Speech: Society for Environmental Journalists' 21st Annual Conference

Last edited 09/05/2019

Ken Salazar

Miami, Florida

Good evening.

Thank you all for inviting me to be here tonight.

It's a great honor to share the stage with the Cousteau Family, whose name is synonymous with ocean conservation, and with University of Miami President and former Clinton cabinet secretary Donna Shalala.

The University is a strong supporter of our work here in the Everglades.

It is fitting that we're gathered in Florida for this conference.

Just fifteen months ago, the eyes of the world were on the Gulf States and the Gulf of Mexico.

Morning, noon, and night for 87 days, Americans were gripped by news – and near constant images - of oil spewing from a well one mile below the ocean surface and washing up on our shores.

Readers and viewers were hungry for as much information about the spill as they could get – about the battle to protect coastlines… about our unprecedented fight to kill the well… and about what the crisis meant for the wildlife, the water, and the people of the Gulf Coast.

Deepwater Horizon was one of the biggest environmental stories of our lifetimes.

For nine weeks, it was the top news story in the country.

It consumed twenty-two percent of all mainstream news coverage over 100 days.

On TV, it was even higher; CNN devoted 42% of its airtime to the spill and to the massive all-of government response that we mobilized.

As we kick off this conference – and with the benefit of a year of hindsight – it's worth looking back.

It's worth asking what we can learn, not just from the tragedy itself, but also from America's intense interest and the media coverage of the spill.

There are two basic lessons, in particular, I would call your attention to.

First, I think the interest in the crisis shows how deeply we feel – as Americans – about our land, water, and wildlife.

We are all moved by the sight of oil washing on our beaches, or of a pelican being captured and scrubbed.

It is angering. We feel: that shouldn't happen here. Those are our beaches. Those are our neighbors.

But it's not just an oil spill that Americans care about.

Even in tough economic times, Americans are going to the polls to support more parks and more open space.

In 2010, Iowa voters approved a new trust fund for water, wildlife, and trails.

Maine voters approved a new bond for waterfront protection and parks.

And at voting booths across the country, Americans made their feelings known about clean energy, energy efficiency, and conservation.

A second lesson from the coverage of Deepwater Horizon is that Americans aren't just passionate about conservation, they also demand knowledge and information about the natural world and how it's changing.

Yes, our attention spans are shorter in the digital age. And yes, there is a demand for sound bites, bulletins, and punditry.

But Deepwater Horizon proved that there is also a huge appetite – and appreciation – for complicated information, scientific perspectives, and nuanced reporting.

How else do you explain that “loop current,” “blowout preventer,” and “hydrates” became familiar terms in American households?

The oil spill put a premium on good reporting.

It put a premium on good reporters.

Americans relied on you in this room for clear and understandable explanations of what was happening and how it would affect our world.

Reporters who cover energy and the environment rose to the challenge.

Anne Thompson of NBC was out on the boats, day after day, covering the fight to protect coastlines and talking about what we must do to restore the Gulf from long-term decline.

Jennifer Dlouhy of the Houston Chronicle dug into offshore oil and gas regulation, and helped her readers understand the new paradigm we established for safety and oversight of the OCS.

So many of you kept long hours – often staying in hotels miles away from family and friends - and put the spotlight where it needed to be.

We must not forget the lessons of Deepwater Horizon. We must press forward with our oil and gas reforms. We must keep our commitment to Gulf Coast restoration, and reinvest the penalties where they belong.

But I also ask that you – as journalists – take stock of the lessons learned.

The American people want to know… need to know… the other big conservation stories that affect their lives.

There are three stories in particular that I think need attention – and need attention right away.

First, there are big things – great things – happening in land and water conservation across the country that every American should know about.

I'm talking about the countless locally-driven, consensus-based conservation efforts that have taken root across the country.

They don't get much attention because there's often no conflict involved, but what's happening along the rivers of America… what's happening in the Dakota Grasslands and the Flint Hills of Kansas… and what's happening right here in the Everglades… is nothing short of a revolution.

President Theodore Roosevelt changed America by creating national forests, refuges, and parks with the stroke of a pen.

Today, ordinary Americans are having an impact just as large through cumulative efforts at the local level.

President Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative is empowering, encouraging, and supporting these local efforts, because we know what a difference they are making.

Tomorrow, I will lay four planks on a boardwalk at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge – America's first national wildlife refuge.

Each plank symbolizes a new refuge or conservation area we have added to the national wildlife refuge system over the last two years.

I would not be laying the planks tomorrow if ranchers in South Dakota had not stood up and said: ‘we want to protect the wetlands that are America's duck factory.'

Or if the people of Kansas had not joined conservation groups to say ‘let's protect America's last shortgrass prairies in the Flint Hills.'

Each of these stories – from the restoration of the Klamath River and the San Joaquin River to the creation of a Big Bend-Rio Bravo bi-national conservation area – should be told.

Tomorrow, we will begin to tell 100 more great stories about conservation and recreation across the country.

Based on meetings my senior team and I have had with Governors or their senior staffs in all 50 states, we will roll out two conservation projects in each state that deserve our attention and support.

These projects are locally-driven initiatives that we hope to move along under the mantle of the America's Great Outdoors initiative.

The projects may not all be headline-grabbers but each is meaningful. They will bring about new trails for bikers, new blueways for boaters, and new open spaces for families.

This is a good time to be reminded of some of the things we can get done when we work together, from the ground-up, regardless of party.

The second story I think needs attention right now relates to the economy.

Last summer's oil spill laid bare the inextricable connection between the health of land and water and the health of our economy.

With oil in the Gulf, fishermen were out of work. Hotels were empty. Restaurants closed.

Beyond the crisis, though, we do not focus nearly enough attention on the economic implications of good stewardship.

The fact is: America's great outdoors are a massive economic engine for our nation.

More than 15 million Americans hunt.

More than 28 million Americans fish.

Outdoor recreation and conservation is estimated to be a $1 trillion industry each year. And leisure and hospitality is the fifth largest employment sector in the economy.

Recreation in our national parks, refuges, and other public lands alone led to nearly $55 billion in economic contribution and 440,000 jobs in 2009.

The extent to which our land, water, and wildlife fuel our economy is not adequately understood or reported – and, unfortunately, that knowledge gap can have real consequences when people make decisions about investments and fiscal priorities.

Finally, I ask for your help explaining what is at stake for conservation at this moment in our history.

Here in the Everglades, we have undertaken the largest watershed restoration project on the planet.

And over the last two years, the Obama Administration, including the Department of the Interior and our colleagues at EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, USDA and others have moved mountains to provide additional funding and to move Everglades restoration from planning to on-the-ground results.

Tomorrow morning, we'll see some of that work underway at the Tamiami Trail, where contractors and heavy machinery are helping remove a major barrier that has prevented fresh water from entering Everglades National Park.

We will soon see the River of Grass flow again.

Tomorrow, we'll also talk more about a new conservation initiative, Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge, that will preserve the community's ranching heritage and conserve the headwaters and fish and wildlife of the Everglades.

And we'll discuss the work we have underway to plan for the next ten years of Everglades restoration.

But the remarkable progress we have made on conservation in the last two and a half years - here in the Everglades and around the country - is in jeopardy.

It's not simply a matter of budgets, although the House Republican budget would force the closure of an estimated 100 national wildlife refuges to the public.

It's also about a fundamentally different vision of who we are as a nation and what we can do as a people.

President Obama and I believe that when times are tough, Americans stand together, work together, and do big things together.

But we are faced with a competing vision of an America where – when times are tough – it's every person for themselves… where we shy away from our goals… where we say: “that mountain is too tall.”

And that's why you see attacks on water settlements and river restorations that have been decades in the making.

Or it's why you see folks turning their backs on the promise of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

We should be reinvesting revenues from oil and gas development in the permanent protection of rivers, parks, and wildlife habitat.

It's common sense – and it was a promise we made more than 40 years ago. Yet those revenues are not getting to where they should be.

Sixteen billion dollars is owed to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

So if you're a hunter in this country, you've been shorted. If you're a fisherman, you've been shorted. And if you're an energy company, you've been shorted.

The American people expect more from their leaders, but they have to know what's happening.

That's why you, as journalists, carry a tremendous responsibility.

Fifteen months ago, you helped the world understand what happened in the Gulf of Mexico, and you helped mobilize an army of citizens and public servants to respond.

The challenges we face today deserve the same relentless attention, careful reporting, and clear explanation.

The American people are interested in the great outdoors. They are passionate. And they need your expertise to bring them the information they seek.

Thank you.

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