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Sierra magazine
Spout | Rant, React, Chat, Blather

Endangered Journalists | Letters

Endangered Journalists

The distinguished professor of environmental economics stood in the aisle of the idling bus, quivering with indignation and poised, it seemed, to deliver harsh blows with his ergonomically contoured cane.

For more than an hour we'd rolled through Wisconsin farmland and woodland, and then, as bronze fields disappeared in a soothing dusk, we'd been told that it was too late to visit the converted chicken coop where Aldo Leopold had written A Sand County Almanac.

The white-haired professor was with a group of scholars our crew of journalists had picked up at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. They'd convened to create an organization of environmental educators, and the professor was not about to let darkness keep his passionate eco-pilgrims from the site near the town of Baraboo where Leopold had urged readers to develop a "land ethic" and to "think like a mountain." His railing paid off, and a staffer from the Aldo Leopold Center grabbed a flashlight and led a small group through the frigid woods to the now-sacred shack.

I'd gone to Madison for a gathering of an equally passionate yet momentarily less-emboldened tribe: the 19th annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference. For four days, TV, radio, print, and Web reporters and editors had been canoeing threatened rivers, visiting restored grasslands, and attending seminars on wildlife forensics, wind power, and dozens of climate-change-related topics. Al Gore had addressed the group. So had the head of Duke Energy. The conversations that spilled into bars and hotel hallways were informed and fierce.

Overall, though, the mood was deflated. We should be in environmental journalism's golden age. Forty years after the first Earth Day, even politicians have come to accept what Leopold was saying in the 1940s: Understanding ecosystems is a survival skill. Yet today, environmental journalists are as endangered as Panamanian golden frogs.

My seatmate on the bus, for example, had spent a career at a Northern California newspaper learning the intricacies of aquatic science, riparian law, water economics, and politics. He had filed demands for public information that powerful people would have preferred be kept private. He had stood up to judges and bureaucrats who'd thought they could make decisions about a community's health behind closed doors. He'd honed his storytelling craft so that people would listen to tales about what was happening to their water, air, land, and planet. Then his newspaper had laid him off.

Like many, he'd come to Madison at his own expense because he could not let go of a subject he believes is more critically important than ever.

That evening, at the LEED-platinum-certified Leopold Center, there was plenty of morose chatter among the organic-merlot-sipping, free-range-pork-nibbling guests about how economics, technology, and, perhaps, journalism's own arrogance had driven so many media outlets to go belly-up or grow gutless and frail.

Mostly, though, the journalists—shell-shocked veterans and anxious neophytes alike—seemed to believe that society would right itself and figure out how to support a trade that is essential to the survival of the complex ecosystem that is democracy. I'd be more likely to share this faith if more of us were quivering with indignation and threatening harsh blows with our canes.
—Bob Sipchen, editor in chief


Thank you for the informative article "Greening the GOP" ("Act," November/December). I have been a Republican for many years and have been increasingly dismayed by the GOP leadership's stance on the many environmental issues facing our nation. These are not partisan but rather global issues. I now have a venue where, along with many others, I can constructively voice my concerns.
Steven Andersen
West Sacramento, California

We were very pleased to see the article "Promise on the Prairie" (November/December), featuring the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago. Your readers should know that the conservation outings described are a joint venture between the volunteers of the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) and Building Bridges to the Outdoors (BBTO). ICO runs several programs like this around the Chicagoland area, working with a variety of community groups to help improve the forest preserves and inspire the youths who work in them.
Colin Tysoe, Chicago ICO chair
Doug Chien, BBTO field representative

The articles on the potential for the production of biofuels from algae are very interesting ("Innovate" and "Solving the Climate Puzzle," November/December). However, I wonder what the downsides are. Every system has its downsides. Could Sierra please highlight the cons as well as the pros of various alternative-energy systems?
John Reindl
Madison, Wisconsin

Editor's note: For more on algae as an alternative fuel, visit

The photo of a skier cutting through a standing train is bad enough, but to point out that it is "frowned upon" is the topper ("Winter Tracks," November/December). Ever try skiing with one leg or a stump? Keep this up and you will. I've been a railroader for 23 years, and trains can move at any time in any place. So Mr. Frick-Wright should practice safe skiing. And the editor should check photos better.
Name withheld

"A Short History of Bright Ideas" (September/October) understated the efficiency of solar panels. Solar-cell efficiencies range from 8 to 35 percent; solar panels used on residential rooftops have an average energy-conversion rate of 15 percent.

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Illustration: John Ueland; frog image: National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy



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