In Depth

SEJ 2009: Following Water's Flow

By Debra Kaufman

Big-name guests and a special focus on water will mark the 19th annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, being held from Oct. 7 to 11 in Madison, Wis.

According to SEJ executive director Beth Parke, 820 people attended last year’s conference in Roanoke, Va., but she anticipates a 20 percent drop in attendance this year, due to the recession.

It’s a tribute to this community that so many people do come to the conference,” she said. “People take vacation time and spend their own money to get there.”

The conference will introduce attendees to some of the new faces and forces in the Obama administration. For the first time, a sitting Secretary of Agriculture — Tom Vilsack — will speak at the SEJ Conference. Also expected to speak, but not confirmed at press time, is Lisa Jackson, the new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Other high-level government speakers include Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; and Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, and administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With the 15th annual conference on climate change in Copenhagen only a few months away, the SEJ Conference will also closely examine climate change issues, with an opening plenary, “Countdown to Copenhagen,” kicked off by a keynote address by former Vice President Al Gore.

The panel discussion that follows will be moderated by New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin and feature Sutley and Lubchenco; Changhua Wu, greater China director of The Climate Group; and James Rogers, chairman, president and CEO of Duke Energy Corp.

“We have more big-name newsmakers than we have ever had,” said SEJ director of annual conferences Jay Letto, a founding member of SEJ, who notes that author/farmer Wendell Berry, who became the group’s 1,500th member at last year’s Roanoke conference, will also be coming back.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, Tia Nelson (daughter of late Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day), former Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck and Native American professor and journalist Patty Loew will greet attendees at an opening “Welcome to Wisconsin” reception.

“Ms. Loew will talk about Native American efforts,” said SEJ and conference co-chair Chuck Quirmbach. “Native Americans are speaking with a loud voice about the environment, and we want to make sure their views are represented and that journalists interact more with tribes in their home states.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison, where John Muir once studied, is a sponsor and the locale of this year’s conference. Situated on 1,000 acres and featuring its well-known Arboretum and the world’s largest assemblage of Native American effigy mounds on a university campus, the University is home to the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and its Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.

It also offers proximity to the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and 15,000 lakes. That fact has prompted Quirmbach, environmental reporter at Wisconsin Public Radio, and fellow SEJ and conference co-chair Peter Annin, Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources and author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars,” to focus the conference on water.

“Water is a big part of our life here,” said Quirmbach. “The Great Lakes are a source of drinking water for 30 million people, so it is a natural starting point. We’re addressing [water] topics that impact people from all over the U.S. and Canada.”

“Water: The 21st Century’s Most Valuable Resource?” is the organizing principle of the conference, as reflected in the eponymous plenary session, moderated by Annin, and featuring Maude Barlow, senior adviser on water to the president of the United Nations General Assembly, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians and founder of the Blue Planet Project; Mary Ann Dickinson, executive director of the Alliance for Water Efficiency; and Bob Hidell, chairman of Hidell-Eyster International, a consultant on issues facing the bottled water industry.

One of the conference session themes is also devoted to water, with discussions on aquatic invasives; rehabilitation of the Great Lakes; continued violations of the Clean Water Act; and water supplies, diversion and the Great Lakes Compact. Other conference themes look at the climate, the economy, energy, natural resources and wildlife, pollution and environmental health, agriculture, and the environmental journalism craft.

Another conference highlight will be field trips, including a cruise aboard the EPA research vessel Lake Guardian, with a discussion by scientists of the lake’s ecological challenges and demonstration of water, aquatic life and sediment sampling techniques; and a tour the Great Lakes WATER Institute in Milwaukee, the largest academic freshwater research facility on the Great Lakes.

Other trips will take attendees underground to see the Deep Tunnel project, Milwaukee’s sewage overflow project, and for a ride on the lake in an NOA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric) vessel.

There will be a trip to Horicon Marsh, one of Wisconsin’s top birding sites, and a canoe trip down the Wisconsin River, marking the 20th anniversary of a preservation effort to protect the undeveloped and undammed reaches of the Lower Wisconsin River. “There will be plenty of opportunities to get on Lake Michigan,” said Quirmbach.

Also featured is a post-SEJ Awards ceremony screening of “Waterlife,” a new film by director/writer Kevin McMahon that looks at the threats to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.

The closing event is a tribute to Wisconsin favorite son Also Leopold, a pioneering environmentalist who eloquently articulated a commitment to an American land ethic. This year is also the 60th anniversary of the publication of his seminal book, “A Sand County Almanac.”

Leopold, who once worked for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had a nearby family get-away called the Shack. Following a Saturday night party at the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center — the top LEED-certified building in the U.S. — a closing Sunday morning event will be held at the Shack.

Curt Meine, director for Conservation Biology and History, Center for Humans and Nature, and senior fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, will moderate a discussion on Leopold’s legacy with Berry, Dombeck and one of Leopold’s daughters, Nina Leopold Bradley, founder and director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Attendees will also be able to tour the world’s largest restored prairie and the Arboretum’s 4-acre Wisconsin native plant garden with its collection of nearly 500 native Wisconsin plants.

“We’ll make a pilgrimage to the Shack,” said, Quirmbach. “Aldo Leopold brought innovative ideas and prairie restoration and wildlife management and was a very good writer as well. We hope his ideas still resonate today. Although he died more than 50 years ago, his ideas about conservation, preservation and the value of living things make him still a modern figure. We hope the members of SEJ will be interested in what his message was and how he structured it.”

An SEJ/Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources post-conference tour, led by IJNR President Frank Allen and IJNR Associate Director Annin, will take a select group of SEJ members to Wisconsin’s northern forested lake country.

The 20th SEJ Annual Conference in 2010 will take place Oct. 13-17, 2010, hosted by the University of Montana in Missoula.