When I started writing Endangered
in 2005, I was a beat reporter at the Arizona Daily Star
in Tucson. My job was to cover the environment, plus an occasional homicide, in the nation's fastest growing region and one of its hotspots for biological diversity. By the time I finished my book, in early 2010, the species of environmental journalist seemed endangered itself.
Like thousands of reporters, copy editors, photographers, page designers, and other newsroom employees, I now live in exile from journalism and watch from the sidelines as the newspaper business tries to re-invent itself in the digital era. The Tucson Citizen, one of the papers I wrote for, went extinct in May 2009, after 138 years of publication. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where I now live, suffered the same fate a few months before.
There's plenty I don't miss about being a newspaper reporter. I sat through enough interminable public hearings to last a lifetime. I earned enough gray hairs scrambling to meet daily deadlines and to get the story both first and right. And it never felt great inside to reduce some complex, contentious issue to 10 column-inches. I suppose that's what motivated me to write an entire book about the fight to save species from urban sprawl, wasteful water use, climate change, and other perils.
Covering one of the key threats to biodiversity — wildfires — is something I do miss about being a reporter. As I write this, the late June heat, dry lightning storms, and careless campers are sparking and stoking blazes across the West, including a major fire right outside of Flagstaff. Were I still a reporter in Arizona, I'd be trying to get as close to the flames as possible. That eyewitness reporting and in-depth coverage is what I pine for most and what's being lost as newspapers go under.
In 2002, while I was writing for the Arizona Daily Star, a bunch of us got certified as wildland firefighters by the Forest Service so we could embed with crews and report the story up close. As soon as we got out of training, it was one fire after another, a blur of long days, tight deadlines, and good times with my colleagues. On one overnight shift, the crew boss ordered me to put down my pen, grab a shovel, and help dig a fuel break around a log cabin to save it from approaching flames that were close enough to sting my cheeks. During the biggest blazes, we'd also take to the air in Cessnas or helicopters to get a bird's eye view, all the while trying to keep our lunch down as the aircraft bucked on the hot air rising from the scorched earth below.
An air tanker makes a drop over the Santa Rita Mountains in Southern Arizona. Credit: Mitch Tobin
One of those flights, over the 470,000 Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002, burned images into my memory that have barely faded. As the photographer and I took off from the tiny air strip at Show Low, up on the Mogollon Rim of Eastern Arizona, the Rodeo and Chediski fires looked like two volcanoes erupting, their plumes tilted by the stiff wind. Heading toward the flames, the pilot told me to keep an eye out for other planes, right before we entered a dense cloud of smoke that infiltrated the cabin. After flying blind for some very long moments, the skies cleared enough to reveal a world on fire. Mile after mile, the wrinkled topography was a patchwork of forests ablaze, glowing hot spots, smoldering hillsides, unburned islands, and blackened watersheds that reminded me of the scoured terrain around Mount St. Helens. It looked like hell was breaking through the earth.
The Rodeo and Chediski fires, which began 15 miles apart, eventually merged, and leveled 465 homes — despite a $43 million suppression effort. At its widest, the fire stretched 40 miles east-to-west and 25 miles north-to-south, making it the largest blaze in the Southwest's recorded history.
Computer-enhanced satellite imagery of the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire in East-Central Arizona, the largest wildfire in the state's recorded history. The photo on the left, taken June 21, 2002, shows the early days of the Rodeo Fire (R) and Chediski Fire (L). The photo on the right, taken July 7, 2002, shows the final burned area, nearly 470,000 acres. Credit: NASA
Wildfires aren't necessarily bad. They are part of the natural cycle in most Western forests and often beneficial. We know from tree rings that flames used to scar the ponderosa pines of Arizona and New Mexico once or twice per decade. These ground fires cleaned out the saplings, brush, and debris on the forest floor, preventing that fuel from accumulating. But then the Forest Service spent decades suppressing fires with quasi-military campaigns complete with helicopters, slurry bombers, and parachuting smoke jumpers. The once spacious forests became "dog hair" thickets that were as dense as a canine's coat. An acre that once had a couple dozen trees now had many hundreds. When fire arrived in such overgrown woods, it found plenty of kindling on the ground and could use the smaller trees like ladders to ascend into the canopy. On a hot, dry, and windy day, flames could skip from treetop to treetop in an unstoppable crown fire that incinerated every plant cell around.
The threat of such unnatural wildfires now hangs over the heads of innumerable forest species in the Southwest, none more so than the Mexican spotted owl. Like its relatives in the Pacific Northwest, the Mexican subspecies of spotted owls prefer forests with closed canopies, a diversity of ages among the trees, lots of standing dead snags, and plenty of downed logs — hallmarks of woods that haven't been visited by loggers. In both the Southwest and Pacific Northwest, logging of such old-growth forests faced few regulatory obstacles in the decades following World War II. By the early 1990s, only about 2,000 Mexican spotted owls were left in the United States, with an unknown number living south of the border.
The Rodeo-Chediski Fire swept through 55 nesting and roosting sites for Mexican spotted owls, about one in 20 of the known total. By looking at maps, scientists concluded that about half the acreage in the 55 sites suffered moderate or severe damage, but, many years after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, scientists still hadn't studied its effects on the owl because of a lack of funding for monitoring and research — a common problem afflicting our endangered species.
Fires like Rodeo-Chediski were far more than freak events. These mega-fires and the deep drought that fostered them were harbingers of the more extreme weather and fire danger we'll confront as the planet heats up and weather patterns change in the 21st century. The hotter, drier weather will thin the winter snowpack that delays the start of the annual fire season and the warmer weather is expected to give a leg up to insects and pathogens that can kill millions of trees.
When I started reporting on global warming a decade ago, my stories were always phrased in the future tense. But now scientists are telling us that climate change is already underway and transforming ecosystems, including Western forests. One study found that warming over the past half-century — just one degree Fahrenheit — had caused the death rate among a wide variety of Western trees to double in 17 to 29 years. Other research concluded that "large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly" starting in the mid-1980s, with most of the change due to a warming climate rather than fire suppression.
Even without climate change, species like the Mexican spotted owl were facing an uphill climb in habitat prone to catastrophic wildfires and still suffering the effects of poor management practices. Now climate change could surpass all the other dangers by doing away with whatever habitat made it past those threats.
Unfortunately, this is a familiar theme for endangered species across the nation and around the world. Since 1973, when President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, the law has inspired — even demanded — heroic acts of conservation. But for all the progress we've made in eliminating overhunting, banning harmful chemicals, reducing overlogging, and preserving valuable habitat, the fate of our imperiled wildlife is as uncertain as ever. Unless we tackle climate change head-on and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we're going to drive some species extinct and even our most powerful environmental law and multi-million-dollar recovery programs won't be able to save them.
Climate change has been the focus of my work since I left journalism and became a consultant to foundations and environmental groups. My new job lets me think and write about the same issues I covered as a reporter, including wildfires, but it's at the 30,000-foot level, so it can be tough to understand what's actually happening on the ground. That's one of many reasons we need journalists. Now that I'm out of the business and solely a consumer of news, not a producer, firsthand reporting and fearless investigation seem even more valuable to me.
Individual newspapers and journalists certainly feel threatened, especially during a recession, but I don't think that the profession or even the environmental journalist will really go extinct. Regardless of the medium, be it dead trees or live tweets, there will always be a demand for information and at least some people willing to pay for the content, buy advertising on the periphery, or use philanthropy to report and analyze the news. Journalism, like any species, will evolve and come to occupy new niches. But surviving is not thriving. Without a rejuvenated, thriving journalism that not only reports on disasters in real time but also deeply examines the root causes, it'll be that much harder to maintain a healthy planet.