Ideas, hope take root at record convention

Photo by Natalie EdgarEnvironmental journalists at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Reinvigorated journalists wrap up ‘a hot ticket’


Perry Beeman, a reporter for the Des Moines Register, had   missed only five of the 20 previous annual conferences of the Society of Environmental Journalists since the early 1990s. He was determined not to miss the 21st conference in Miami in October.

The Miami conference featured  five days of field trips and workshops and discussions with experts from Washington and around the world and ended with a guided walk around Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden with the director and his staff and conversations with Florida writers.  It  broke the attendance record for the environmental journalism conferences with a tally of more than 950 writers, editors and officials of government agencies, non-governmental groups and universities from as far away as Australia, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates.

“We knew this would be a hot ticket,” Beeman said of the Miami conference, “and it was. It was an astoundingly successful conference.”

From the first evening on Wednesday, the conference was a cavalcade of stars. Ken Salazar, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior,  led off. Novelist Carl Hiaasen had the group all but rolling in the aisles with his edgy take on the weirdness of South Florida and the tendency of some prominent leaders to try to pave over the entire region and to throw up condos and office towers where rare birds and alligators once roamed.

Donna M. Shalala, the president of the University of Miami and the host of the conference, delivered a roster of environmental achievements on her campus. One of Jacques Cousteau’s sons and four of his grandchildren told about their work in advancing the Cousteau legacy with projects in the sea and along its shores. And a young woman scientist in a red parka with fur-lined hood talked with the conference participants in a satellite hookup from Antarctica.

Photo by Adrianne D’Angelo

The conference chalked up a series of achievements: the largest number of exhibitors in the annual trade show, the largest number of countries represented, the largest number of events and the first eco fashion show featuring clothing made from organic and recycled materials. For some of the conference participants, most at home in jeans and hiking boots, the fashion show was a journey into yet another exotic habitat: professional models slinking along a black marble runway that sliced through a shallow pond flanked by skinny palm trees and a crowd of denizens of South Beach in tight designer shirts and towering stiletto heels, sipping martinis and mojitos.

One of the goals of the conference, said Jeff Burnside, a Miami television reporter and one of the co-chairs, was “to intensify the dialogue on the great environmental issues of our time; and we did it.”

Next year’s conference figures to be quite different in tone. It is going to be in Lubbock, Texas, in the heart of oil fields, cattle ranches and cotton fields. Texas Tech University, a leader in toxicology studies, is going to be host.

The participants in the Miami conference included freelancers and bloggers just starting out as well as reporters at small newspapers and radio stations, in addition to correspondents for major news organizations — such as the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Times Picayune of New Orleans, the Dallas Morning News and the Associated Press —  and two dozen correspondents from news groups in Latin American and Europe, including the Spanish news agency EFE, and the news agencies in Denmark and Norway.

“Just being around journalists interested in the environment gives me hope,” said Michael Casey, a correspondent for the Associated Press in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. “You can get a little depressed and sometimes you want to give up with people doubting climate change and saying they don’t think the environment is a problem.  You come here to this conference and you get reinvigorated.”

Rebecca Kessler, a freelance writer from Providence, R.I., said she got some “great story ideas” and “really enjoyed the comradery.’’ Kessler said there were almost too many events. But she said, “I’d come back again in a heartbeat.”

Photo by Katie Sikora

Mark Schleifstein, a reporter for the Times Picayune in New Orleans, who shared a Pulitzer Prize  with colleagues for the newspaper’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina, went on two outings that delved into the plant life of South Florida. “There’s a completely different mix of plants here than what we have in New Orleans,” he said. “This is going to help me better understand in context what we have.”

Barbara Fraser, an American journalist living in Peru, flew five hours to get to the conference from Lima. “This was my third conference,” she said, “and I’ve gotten an assignment each time.” In Miami, she was asked by the online publication, The Daily Climate, to write about forest fires in the western Amazon.

Beeman, who has reported for the Des Moines Register for 30 years, was part of a group that slipped on scuba gear and swam into the federal undersea laboratory in Key Largo. “It was a thrill,” he said on Sunday, standing on the edge of a section of Fairchild  garden that looks and feels much like a tropical rainforest. Sunlight dappled the palms and oaks and played across a mosaic of shrubs and big leafy plants. A good-sized brown hawk with a beige vest landed on a high branch of an oak tree, and Beeman and the others in his group craned their necks to get better views.

Beeman loved the field trips, or tours as the Society of Environmental Journalists calls them.  He couldn’t go on all of them, but he liked what he heard. “People went out fishing all day and somebody caught a six-foot fish right off the bat,” he said. “It was probably the strongest assortment of tours we’ve ever had at a conference.” He managed to go on one of the mini or shorter tours on Saturday. He and about 40 others got into kayaks and paddled along the edge of a mangrove. “They are such an essential part of any tropical marine environment,” Beeman said.

On Saturday some of the participants went to a golf course on Miami Beach where a kind of grass that tolerates salt has been planted. It gets sprinkled with sea water, which helps conserve scarce fresh water for drinking.  Others took a look at the new Miami Marlins baseball stadium that is loaded with gear that saves water and electricity and boasts a pair of huge shatter-proof aquariums on either side of home plate and, right under the scoreboard, a 74-foot high sculpture with mechanic birds, palm trees and dolphins that go wild when a Miami Marlin hits a home run.

Beeman said it was remarkable that the conference could have set an attendance record in a time of such economic distress. “We had a lot of fun,” he said. “We learned a lot. A lot of us extended our trips to learn even more. And many of us wish we weren’t leaving.” #

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7 responses to “Ideas, hope take root at record convention”

  1. Yaelherman says:

    Since I did not attend the conference, it’s great to read an article that summarizes the five day conference. It seems like all the efforts the SPJ made in order to make the conference a success were well worth it and that people enjoyed it very much. After reading all the tours and feedback from the people interviewed for the article, I want to attend next year’s conference in Lubbock!

  2. lmorcate says:

    I wish I attended! However, It’s so great to read about how Miami, my native city, has taken action and contributed to the cause of environmental awareness. It’s also encouraging to see that a conference of such universal significance inspired such a successful turnout.

  3. Yaelherman says:

    Since I did not attend the conference, it’s great to read an article that summarizes the five-day event. It seems like all the efforts the SPJ made in order to make the conference a success were well worth it, because people enjoyed it very much. After reading all the tours and feedback from the attendants interviewed for the article, I want to attend next year’s conference in Lubbock!

  4. Marchesa says:

    This article beautifully summarizes this year’s SEJ conference. I wish I could have attended, yet by reading this article, I almost feel as if I had been there. On many levels this was the largest endeavor attempted by the conference’s leaders and a without a doubt, it can only be called a success. I hope I can attend the conference next year!

  5. Monique says:

    Sadly, I couldn’t make this conference but from the sounds of it, this conference seemed informative and fun and integrated several parts of the environment to different aspects of life. This seems like a great opportunity for communication majors and those involved in journalism. Next year’s conference will be much closer and more accessible to me, so I hope to make it!

  6. Christy says:

    This conference sounds really cool, it sounds like all the “excursions” weren’t something to be missed. It’s incredible to me that there is grass that survives with sea water, and that the fashion show was so beautiful (check out the photos). I’m glad to hear next year’s conference is coming to Texas, I look forward to it!

  7. Aisha M says:

    “And a young woman scientist in a red parka with fur-lined hood talked with the conference participants in a satellite hookup from Antarctica.” That right there must have been amazing! The five day conference seems like it was filled with interesting events. I live right here in Miami, but I feel like the participants got a much deeper understanding of the city itself. (“On Saturday some of the participants went to a golf course on Miami Beach where a kind of grass that tolerates salt has been planted.”) It seems they got to discover much more than just the chic, sequined South Beach atmosphere.

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