I was thrilled to be informed last week that I’ve been honored as “Environmentalist of the Year” by the Long Island Sierra Club. As a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury, I’ve taught Environmental Journalism for decades and spend several classes in presentations about John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club.
Muir is known as a crusader for creation of Yosemite National Park. His one-on-one three-day camping trip in 1903 in Yosemite with President Theodore Roosevelt had a great influence on Roosevelt, a conservation-minded Long Islander. Not too incidentally, it’s been called the “camping trip that changed the nation.”
Saving wilderness was Muir’s mission. “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness,” he wrote. He and the Sierra Club were instrumental in the preservation of many great natural places.
An essential lesson for the Environmental Journalism class is that Muir emphasized the use of the published word to raise public awareness. He wrote 12 books and 300 articles. His first article, “Yosemite Glaciers,” was published in 1871 in the New York Tribune.
I tell my students that Muir and other early writers on nature — Thoreau, Emerson and Long Island’s own Walt Whitman — provided a base. And then, in 1962 came Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” her expose on the dangers of pesticides, which laid the foundation for the contemporary practice of what came to be called environmental journalism.
In 1962 on my first job as a reporter, at the Babylon Town Leader, I got my first major assignment looking into the plan of public works czar Robert Moses, a Babylon resident, to build a four-lane highway the length of Fire Island.
I began combining what’s now called investigative reporting with environmental journalism in many articles challenging the Moses scheme, leading to preservation with the Fire Island National Seashore, created in 1964.
I went on that year to the Long Island Press and after a few years of daily cops-and-courts reporting was back with a focus on mixing investigative reporting and environmental journalism. Along those lines, John Hohenberg, professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, updated what had been a standard journalism textbook, writing, “It has not taken the nation’s newspapers very long to demonstrate their effectiveness as crusaders to protect the environment. Through their accomplishments, they have gone far toward making up for the long years during which they neglected the issue. It has seemed to make no difference whether a paper is large or small; if it has a public-spirited publisher, a determined editor and a talented and devoted staff, it can — and does — obtain results.”
I was elated that he then mentioned my work and that of three other journalists.
I’ve continued to combine investigative reporting with environmental journalism now for more than 50 years, in books, on TV (hosting the TV program “Enviro-Close-Up” for 27 years, available on envirovideo.com) and on radio, in magazines and newspapers, including the column you’re reading in the Reporter, and in recent years via the internet.
A lot of my work has been done nationally and some internationally, and this has included breaking the story of how the next mission of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle involved lofting a space probe fueled with deadly plutonium.
This sparked one of my books, “The Wrong Stuff,” and the TV documentary “Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens.” I detail accidents that have happened in the use of nuclear power in space by the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia. I was invited to speak in Russia and made a series of presentations through the 1990s into the middle 2000s, including at the Russian Academy of Sciences. I would not accept an invite now with Putin imposing totalitarianism and with journalists and environmentalists in enormous peril.
But my home and the subjects of much of my journalism have been here in this area, which is why the honor from the Long Island Sierra Club is so gratifying. The club has 6,000 members in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
I’ve continued the combination of investigative reporting and environmental journalism, starting with the Fire Island stories and for 25 years I’ve challenged the plan to build seven to 11 nuclear power plants on Long Island. Today, after the strong activism of folks at the grassroots and stand-up opposition by governmental leaders, Long Island is nuclear-free.
This is an area with a wonderful environment and Shelter Island, of course, is a special gem. Our area includes exquisite waters embraced by beautiful beaches and wetlands and rich farmland providing for a still vibrant agricultural industry.
But there are many environmental threats still.
Applying to our green environment the remarks of journalist, inventor and diplomat Benjamin Franklin at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and the founding of our republic — we have it if we can “keep it.”