An up-close look at South Florida’s wonders

Photos by Marlena Skrobe

Journalists venture to fields and waters

A run of gray, rainy days in Miami gave way Thursday to clear, sunny skies and mild temperatures – the kind of weather that hundreds of environmental journalists had come to South Florida expecting.

On the second day of the Society of Environmental Journalists global conference in Miami, the journalists and other environmental experts fanned out across South Florida in field trips to the Everglades, to the waters off South Beach, the National Hurricane Center, a coral reef research center in the Florida Keys and half a dozen other places.

“We saw an alligator, a snake and a big spider,” said Melanie Gade, a public affairs specialist with the U.S.Geological Survey, just back from wadding waist-deep in the Big Cypress Swamp in the Everglades west of Miami.

Jeff Burnside, a Miami television reporter and co-chair of the conference, said attendance was approaching 900 people and was coming close to setting a record.  Burnside said journalists and experts had come from 22 countries and 44 states across America.

“This is shaping up as the grandest of conferences,” Burnside said. “The magnitude of the conference not only raises awareness of critical issues but raises the visibility” of the environmental group.

The Society of Environmental Journalists, he said, works to “help all journalists around the world do better environmental journalism.”

The conference opened Wednesday night with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar noting that the outdoors was a “powerful economic engine” in America. He said the billions of dollars generated by the environment could help in securing greater federal and state support for projects. Work related to the environment created hundreds of thousands of jobs around the country, he said.

Carl Hiaasen, the best-selling novelist who uses the environment of Florida as a central theme in most of his writings, said that the story of Florida was “all about pouring concrete” and “growth for growth’s sake”’ with little regard for the natural assets that brought most people to the state.

Donna M. Shalala, the president of the University of Miami and the host of the conference, said that her university is taking large and small steps to protect and improve the environment. “We know that every little thing we do counts,” she said.

After a day of exploring South Florida, the journalists and other environmental experts returned to their headquarters in Bayfront Park at the Inter-Continental Miami hotel, sunburned, exhausted and ready for libations. Waiting for them were a round of receptions, with sushi and roast beef and Mexican-style chicken sponsored by companies like Nestle and Nissan, and an arcade of displays by government agencies,  private companies and non-governmental groups that work in the environment. The displays promoted things like the safety of baby sea turtles in Florida and jungle forests in Ecuador, and demonstrated how wind farms work.

Friday, the third day of the five-day conference, is filled with discussions on topics ranging from the link between climate change and extreme weather to mining operations in Latin America to organic food and offshore drilling. In the evening the participants break into groups for dinner in South Beach along thematic lines: global warming, conflicts in scientific research and how to fairly write about it, and pollution caused by commercial cargo ships.

On Saturday there are more discussions and field trips to places like an environmentally correct golf course, an office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Miami International Airport that focuses on smugglers trying to ship exotic plants and animals in and out of the United States, and an ocean research yacht with all kinds of computers and electronic gear. Some journalists and environmental experts will go out in kayaks to get a close look at mangroves.

The conference ends Sunday with a breakfast at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in suburban Miami featuring Florida writers who specialize in the environment.

At one of the receptions on Thursday where sushi was being served from stainless steel trays, a reporter from Norway, Jan-Morten Bjornbakk of Norsk Telegram Byraa, the Norwegian news agency, talked about catching a 60-pound sailfish on a sustainable fishing expedition off South Beach. “I have been dreaming about doing this,” he said. Instead of bringing the sailfish back to shore and taking it to a taxidermist as a trophy, Bjornbakk cut the fish loose and watched it swim free.

“How relieved I was,” he said, “when this fish could go back to the sea and be somebody else’s catch.” #

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2 responses to “An up-close look at South Florida’s wonders”

  1. Ashley McBride says:

    It is nicely coincidental that the skies cleared up just in time for this conference. From this article it seems like the SEJ Conference will be full of interesting and educational activities that these journalists will be able to use to educate others about the environment and how to protect and preserve it.

  2. Adam Frenkel says:

    Environmental sustainability is absolutely crucial. The SEJ have gone to great lengths to support this cause and its only fitting that they bring awareness to one of the nations most nature filled areas. Weather conditions couldn’t be more perfect for a week of exploring and preserving Florida’s mainland and coastline.