2022 Science Reporting – Large Outlet - Gold

In an evocative piece from Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, reporter Juliet Eilperin and photographer Salwan Georges use a single majestic Sitka spruce tree, the height of a 17-story building, to spotlight the battle over the fate of increasingly scarce old-growth timber. The tree is estimated to contain at least 6,000 board feet of lumber worth $17,500. Just as impressively, it has locked up nearly 12 metric tons of carbon dioxide in its fibers, a repository for the heat-trapping greenhouse gases that threaten humanity. “Covered in a riotous mix of pale lichens and deep-green moss,” Eilperin writes, “the tree’s flaky bark is marred by a long, electric-blue slash of spray paint running across one side of its wide trunk. Many months ago, the U.S. Forest Service chose the spruce to be cut down and extracted by helicopter—an elaborate process reserved for only the finest trees on this rugged hillside.” And as Eilperin notes, “The spruce’s fortunes as ever, are bound in the politics of timber and climate change thousands of miles away in Washington D.C. Its blue death mark might as well be a question mark: Is this tree worth more to us alive or dead?” In mid-July 2021, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack informed the Alaska congressional delegation he was reversing the Trump administration policy on harvesting old-growth timber. The magnificent Sitka spruce still stands, for now. The judges praised the scientific, cultural and political scope of the story. “Eilperin offers a narrative that brings together the complexities of climate change, colonialism, industrial interests, and indigenous rights—a remarkable achievement,” said judge Sarah Wild, a South African freelance science writer now based in London. Lauren Weber, Midwest Correspondent for Kaiser Health News, said Eilperin’s “brilliant framing and historical sweep” drew her into the story immediately. She called it “a towering achievement to make a tree come alive.” Eilperin and Georges, who are now two-time winners of the award, said: “Both of us are committed to showing how decisions made in Washington D.C. affect people and places across the planet. By focusing on the fate of a single old-growth tree in the Tongass National Forest, we sought to convey what’s at stake for the climate – and the implications for those living closest to these ancient woods.”