJ in the next few years.


SEJ conference may shift to spring

First, staff is seriously considering moving the annual SEJ conference from the fall to the spring as a way to reduce conflicts with university football schedules, religious holidays and other conferences (including that of the National Association of Science Writers) that compete for hotel rooms, meeting space and SEJ members’ time. Our conferences are often hosted by universities like Colorado State University, which cannot host a major conference on the same weekend as a home football game.

Although there are still plenty of potential conflicts earlier in the year, including university exams and commencement, overall, there are fewer conferences in the spring, more available hotel rooms, fewer challenges scheduling around religious holidays and no football games.

Moving the SEJ conference to the spring may mean that there will be an 18-month gap between annual conferences, with the last fall annual conference scheduled for Boise in 2020 — SEJ’s 30th anniversary. The next annual SEJ conference may be scheduled for spring 2022.

For 2021, we’ve discussed the possibility of a one-day workshop in a major city or an online virtual conference, including our required annual membership meeting.


Shifting the conference season means

a shift in SEJ elections,

board member terms and awards.


Shifting the conference season means a shift in SEJ elections, board member terms (mine included) and awards. We’re just beginning to work through the implications of the shift, but the board is confident we can make it work without much disruption.

None of this is final, but the shift to spring is highly likely. On May 4, the board granted Meaghan and staff permission to make the final decision on the shift as they see fit. We’ll work out the kinks once the decision is made.


Shrinking the board, addressing the turnover challenge

The other major change coming is a reduction in the size of the board, likely to come in 2021 and timed with the spring conference shift. We’re still working through how and when that year’s election will be conducted. On May 4, the board voted to reduce the number of active member seats from 13 to 11, cutting the total size of the board from 15 to 13 — the minimum number of board seats allowed under the SEJ bylaws.

The bylaws allow the board to have as many as 19 active member seats plus one academic seat and an associate member seat, for a maximum of 21 total seats.

We believe that a smaller board promotes more competition for seats, allows for more efficient decision-making and helps to cut board member travel costs. The board has considered making this move for years, mainly to reduce costs, and we’ve decided to commit to it.

The move is not without drawbacks: A smaller board means less active member representation and requires sitting board members to be more dedicated to board service. In other words, there’s less room for slack.

The SEJ bylaws grant us the ability to add active board member seats as we see fit, so if a 13-member board proves too challenging, the board can add more seats.

One of SEJ’s emerging governance challenges is board turnover. We’ve had a lot of it lately — part of a generational change.

Only three of our 15 sitting board members — Jeff Burnside, David Poulson and Roger Witherspoon — have served continuously for more than five years and were elected prior to 2014. SEJ’s longest-serving board member, Christy George, left the board in 2018 after 18 years of continuous board service.

With that turnover, we lose a lot of critical institutional knowledge at a point when numerous SEJ policies and processes — personnel, financial and others — need to be updated and modernized, while also continuously strategizing for SEJ’s success through the next decade. We need to think about how SEJ needs to grow and evolve while also ensuring that we stay true to our roots and our mission.

SEJ’s current election cycle allows for potential surges in turnover that could occur at times when institutional knowledge among board members is sorely needed. The SEJ bylaws prescribe staggered three-year terms for board seats. With today’s 15-member board, ideally, we’d want five board members to stand for election every year.

But our elections have gotten out of synch: Three seats — two active member seats and the academic member seat — are up for election in 2019, five seats are up for election in 2020 and seven are on the ballot in 2021.

That means there won’t be much opportunity for new faces on the board in 2019, but there could be a massive surge of change in 2021. Last year was such a potential surge year, and although only four of the seven seats were won by newly-elected board members, a rebalancing is needed.

Cutting the board by two would mean SEJ would ideally have four seats up for election two years in a row and five the next. If we start the cut in 2021 — a year when we’ll need to find a creative election solution because it could be a calendar year without an annual conference — it’ll help to begin the rebalancing as we consider ways to even out the terms of the existing seats.


Vacuum of expertise, seeking a sense of volunteerism

The other challenge we face as an elected board is the lack of expertise in complicated and challenging legal, human resources, insurance and other matters. We’re considering forming an advisory board of experts who are willing to work pro-bono to advise us on these issues.

As journalists, we can use our skills to become experts, but that’s not always sufficient. Whereas many other nonprofits have the ability to appoint such experts to their boards, SEJ doesn’t have that option, so we think that an advisory board is our best bet. Again, stay tuned on the details.

In the past, the SEJ board has occasionally appointed members who are subject-matter experts in certain legal and financial fields to fill vacant seats. But while that is always an option for us, we’re finding that board service involves a time commitment that is very difficult for some SEJ members to agree to.

And that brings me to SEJ’s upcoming annual call for board candidates. If you’ve got ideas, passion for environmental journalism and time, I invite you to run for the SEJ Board of Directors.

SEJ is, after all, an organization that relies exclusively on member-volunteers for its governance. SEJ needs — really needs — people like you on the board because we can’t exist without you.

But let’s be clear: If your first thought when you see the call for candidates is “What’s in it for me?” then I think you’re running for the wrong reason.


Governing a nonprofit like SEJ

is about service and

a spirit of volunteerism.


Governing a nonprofit like SEJ is about service and a spirit of volunteerism. It’s about a great desire to promote, support and defend environmental journalism. It’s about lending a great deal of your time to lead with your sweat, ideas and money as a way to support a cause you believe in — promoting public understanding of environmental issues through top-notch journalism.

Board service is changing. It’s not just about bringing to the table your great ideas about all the things SEJ can do and what cities can host SEJ conferences, though it is about that to some degree.

I want to be clear about what it takes: Board service is a mountain of work, email, travel and conference calls — all while you’re on your own work deadlines and multi-tasking with family obligations.

As a board member, you’re a fiduciary — you’re legally responsible for the financial and legal stability of SEJ. You’re held responsible for setting organizational goals and asking the right questions about SEJ’s personnel, financial and insurance policies and financial status. You’re responsible for oversight and accountability of the executive director, setting goals for her and evaluating her performance. You’re responsible for scrutinizing SEJ’s budget. You’ll be asked to help staff raise money for SEJ and connect SEJ to new potential funders, at least within the limits allowed by your editors. And much, much more.

Board service is work, requiring sometimes hours of your time each week, and it isn’t always cheap. Each in-person board meeting costs you at least $100 (we have between two and three non-conference meetings annually), and SEJ’s donor dollars are best respected if you or your employer foot the entire bill for your travel. (Most of us submit our expenses reimbursement, but sometimes our editors pay the bill. You should ask yours.)

SEJ offers to pay for most of your board travel expenses because we want to ensure that as many SEJ members have the opportunity to serve as possible. But it’s not free, and we have to lead SEJ with our wallets as much as we do with our time, our ideas, our connections and our sweat.

To be sure, there’s plenty for you in board service: Satisfaction and pride that you’re supporting and governing North America’s largest member organization of journalists who cover the environment. Knowing that you’re making an impact on SEJ, environmental journalism and broad awareness of environmental issues. A tax deduction for your donations. Fun when traveling for board meetings. A truly awesome networking experience. A gleaming entry on your résumé. Maybe you’ll even find your next job or freelance opportunity (I did.)

If volunteerism and a spirit of cheerful service to a good cause isn’t in your blood — if “What’s in it for me?” is your first question about serving on the board —  instead of “What can I contribute?” — then I beg you not to run. This work isn’t for you, and you’ll be a strain on SEJ.

But I suspect most of you still reading this column are obsessed with SEJ’s mission and want to contribute. You should run for the board. SEJ needs you, your time, your experience, your expertise and your ideas.


Honoring SEJ’s founders

Finally, I’d like to recognize two people whose sense of SEJ’s mission and purpose is imprinted on the very fabric of this organization.

The board has officially granted honorary SEJ membership to SEJ Founding President Jim Detjen and SEJ Founding Executive Director Beth Parke.

This means their service to SEJ is so significant that they’ll always be SEJ members no matter where life takes them. SEJ has granted this membership status to only eight other members in its history, and it’s time to recognize Jim and Beth for the impact they’ve had on SEJ as founders and longtime environmental journalism visionaries.

Many thanks to Jim and Beth for all their work ensuring SEJ’s success since 1990.

SEJ President Bobby Magill drives a Subaru and covers renewable energy and public lands for Bloomberg Environment in Washington, D.C. Between 2005 and 2013, he reported for three Colorado daily newspapers: the Fort Collins Coloradoan, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 20. 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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