In Depth

Diligence in Oregon

Public TV’s Weekly ‘Field Guide’ Takes a Varied Approach

One of the three finalists for the SEJ Award in the category of outstanding beat/in-depth reporting is Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Oregon Field Guide,” a weekly 30-minute news magazine program devoted to environmental topics. The episode that earned recognition by SEJ covered four different stories: the destruction of the Marmot Dam; an update on the wilderness status of Opal Creek; the scientific pursuit of microscopic ice worms; and the migration of toads.

“It’s an incredible honor,” “Oregon Field Guide” producer/reporter Vince Patton said of the SEJ recognition. “I’ve been very active in SEJ. It’s a wonderful place to learn about environmental topics for reporters who don’t necessarily cover the subject full time and they need a quick resource to get up to speed. Climate change is paramount today, and it’s a great example. SEJ has so many climate change resources. That’s become the story of the century.”

“Oregon Field Guide” is unique among the finalists in the category in that its nominated episode deals with four distinct environmental issues. “The beauty of our program is that we’re not a daily broadcast,” said Mr. Patton. Because of that, “Oregon Field Guide” can spend more time focused on stories like the Marmot Dam—the first dam in North America to be removed without first digging out all the sediment behind it.

“The daily news stations, some of them covered the removal of the dam, some of them covered what followed,” Mr. Patton said. “None of them did an entire piece like us. We did nearly 10 minutes, documenting the entire process.”

The removal of the Marmot Dam yielded surprising results. “They decided to remove the dam and then leave it to the river itself to wash away a century of all the sediment and dirt that had piled up behind it. The scientists were curious to see what would happen,” said Mr. Patton. “They predicted it could take weeks, months, maybe a year to wash it all away. They were all completely wrong. One hundred years of sediment was gone by the next morning.”

The segment on the Marmot Dam has become the most watched video on the Oregon Public Broadcasting Web site. “We’ve received requests for copies of it from as far away as Japan, and many of our viewers are scientists,” said Mr. Patton.

While Marmot Dam was the most dramatic of the four segments in the episode, the other three stories were also compelling. Opal Creek was a follow-up to a report about the progress of the wilderness preserve created at the site, showing how it has become a protected watershed, Forest Education Center and tourist attraction. For the piece on ice worms, the reporters climbed 3,000 feet up the side of Mount Rainier.

“We ventured out on a glacier and waited. As the sun went down and the temperature cooled, not just thousands, not just millions, but billions of unbelievably tiny black worms came to the surface of the glacier,” said Mr. Patton. “They’re only found in the Northwest and they eat bacteria and algae, and they’re about as wide as two strands of hair. They’re very, very small, and with a zoom lens you could really see them.”

The fourth piece was about toad migration. “It was a science story not cast as a science story. Sometimes when people hear ‘science story,’ their eyes glaze over. In the course of this story, they may have learned about ecology and the threats to the Western toad, but it was billed as children come to the rescue. We had the largest migration of toads in 14 years,” said Mr. Patton.

The “Oregon Field Guide” team was in the right place at the right time. “On the peak day of the migration, a couple dozen children turned up and picked up thousands of toads, put them in buckets and carried them safely across the roads. The timing was so fortuitous because the migration really only lasted one day and we got over there just in time to catch it.”

“Oregon Field Guide” finds environmental stories by getting out of the studio. “There’s no shortage of stories,” Mr. Patton said. “We’re always getting ideas from people who write in. Our show covers the whole state.”