Sunday, October 20, 2013

Mini Miracles in Chattanooga, Tennessee

The Tellico River in Tennessee. We visited, snorkeled, and waded through the river as part of the 2013 Society of Environmental Journalists Conference Copyright (c) 2013 Wendee Nicole.

I got back from the Society of Environmental Journalists Conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee a couple weeks ago and, as usual, had a fantabulous time. SEJ conferences are the absolute best writers' conferences in the world! They have the right mix of craft sessions and topical sessions, which I get a lot of great story ideas from. I love the Thursday Tours they have every year, where you go in the field along with a smaller group of SEJers, as well as biologists, business folk, politicians, or other people who tell us about whatever the tour topic is. I went on a "Biodiversity" Tour which involved snorkeling! We were supposed to go to one place in a National Forest but had to change it due to the federal government being shut down. Ahem. The conference seemed very small this year, probably because of the absence of federal government employees! That meant that several panel members for various sessions were missing in action, and it definitely affected the conference experience.

I called this post Mini Miracles because the most amazing thing happened! Well, a couple miracles - which will play themselves out in time - but the first one is so stupendous that my jaw still drops to the floor when I think of it. So the week of the conference, Monday and Tuesday respectively, I turned in my application for two grants -- the brand-new Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative (on the topic of tropical forest conservation) and the Alicia Patterson Fellowship. The focus of my grants was polycentric governance, a concept so revolutionary it won Elinor Ostrom the Nobel Prize in Economics. I won't get into the details here but to say, it essentially presents rules for how commonly shared resources -- forests, fisheries, air, water -- can be managed in a way to avoid the infamous "Tragedy of the Commons."

Ostrom turned the idea of the tragedy of the commons on its ear. So in my grant proposals, I chose several examples of polycentric governance in action, including the crown jewel of the application in my mind, which was this amazing project in Uganda called Conservation Through Public Health. Ugandan Vet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka started this nonprofit to help improve the lives, health, and well-being of the people living immediately outside Bwindi Impenetrable Park, home to half the world's remaining mountain gorillas (and, my favorite animal!). The people living outside the park live in abject poverty, and because gorillas and people are so closely related they can and do pass diseases back and forth. Tourism to see gorillas in Uganda has picked up since the 1990s, meaning the gorillas are now more habituated to humans and they leave the park more than they used to because they don't see people as a threat. That has led to gorillas getting human diseases like scabies mites and tuberculosis, and gorillas are a critically endangered species. CTPH has helped empower the local people to take charge of their health, family planning, and well-being. That involves not just education but also teaching local individuals to become leaders in their own right, passing these messages of human health, family planning and about gorilla conservation and attitudes, to others especially people living in remote areas. CTPH also created a network whereby local healers report possible cases of tuberculosis and other diseases to health clinics for better monitoring of these health ailments. It's pretty cool stuff.

I first found out about CTPH through the Wilson Center, where Dr Kalema-Zikusoka had given a seminar (which I watched online), the week before the conference. I had emailed her and we exchanged a few brief emails about my project, but not too much since she was busy traveling. So like I said, Monday and Tuesday I submitted these grant apps on their deadlines. Wednesday I get up for my 530am flight to Chattanooga, I arrive at noonish, get a shuttle to the conference, and walk into the Population session halfway through the day - and who is there before me, across the room, but Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka!! I went over and introduced myself and she was so sweet and gave me a big hug. We were able to talk a bit more during the conference about what it's like to travel to Uganda, and the logistics, and my project ideas. I had no idea she would be there. What are the chances? It felt like a mini-miracle to me, and a blessing. I also spoke a bit with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ken Weiss, formerly of the LA Times, who has been to Uganda and reported on the work of CTPH. So keep your fingers crossed and pray for me that this works out and I get to go over there! I also submitted an app for funding through the Pulitzer Center. I am excited about reporting on these projects and hope I am able to get some sort of funding.

Ugandan Vet Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka from Conservation Through Public Health in Uganda & Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ken Weiss on a panel at the SEJ conference.

Thursday was the "Tour" day and as mentioned above, I went on the "Biodiversity" Tour which went to the beautiful Tellico River. Everyone got in hip waders to walk into the shallow, wide river to watch biologists catch some fish and amphibians while telling us about various conservation efforts in the area.

Me in hip waders -- because I like to go with the sexy wader look at conferences.

The biologists used electrofishing to stun the fish so they could show us journalists. This shows several spotfin chub, a federally threatened fish reintroduced into the Tellico River by Conservation Fisheries Inc (CFI).

A red-lined darter biologists caught by electrofishing in the Tellico River. The fish biodiversity is very high in the Appalachians.

Rock bass & other fish from the Tellico River.

A crawdad!

After we had lunch and the sun came out, it was time to get in the water and snorkel. This is myself and a new friend, Liz Kimbrough, who works for Mongabay.

The picture didn't capture this well because I actually didnt have my camera in the river, but at one point all the biologists in their wetsuits started walking across this part of the stream with sharpish rocks towards where one of the biologists have captured a young hellbender salamander, and someone called out that they all looked like zombies moving and THEY DID!! It was hilarious!!! Everyone was moving slowly and deliberately and with their arms sort of outstretched, and it was so funny.

Thursday night was the "schmooze & booze" otherwise known as the Hospitality Events! Various companies and nonprofits set up sections with hors doevres and drinks and information. That night, VW unveiled a new vehicle, too: the electric Volkswagen XL1 - pretty bad ass!

Two of my favorite SEJers, Dale Willman and Jim Motavalli.

On Friday night, the conference had their annual soiree at the Chattanooga Aquarium which was so nice! We had libations and food and people were milling around the entire place. In fact, the place was so spread out that it took 3 hours to get through the whole thing and I'm not sure I even saw everything. But around 10pm I met Joe Romm (blogger at Climate Progress). Me, Joe, and some other friends went to a bar next door, Blue Plate, and stayed til 2am!

Silly iPhone pic Joe took. It was a lot of fun. He's such a sweetheart!

Jeff Burnside and Heidi Ridgley, who hung out with us that night. Heidi is an editor at Defenders Magazine and is who I traveled to Costa Rica with earlier this year.