Sohn: Society of Environmental Journalists conference generated buzz on what Chattanooga's doing right

photo View of downtown Chattanooga's riverfront.


"(David) Crockett is a guy in cowboy boots, bolo tie and a Stetson extolling the virtues of cities. I love Chattanooga."- Tweet from Bobby Magill, senior science writer@ClimateCentral"Cabby from Chattanooga airport to #SEJ2013: 'you goin to that conference? Y'all are a different type of wildlife.'"- Tweet from Ashley Ahearn, science/environment reporter at KUOW and EarthFix, Seattle"Cutting climate reporters from media staff(s) today (is) like cutting tech reporters at top of dotcom bubble."- Silvio Marcacci, Marcacci Communications"10,000,000 Chevy Volts on the road would increase electricity load demand >1%; most charging happens @ night during off peak times."- Tweet from Jennifer Rennicks, Asheville, N.C."I was impressed, in what limited exposure I had, with the uncity-ness of the historic burg."- John Messeder, Gettysburg, Pa."What would Jesus do about CO2? That's a tough question for a lot of conservative Christians to answer, particularly those who are uncomfortable with some scientific theories as well as uncertainty about the future that climate science implies, Dawn Coppock, a Christian environmentalist and co-founder of the Christian environmental group LEAF, said at SEJ (in Chattanooga)."- from an Oct. 9 Climate Central story titled "Experts Debate Moral, Religious Case for Climate Action" by Bobby Magill"My heart hurt, (said) Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby on devastation from coal ash in Tennessee's Emory River."- Tweet from Camilla Mortensen, Eugene (Oregon) Weekly, on the Kingston Ash spill tour

Letter from SEJ/Chattanooga's first conference chairman

I chaired the first SEJ conference in Chattanooga fifteen years ago. Then as now, my friend David Sachsman of UTC was the catalyst, bringing together a city with a story to tell and a hall full of journalists to write it down and publish it. Back then, Bob Corker was Mayor. The Times and Free Press hadn't quite merged yet, and their respective publishers, Paul Neely and Lee Anderson, pitched in mightily to make the conference a big success.At the time, our two biggest concerns were whether Chattanooga was too small to embrace hundreds of grumpy journalists, and whether its story was genuine. We quickly learned that the city was world-class, and the Chattanooga story was for real.That was 1998. This year, SEJ chose Chattanooga to be the first-ever city to host our gathering for a second time. Having the city as host, backdrop, and story subject for SEJ was well worth a repeat performance.While I have a great fondness for this city, allow me to briefly invoke the journalist's right to be grumpy. More than one of my colleagues, riding airport vans from Nashville or Atlanta or changing planes for Lovell Field, pointed out that the long-time dream of a high-speed rail line would be pretty nice. And even though I live near Atlanta, I'm glad you're not letting Georgia seize a slice of your beautiful river.Our 2013 conference chairs, Pam Sohn of the Times Free Press and Anne Paine, longtime reporter for the Tennessean, had a new challenge to deal with: The Federal Government shutdown played havoc with the conference agenda as Federal employees, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, had to cancel their appearances. But even this maddening impact from the dysfunction in Washington had a positive, teachable side for Chattanooga: Republicans and Democrats, and a thriving newspaper with a split editorial personality have come together here, recognizing that the environment was good business, not bad politics.Peter Dykstra is a former SEJ Board member and former Executive Producer at CNN.He publishes two daily news websites, and and can be contacted via Twitter at @pdykstra

Chattanooga has been telling its newest environmental stories. And journalists around the country have been listening - and writing.

From hybrid cars to Cumberland Plateau ecosystem threats, the stories are pouring out. And from gee-whiz smart lights to Civil War battlefield restoration, Chattanooga is gaining ink as stories begin to appear from the hundreds of journalists and academicians who packed workshops and tours during the 2013 Society of Environmental Journalists conference here earlier this month. Already, more than a dozen stories in just about as many days have popped up in Google hits and web aggregators.

Pulitzer winner Mark Schleifstein, the hurricane and environment writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, brought new eyes to our region's battle to save the lovely eastern hemlocks that help make the Cumberland Plateau one of the most biodiverse places in the world. A foreign insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid, is literally sucking the life from hemlocks. The battle to save them is made even more bittersweet by the fact that the insecticide that could save the trees may also be harming similarly embattled honey bees. n Read it here:

To us, the hemlock is just a tree in our forest that we recognize and love because it represents home. But Schleifstein or Colorado writer John R. Platt, who writes the Extinction Countdown blog for Scientific American, look at our hemlocks and see polar bears -- another species threatened by our changing world. They see what we don't want to acknowledge.

• Read it here:

New York Times contributor Jim Motavalli, an automotive and environment writer, wrote two stories: one about hybrid cars and the Volkswagen VL1, and another about Chattanooga's transportation system.

For Mother Nature Network, Motavalli wrote -- behind a Chattanooga, Tenn., dateline: "I've never felt more like Vanna White ... " He pulled the sheet back on the Volkswagen L1, the 261-mile-per-gallon diesel hybrid, as it made its North American debut here.

• Read it here:

In a second piece for (Yes, that's the Car Talk of the Click and Clack brothers), Motavalli said he was impressed with Chattanooga's "groundbreaking electric bus shuttle which serves the downtown corridor" but whither the shuttle to show airport travelers how forward-thinking the city is?

"I've never taken so many cabs in my life, and the city was "sustainable" Chattanooga," Motavalli writes. "Despite a LEED-certified airport building, travelers needing a ride downtown have the choice of cabs or, well, cabs. An added irony is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo occupies the old and beautiful railroad station. And it's a hotel. Guests can walk through the restored lobby, and they can stay in a rail car, but what they can't do is take an Amtrak train. The federal rail service skirts this city of 300,000."

• Read it here:

Christine Woodside, writing for the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, wrote of "citizens connecting the dots between climate change and daily life" from the ecosystem to consumer choice.

• Read it here:

Bobby Magill, senior science writer for @ClimateCentral, wrote of an SEJ panel discussion on the moral, religious case for climate action, featuring our Dawn Coppock, a Tennessee attorney who cofounded LEAF, the Christian environmental group that has been so influential in slowing mountaintop removal.

More will come, and in several more weeks and months, print magazine articles will begin to appear.

Chattanooga had plenty of help telling the stories: The Tennessee Aquarium, Volkswagen, Westinghouse, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Appalachian Voices, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the United Mine Workers of America, the newspaper and many others.

"And what a great showcase Chattanooga was for our topic: sustainability. SEJ members saw how a forward-thinking city can line up to remake itself to move toward a greener future," said Anne Paine, a retired journalist from the Tennessean and one of three co-chairpersons for the conference.

"Groups of us rode the electric shuttles downtown, biked along greenways, trod the walking bridge over the river and found energy-efficient techniques and features abounding in buildings and lighting throughout the area," she said.

Others looked at the connection between healthy forests and clean water, snorkeling the Tellico River for colorful darters, and still more journalists toured Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant, a sustainable foods farm, a bat cave, Sewanee and the Cumberland Plateau hemlock forest.

Paine summed it up, calling Chattanooga "a hub of biodiversity."

"With short drives to some of the state's best scenery and most-sensitive natural areas, what a boon -- and a responsibility," she said.

Contact Pam Sohn, Times page opinion editor, at or 423-757-6346.