SEJ Gets High in Fort Collins

October 16, 2019

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SEJ conference-goers wander aimlessly during one of several outdoor tours designed to prepare journalists for the dangers of the environment beat by exposing them to sub-freezing temperatures and “thundersnow.” Photo: David Helvarg. Click to enlarge.

Feature: SEJ Gets High in Fort Collins

By David Helvarg

Editor’s Note: The author, for whose opinions the SEJournal Online takes absolutely zero responsibility, used to write a regular satirical roundup of each annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference. For the past several years, when he sought to repeat the assignment, we were able to either hide behind a coat rack or arrange to hold the gatherings in places no Left Coast resident could find. This year, unfortunately, the author discovered us in the hors d’oeuvre line in Fort Collins and asked to contribute, waiving our usual “zero-based” writer payment. We tried to pretend we were choking. But it seems our “aargh” sounded like an “aight” and so he sent us the following. Since recent amendments to SEJ’s bylaws prevent any member from hurting any other member’s feelings, we are duly posting it here. 

Normally I’m not paranoid when I’m high (altitude around 5,000 feet), but then my cousin warned me about the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Deep State journalists. And he knows the environment because he gets his news from an angry Fox.  

Why, he asked, does SEJ always hold its annual conference in big liberal cities like Sacramento, Lubbock and, this year, Fort Collins (known as “the Berkeley of Colorado if you don’t count Boulder”). I decided to investigate.

An experimental device at Colorado State University converts human excrement to energy. Call it the “assifier.” Photo: David Helvarg. Click to enlarge.

Wednesday’s opening — i.e., travel day — workshops included “Public Lands Reporting From the Extremes,” “Reporting Safely” and “Surviving Journalism” or, to paraphrase German pastor Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the journalists … and then we don’t know what happened.” 

Between Wednesday and Thursday the temperature dropped 60 degrees from 82 to 22. “So much for your global warming,” my cousin chortled on his way to a snowball fight with Jim Inhofe.

There was a welcome dinner with speakers including a scientist who goes to Antarctica every year to study dirt biota but really I suspect it’s her way of escaping the extreme weather in Fort Collins. There was also a guy who dressed up as a leering polar bear to startle musk ox “for science” but was also keynoting a “Furries” convention in Denver. 


Walks in the whiteout

On Thursday, to relieve my sense of unease I took the “Little Bus on the Prairie” tour to the frozen steppes of a former nerve gas plant now range managed by bison, ferrets and mule deer that have developed an unexplained taste for human flesh.  

Other blizzard-based tours included the Farm Tour where people were herded around to dairy and beef cattle ranches, and to a Colorado State University class for aspiring abattoir workers (“at least they’re not majoring in journalism,” say their relieved parents).  

There was also an exhausting tour of an Energy Lab and a fracking tour that participants said was a gas, really a total blast. The Rocky Mountains park tour included a visit to the Stanley Hotel that inspired Stephen King to write “The Shining” after he decided that writing about public land disputes in the West was too scary.  

And there was a wildfire tour that’s now available year-round and, of course, the black-footed ferret tour because who doesn’t love a cute carnivore (“Friends of the Prairie Dog”). If you missed that tour check out the movie, “Ferret Bueller’s Day Off.” 

Fun bonus fact: Climate change is accelerating the spread of plague. Wait, my cousin tells me the plague and polio vaccines were both funded by George Soros.


Burro of Land Management

Speaking of weasels, at Friday’s opening plenary on public lands the Bureau of Land Management’s acting director William Perry Pendley, in response to journalists’ questions on restrictions of media access to BLM employees, said he didn’t see a problem since he gave daily interviews to the enemy of the people.  

Pendley then offered a bold metaphor, “A chicken may be interested in what you had for breakfast but a pig’s committed.” Or maybe that was an aneurism.


Disagreeing with other panelists, Pendley declared 

that the greatest threat to the future of public lands 

was not climate change but wild horses and burros.


Disagreeing with other panelists, Pendley declared that the greatest threat to the future of public lands was not climate change but wild horses and burros. I guess horses take on greater significance if everyone keeps comparing you to the posterior of one.  

Other highlights of the afternoon included Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ chili and gefilte fish recipe (Pepto-Bismol optional) and his belief that state farmers and ranchers could benefit from the boom in meatless burgers, although it could also set off a range war between pea ranchers and soy farmers.

The luncheon plenary, “Environment and Climate on the Campaign Trail,” took an innovative turn when panelists decided not to mention any presidential candidates. One highlight was Mandy Gunasekara, the Ann Coulter of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who explained how a new cost benefit analysis of mercury shows it actually tastes better than meatless burgers.

I missed the afternoon membership meeting because my cousin had painted wall art of a bald eagle attacking Elizabeth Warren and I figured it would be more exciting watching the mural paint dry. SEJ Executive Director Meaghan Parker reported membership is at a high of almost 1,500. If present trends continue the last 15 humans will all be members of SEJ.  

Apparently this year’s conference registration also reached 777, although my cousin insists it was actually 666 (read your bible).


Dinner from the chuck wagon

Beat dinners ranged from meatless burgers to steak tartar (the sushi of the land). I got to moderate an ocean dinner at New Belgium Brewing with free sustainable seafood. I’m not cynical enough to say a lot of journalists showed up for the free food. There was also free beer.

Saturday morning, I opted for the panel on “Disaster Coverage Beyond Parachuting,” which meant I missed “Coal in Transition Without Skateboarding” and “Hormone-mimicking Chemicals That Kayak.”


I figured I’d be able to cheer myself up 

at the SEJ awards luncheon. … [T]he top prizes 

went to stories on murdered journalists, 

a poisoned town and a dead ocean.


I figured I’d be able to cheer myself up at the SEJ awards luncheon, since it’s always great to see deserving people awarded for their efforts. And the top prizes went to stories on murdered journalists, a poisoned town and a dead ocean. Congrats to all the winners.

Now it was time for the mini-tours.  

I hoped to go on the ‘Environmental Justice on the Plains’ but that was hard to find. So instead I took the CSU power tour where they’re working on the “assifier” that, no shit, converts human poop to energy. Apparently in our lifetime we produce the equivalent of a cord of wood, which doesn’t seem like a lot for a lifetime’s effort. Hell, the mercury contained in our bodies is probably worth more and for sure will be, after the EPA changes its emission rules.   

The conference’s final party night included a tour of yeast and barley festering in big metal vats that we got to watch for hours on a dinner line that harkened back to Fort Collins historic chuck wagon soup kitchens of 1933. The payoff was a meal that started with beets and gruel.  

My cousin says that after hanging out in big coastal cities like Fort Collins, SEJ ought to hold its next conference somewhere “real Americans live.” (Kellyanne Conway insists that as a member of the fake news media I’ve totally distorted what my cousin meant and that Fort Collins is in fact a coastal city located on the coast of the Poudre River.)

As I headed home via the Denver Botanic Gardens, which was willing to host SEJ book authors despite the many trees they’ve killed, I knew that my friends and colleagues will keep speaking truth to power and to the people.  

The SEJ Board is also doing its part. Understanding that past conferences in New Orleans, Los Angeles and Miami were problematic, they figure that even a politicized Internal Revenue Service will never challenge business trip deductions to places like Flint, Fort Collins or the next SEJ conference. See you in Boise!

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 37. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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