AAAS Kavli Lecture: Hillary Rosner on Covering Conservation

Earl Lane

Covering conservation and the environment can be quite depressing at times, writer Hillary Rosner told students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism recently, but stories about climate change, endangered species, disappearing rain forests and other topics demand astute and sustained attention.

“We need more and more smart people covering this crisis and bearing witness to what’s happening to our planet, but it’s not always easy,” Rosner said during a Nov. 8 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture at the school’s McCormick Foundation Center.

“There are no simple solutions to many of the problems that we face today,” said Rosner, a two-time winner of the AAAS Kavli award. “Environment stories are rarely straight forward. In fact, if it seems like there is an easy solution, you are probably missing something.”

She cautioned that most environmental stories are complex, with intertwined interests. She cited several examples from her travels as a freelance science writer, including a piece for National Geographic on the difficult challenges posed by the demand for palm oil, the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet. It is used in processed foods such as cookies, pizza dough and peanut butter and in lotions, shampoos and soaps, among other products. Huge swaths of forest are being destroyed in Indonesia and Malaysia to be replaced with oil palm trees that are vital to the local economy, Rosner said. Among the casualties are orangutans whose forest habitat has been destroyed.

Hillary Rosner at a palm oil facility in Gabon, Africa.                                     
                                                            Photo courtesy of Hillary Rosner

In her reporting, Rosner found it sometimes difficult to separate the good from the bad. She mentioned a sanctuary in Malaysia for sun bears, who thrive in threatened forests. It is funded by one of the largest producers of palm oil.

Rosner concluded that palm oil has allowed many people in Malaysia to have a better life. The answer is not to boycott it, she said, but to use only palm oil products derived from areas where the oil is sustainably produced and high-value forests are conserved, an approach that requires hard work by all parties involved. “The fact that there is no easy answer makes the story much more important to tell,” Rosner said.

In her writing, Rosner said she tries to focus on “champions,” protagonists who help tell the story in human terms. For the palm oil story, one of her champions was a forest supervisor in Borneo who took up the cause of sustainable use and, she later learned, was fired.

In one of her AAAS Kavli-winning stories about the fate of an endangered fish called the razorback sucker, Rosner’s champions were two scientists who have been working for decades to save the fish that live in Lake Mohave, a dam-created reservoir of the Colorado River at the border of Nevada and Arizona. There were about 75,000 of the fish in the lake in the 1980s, Rosner said. Now there are about 3,000, with the hatchlings being gobbled up by non-native fish such as striped bass.

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to reverse the trend by raising razorback sucker young in hatcheries until they are large enough to fend for themselves against predators. In another example of intertwined interests, Rosner said, the wildlife service is raising the razorback sucker young in hatchery tanks adjacent to those where the service also raises rainbow trout to stock Lake Mohave for sport fishing. Those trout serve as a food source for the striped bass who eat the sucker hatchlings.

Rosner quoted biologist Paul Marsh’s passion for his research on the endangered fish. “I’ve spent a 30-year career watching the animals I love and work on go down the toilet despite my best efforts,” Marsh said. ”I love these fish. I want my children, my grandchildren, to have an opportunity to love these fish the way I do.” To allow them to disappear, he said, “is fundamentally wrong. It’s a philosophical thing.”

Rosner also wrote recently about the plight of caribou living in old-growth forests of western Canada. Roads built for logging and oil extraction have given wolves an easy pathway into caribou habitat, where they are killing caribou faster than they can reproduce. In this case, Rosner’s champions are a husband and wife team, both scientists, and a Canadian First Nations chief who organized a program to trap pregnant caribou and take them to a safe enclosure to raise their young until ─ as in the case of the razorback sucker ─ they have a fighting chance for survival in the wild.

Some scientists have concluded there may be no way to save all the caribou, Rosner said. They may have to select which herds to preserve and which to let go. Killing off the wolves is not really an option, either. As wildlife biologist Mark Hebbelwhite of the University of Montana has written, “Pretending we can continue to conserve everything, and asking wolves to pay the price while energy development continues, is not only ethically and morally wrong, it is extremely poor conservation policy.”

“As you see, writing about the environment can be pretty depressing,” Rosner told her audience. “But I try to find ways to keep myself going. One way is to focus on the champions and another is to write stories that are compelling on more of a philosophical level.”

In that regard, she cited her other AAAS Kavli-winning story, which appeared in Wired magazine in December 2012. It told the tale of the endangered Devils Hole pupfish, which live in an isolated pond of water in the Nevada desert.

When a few pupfish from a different species managed to infiltrate a refuge designed to preserve the pupfish, the invaders quickly spread their DNA throughout the captive population. Within about five years, every fish in the pool was descended from the invaders, who gave their offspring telltale genes and an extra set of fins.

Wildlife officials moved all the hybrids to a hatchery, but one evolutionary biologist recognized that the influx of new genes was correcting a glut of defective DNA that accumulates in a small population. That suggested the endangered fish could be saved by allowing hybridization to proceed.

But that would go against the old conservation approach that called for fencing off swaths of wilderness and stepping aside. In the new order, Rosner wrote, “we’d be the stewards not just of land or wildlife but of individual chromosomes.” That new order represents a philosophical shift in how we regard nature, Rosner said.

Whether grappling with such larger questions or searching for new “champions” of conservation, Rosner told her audience there is little doubt about what drives her reporting and writing. “We are in a state of emergency,” she said, “and it is our job ─ yours and mine ─ to tell these stories. Telling them is really hard, but we can’t give up.”

After her talk, Rosner answered questions from undergraduate and graduate students at Medill on issues such as how she funds her trips, develops local sources in the field and finds compelling stories.

“The main way I get a story does not involve sitting at my desk and using Google,” Rosner said. “It’s by going out and talking to people in the world.”  In some cases, an unanswered question or throwaway line in one of her own stories or in a story by another journalist is enough to send her on a new quest.

Asked whether she considers herself an environmental advocate, Rosner said: “I believe that everybody has a right to clean air and clean water and that other species actually have a right to exist on this planet. And we really need to protect the planet for future generations. I don’t think that makes me an advocate. I do have a point of view.”

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