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|Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/Danny Hart, U.S. government work via Flickr Creative Commons.|
SEJ News: 2023 Gathering Goes Big in Boise
By Tom Michael and Christy George
After two decades of wooing, and a half-dozen years in booking, planning, rethinking, rescheduling, recovering and rebooking after COVID, the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Boise conference is on!
Enriched by all the time we’ve had to shape it, our April 19-23 program will showcase key regional and national issues set against Idaho’s staggering natural beauty. Bordered by the Northwest’s emerald corridor and riven by the Continental Divide, the Gem State is where the Rockies meet the plains of the Great Basin.
The conference has seen an unprecedented surge of enthusiasm. It was first evident a year ago in Houston, the site of the SEJ’s last annual gathering, when people already were buzzing about going to Boise.
Maybe it’s because so many of us were ready to bust out of lockdown. Maybe it’s because Idaho is an exotic location if you live on the East Coast or in the Midwest.
And maybe it’s because SEJ itself is changing in remarkable ways. Conference attendees are trending significantly younger, and — thanks to a partnership with the Uproot Project — more reflective of the country’s diversity. New members are revitalizing SEJ and helping SEJ veteran volunteer leaders navigate a generational transformation with renewed energy.
A state studded with environmental conflict, cooperation
Like many states in the West, Idaho is politically crimson red with some blue spots, like in its capital city. And Boise is a boomtown — one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. Rapid expansion in science and technology has outpaced Idaho’s historic economies of ag and natural resource extraction.
Some have asked, why come to a place that has made headlines for banning abortions and banning books? Because the state is also studded with stories of both environmental conflict and cooperation.
Idaho is a state of contradictions.
The strong anti-government streak
there is coupled with an equally strong
commitment to the landscape and ecosystems.
Our theme has never changed. Idaho is a state of contradictions. The strong anti-government streak there is coupled with an equally strong commitment to the landscape and ecosystems. As a result, conservationists and resource extractors have found ways to bridge the divide and find common ground. And that’s a blueprint other places might do well to follow.
After a meet-and-greet cocktail hour, the main event on Wednesday, April 19, will be a gala evening with luminaries — like our host, Boise State University’s president, Marlene Tromp; Idaho Governor Brad Little; and Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, who was this conference’s very first supporter — as well as local and university science, environment and academic celebrities.
The centerpiece of opening night will be a conversation on the fate of Northwest salmon and dams. It’s an issue that more than two decades ago was a liberal Democrat-backed push to breach dams in the Columbia-Snake River complex. A lone Republican from Idaho has single-handedly changed the debate.
Veteran Idaho environmental journalist Rocky Barker will talk to Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, now the political point person on the future of salmon, and Nez Perce tribal leader Shannon Wheeler. They are working together on what would be a profound policy change for the Northwest, with ripple effects all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Tours take in iconic rivers, mountains, wildlife
Our signature all-day field trips on Thursday, April 20, will feature wolves, wildfires and salmon, as participants will see countless deep blue rivers like the iconic Salmon, set against the majesty of mountains like the Sawtooths, with their deep, green forested slopes, abundant wildlife and endless wilderness.
Southwestern Idaho is home to the breeding grounds of birds of prey and another example of people working together across the divide. Or visit Idaho’s rich farmland with bumper crops of cattle, grains, dairy and potatoes, tended by invisible migrant farmworkers, who toil at ground zero of the immigration debate. Or go to the Magic Valley, where high desert ag meets water quality issues on the Snake River Plain. And pre-dawn risers can watch the fabled lek dance of the sage grouse.
Throughout the conference, EcoFlight will offer optional aerial tours of Idaho’s fire-damaged landscapes, recreation lands and controversial mining projects — new, projected and legacy mines undergoing remediation.
Despite possible sleep deprivation, enjoying SEJ’s rollicking independent hospitality receptions that night is a can’t-miss tradition, with its bounteous display of food and drink continuing into the not-so-wee hours.
We kick off our extravaganza of concurrent sessions on Friday, April 21, with a plenary on energy in the West, looking at the promise and peril of the mostly climate-minded Biden administration’s agenda and what that means for a state — and region — with many of the vital resources needed to transition to an environmentally sustainable energy system.
Friday’s lunch features a sneak preview of Ken Burns’ upcoming documentary series, “The American Buffalo.” We’ll have a conversation and a Q&A session with filmmakers — all of it served with your choice of vegan or bison burgers.
After another round of concurrent panels, our Friday afternoon guest is Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history, who’ll talk about using Indigenous knowledge to grapple with climate change. She’s also bringing her deputies for a Q&A and happy hour with SEJ members.
Friday evening is a chance for attendees to paint the blue town red at any number of beat dinners in this terrific foodie mecca.
Board meetup for breakfast, gender issues for lunch
Saturday morning, April 22 (which happens to be Earth Day), is a chance to meet the dedicated people who do the heavy lifting, the visionary planning and the hard work of fundraising: SEJ’s volunteer Board of Directors. Join the board for breakfast — a much more convivial venue than listening to stuffy speeches from a long dais. Serving on the SEJ board is an extraordinary experience that can galvanize your journalism and your career with a slew of translatable skills.
Our Saturday lunch plenary
takes a deep dive into the politics
of gender and environment.
Following two more rounds of concurrent sessions, our Saturday lunch plenary takes a deep dive into the politics of gender and environment. Women, including in the United States, often have less power than men and are often less able to flee when climate-driven disasters threaten their homes and lives. In addition to being on the front end of disasters, women are often on the front lines of intersectional activism around environmental issues across the planet.
Saturday afternoon offers many mini-tours around Boise. Then we head to the Idaho State Museum for dinner, dancing and the story of why scientists packed beavers into parachutes and dropped them into Idaho’s backcountry.
Grab breakfast at the hotel on Sunday morning before heading to Zoo Boise, home to a special exhibit of the flora and fauna of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique — the result of an international collaboration launched by Idaho tech entrepreneur Greg Carr. Free roam the zoo before the conference concludes with a discussion about environment and climate-themed fiction writing.
Don’t all journalists have a half-written novel underway — even if just in our heads? Hear from some wonderful writers about their work … and perhaps yours.
The conference continues with the encore — Beyond Yellowstone trip into Idaho’s high country.
[Editor’s Note: For more information about the conference, including the full agenda and registration details, visit the conference website.]
SEJ Boise co-chair Tom Michael is general manager of Boise State Public Radio and managing director of Mountain West News Bureau. Co-chair Christy George is a news editor of KUOW Seattle and Northwest News Network. A former SEJ president and board member, she previously chaired SEJ's 2001 Portland conference and co-chaired the 2020 virtual conference.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 13. 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.