Tag Archives: environmental reporting

A few random thoughts about reporting and environmental science

After leaving the staff of the Kitsap Sun, I was profoundly thrilled and honored this year to have my environmental reporting career recognized by two organizations that I greatly respect.

The two awards got me to thinking about the role that environmental reporters can play in bridging the gap between scientists studying the Puget Sound ecosystem and residents wishing to protect this beloved place.

Great Peninsula Conservancy, which plays a central role in acquiring and protecting vital ecosystems on the Kitsap Peninsula, chose to honor me with its Conservationist of the Year Award. The award is especially humbling, because I see myself as a storyteller, not a conservationist. But I was reminded that stories can help bring people together to accomplish great things. One major project that involves GPC and its many partners is the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project, a major land-acquisition effort in North Kitsap.

gpc logo

When I attended GPC’s annual fund-raising dinner in April, it felt like some sort of reunion. People I had known for years from all sorts of organizations and agencies came up to shake my hand. Some I knew very well. For nearly everyone, I could look back over more than 35 years of reporting and recall their connection to one or more environmental stories. It was a bit overwhelming.

The second award, from the SeaDoc Society, was equally satisfying, since it recognized my work across the Puget Sound region. The Octopus Award acknowledges groups and individuals outside SeaDoc who have advanced the organization’s goal of protecting the health of marine wildlife.

seadoc logo

SeaDoc’s director and chief scientist, Dr. Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian, has a rare ability. He not only conducts research with a precision required to advance science, but he also communicates general scientific knowledge in ways we can all understand. I cannot count the times I’ve asked Joe to help me put some ecological issue into perspective.

Joe teamed up recently with author Audrey DeLella Benedict to write an informative and entertaining book about the inland waterway that extends from Olympia, Wash., to Campbell River, B.C., including Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. The title is “The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.”

Unlike my experience at the GPC dinner, I knew only a handful of people at SeaDoc’s annual fund-raising auction on Orcas Island two weeks ago. I was able to become acquainted with many wonderful people who seemed interested in all aspects of the Puget Sound ecosystem. I was SeaDoc’s guest for the entire weekend, which turned into a much-needed mini-vacation. It was the first time I’ve been able to get away this year.

For whatever success I’ve had in my career, I owe a debt to all the scientists willing to give their time to help me understand their research. Science is a journey of discovery, and I’ve been privileged to hitchhike with all sorts of researchers on their way to understanding how the world works.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the teaching of science and the need to encourage future researchers. Although I have a degree in biochemistry, I’ve never worked as a scientist — unless you count the year I toiled as a lab assistant growing tomato plants. It was a research project designed to figure out how the plants protect themselves from damaging insects.

I grew up believing that science was a particular set of facts that explained the workings of nature. For the longest time, I failed to see that the most important thing about science was formulating the right questions about things we don’t know. Science teachers should, of course, convey what is known, but I believe they should also lead their students to the edge of the unknown, revealing some of the questions that scientists are attempting to answer right now.

That is what much of my reporting on Puget Sound has been about. We’ve known for years that the health of the waterway is in decline. It has been rewarding to help people understand why things have been going wrong and what can be done to reverse the downward trends. While there is much work to do, we’re at a point where we can expect Puget Sound residents to limit their damage to the ecosystem and become part of the restoration effort.

Finally, I have some advice for science reporters and scientists alike. I feel like I’ve been lucky to be able to connect well with researchers, though I’ve heard it said that the relationship between reporters and scientists can be rough at times.

I’ve known reporters who are more interested in getting a scoop than in learning, more interested in getting to some perceived conclusion than in understanding the whys and hows. I’ve also known scientists who are convinced that their research is too complex for reporters to grasp, not to mention write about accurately.

For myself, it has always worked to follow my curiosity wherever it takes me. Gathering far more information than I need for today’s story, I find that this wandering gives me a better understanding of the big picture while identifying future stories. Thanks to those who have tolerated my detailed questioning.

Scientists also can take steps to make sure they are well understood. Spell out key points for reporters, go over the essential elements more than once, and even put information in writing if a reporter seems to need some extra help.

When this kind of collaboration is successful, the result is a story that captures the imagination, provides accurate information and sometimes even changes the way people see the world.

‘Splendor at Risk’ still the refrain for Hood Canal

Twenty years ago today, the Kitsap Sun published the first story in a yearlong series of articles about the Hood Canal ecosystem. The following year, 1991, we compiled the series into a book, “Hood Canal: Splendor at Risk.”

All these years later, I still hear from folks who tell me that the book has given them a better understanding of natural systems. They say it has helped them realize why Hood Canal remains a special place to visit, to work and to live. I’m always pleased to hear from Hood Canal residents who tell me that this book retains a special place on their coffee tables or bookshelves.

With the hope that “Splendor at Risk” still has relevance today and to offer it free to more people, we are making the original publication available to read online (Scribd) or to download one chapter at a time (PDF).

Thinking back to the origins of the book, it all started with a notion by Mike Phillips, who had just become editor. He wanted to launch a big project to bring the staff together, so he solicited ideas on a broad range of topics. The idea to focus on Hood Canal came from Craig Darby, a reporter who had been pushing for a Hood Canal series even before Phillips arrived.

Until then, I had been reluctant to endorse Craig’s idea. I believed a comprehensive look at the entire Hood Canal ecosystem was too ambitious for one or two reporters, which had been the limit of our collaboration at the time. But when I heard that a dozen news reporters would be involved, I became enthusiastic. In the end, management of the project was turned over to City Editor Jeff Brody and me. We came up with an outline for a series of articles every month for a year.

We covered water resources, water quality, wetlands, fish, shellfish, forests and related jobs. We also covered human activities, such as places to visit, the Navy’s submarine base at Bangor and the rapid growth of housing development.

The one topic that we failed to anticipate — since the problem was not well understood — was Hood Canal’s growing low-oxygen problem.

Every news reporter on staff at the time played some role. I ended up writing about half the stories over the course of the year.

I still remember how I escaped from the bustle of the city to spend time in remote areas. One part of my mind focused on the science, while another tried to capture the mood for each environmental story. Each monthly series began with a scene-setter noting the specific time of year.

Gary and Celia Parrot, caretakers of the Klingel Wetlands outside of Belfair, helped me articulate how it feels to embrace the wildness of a place — something I wanted people to understand right up front. From the introduction published 20 years ago today:

It’s as if the human heart yearns for a more primitive experience, away from the cluttered pattern of modern life, says Celia Parrot, caretaker of the property.

“The reason I go out two or three times a day is not just to walk the dogs,” she said. “It’s like a refueling. I go out to get another dose of that intimate feeling….

“We have to get to know our forests and our marshes, so we know what we cannot do to them…”

The Sun’s designer/photographer at the time, Theresa Aubin, came up with a headline for that introductory piece. She called it “Hood Canal: Splendor at Risk.” The name stuck as the title for the entire series and the book.

When the project was finished, we thought we were done. But there were calls for reprints, and we conceived the book project. Jeff Brody reorganized the stories into logical chapters. We got help from the staff at Washington Sea Grant to design the pages and coordinate the publication. I undertook the tedium of creating a topical index.

Some 6,000 copies were produced in two printings, sold mostly through advance orders. And then the book was out of print. Thanks go to Phil Best of the Hood Canal Environmental Council for his continued interest through the years and his willingness to scan the pages into digital format so that everyone can read this book online.

We never submitted the book itself for any awards, but the Washington State Library System noticed it, and we were honored with a Governor’s Writing Award presented by Booth Gardner, governor at the time.

On the five-year anniversary of the series, I returned to the broad subject of Hood Canal and updated some of the major topics, but the connections of place and time were missing. Regular readers know that I frequently delve into Hood Canal issues in some depth — but not across the landscape that “Splendor at Risk” represents.

At the end of each monthly series, we offered a list of things that people could do to help Hood Canal. In the book, the list became a chapter unto itself, and it is interesting to read that now. Many of the suggestions call for people to learn, get involved in projects and demand action from their government. If I were to make such a list for Hood Canal and Puget Sound today, it would not be much different.

At the time we wrote the series, a project of this scope was highly unusual for a newspaper our size. In the newspaper business today, with shrinking staffs, such a project seems even more remote.

I want to add that I’m proud to work for a publication that encourages environmental reporting. Thinking back to 20 years ago, I realize that this yearlong reporting effort infused me with insights that have stayed with me and grown through the years. Here is how I expressed those thoughts in the preface to the book, written 19 years ago:

Hood Canal has changed me. Even though I’ve worked for The Sun for 14 years, I am not the same writer I was a year ago. Even though I’ve lived in the Northwest for 21 years, I am not the same person.

It isn’t so much the beauty of Hood Canal that has me enchanted. At some point, it’s best to get beyond the pure splendor of the place. Call it an appreciation that the wildness of nature still exists, one small life linked to another, all struggling to survive, humans included.