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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Journalism in the American West and the Environment.

The Institute for Journalism and Resources in Missoula, Montana recently awarded nine small to medium size western newspapers the Wallace Stegner prize for accuracy, credibility and context in reporting environmental concerns and population growth in the American West. It was interesting to the committee that newspapers in some of the major population areas in Western America did not make the list of winners. In fact, in the investigation of 285 newspapers the nominating committee was surprised to find so few of them actually covering such important issues as land development, traffic congestion, smog, water resources or depletion of natural resources. One reason given was that such issues did not make for exciting reading. Alarmed by their findings, the Institute issued a 135 page “blistering” report “on the shortfalls in newsroom investment and expertise.” It is ironic that in Missoula, Montana, the very town where the Institute for Journalism and Resources is located, there is such rapid growth that everyday the pristine landscape is giving way to urban sprawl where land values and housing prices have skyrocketed to soon rival those of such popular western towns as Jackson, Wyoming and Aspen, Colorado.

When I first saw Missoula in 1963, it was a remote little town tucked away in western Montana, the commercial hub of five mountain valleys and the home of the University of Montana. To me, Missoula was a special place, a western town that still had the flavor of the “Old West “ -- that image of the West most us easterners came to love in the 50s and 60s by-way of our televisions every night. But for the people who were born and raised in Montana, the mountains were just a place where they lived. They took for granted the bumpy ride up the old lumber company road in the Bitterroot Mountains to the huckleberry patch, trying to pick enough berries for a pie before the bears got them. They took for granted the drive up Lolo Pass to the old hotel built on top of the hot springs, which sported both an indoor and outdoor thermo pool. And they took for granted a lazy August afternoon float down the Bitterroot River from the Stevensville Bridge to Florence or even all the way into Missoula. And, they certainly took for granted the unobstructed view in any direction of the snow capped Mountains; the Bitterroots to the west, the Sapphires to the east, and the Missions to the North.

Like many communities in the West in the last twenty years, Missoula began to change. Neighborhoods expanded from the valley floor up some of the gentler mountain sides, pushing the wild life back into the wilderness areas. Then the state improved Highway 93, an interstate corridor that runs from the Canadian border down the Bitterroot Valley, eventually winding its way south to the Mexican border. Such improvements made the forty-mile long valley between Missoula and Hamilton a prime location for the gradual influx of people escaping the congestion and pollution of Los Angeles, New York or Detroit. To accommodate the population increase, ranchers found it more profitable to sell their land than continue raising livestock, wheat and hay. New neighborhoods now expand and threaten the natural habitats of deer, moose, bear and cougar; two legged interlopers claiming dominance over the territory. And, as neighborhoods encroach into forest hideaways, nature’s revenge plays out almost every summer with frequent forest fires that threaten and consume homes, use up valuable resources, manpower, and envelop the valleys in a smoke shroud that can last for months.

Today the state is just completing yet another highway 93 redo, a newer, wider, faster highway allowing a reduced commute time into Missoula, now a city full of twentieth- first century congestion and pollution. The improved highway opens land forty miles from Missoula for development increasing population density and threatening natural resources. The valley, first the home of the Flathead Indians, then European immigrants, is being sold to developers who plot urban sprawl that could soon rival the urban blight of any major city in the United States. In all, Missoula is a composite of the growth issues that confront other western towns.

So, are planning, oversight and newspaper articles calling for citizens to get involved in the future of Missoula and surrounding communities? The city’s major daily does cover controversy when citizens try to fight new developments in their area, but overall, environmental issues and the ideal of planning is overlooked.

Perhaps it is somewhat of a sticky situation for newspaper editors to initiate regular coverage of the problems of growth and environment; problems that usually call for rules and regulations, and even prohibitions to the freedoms that Americans have enjoyed since the founding of the country. It is also worrisome that environmental issues are the main stay of many in western political organizations who advocate taking western lands and resources out of the hands of those who might gain financially. The problem, then, is how to plan for future growth, and at the same time keep one of our most cherished principles, private ownership of land. It seems that newspapers could play a crucial role in changing the mind set about community growth by educating their readers to some of the options in planning the future of western living, a future that is not exclusively for those who can afford the inflated home prices or for developers who have a propensity to pave over Mountain valleys.

The Institute for Journalism and Resources calls for newspaper editors to engage in research, fact finding, and objective reporting about the environment and growth in the American West. The Institute should also call for editors to report on ways in which citizens are becoming involved in planning the future of western living. By so doing, they will encourage all citizens to have to a voice in the future of their community.

(newspapers awarded the Wallace Stegner Prize are: Anchorage Daily News; Arizona Daily Sun; The Durango; The Idaho Statesman; Los Angeles Times; The Oregonian; The Press Enterprise; The Sacramento Bee; Seattle Post-Intelligencer.)


Book Review






Michener: A Writer's Journey
by Valerie Hemingway (Foreword), Stephen J. May

James A. Michener was one of the most beloved storytellers of our time, captivating readers with sweeping historical plots that educated and entertained. In this first full-length biography of the private as well as the public Michener, Stephen J. May reveals how an aspiring writer became a best-selling novelist. It is the only book to draw on Michener’s complete papers as well as interviews with his friends and associates. The result conveys much about Michener never before revealed in print.

May follows the young Michener from an impoverished Pennsylvania childhood to the wartime Pacific, where he found inspiration for Tales of the South Pacific, a book that led to a string of best sellers, including The Source, Centennial, Chesapeake, and The Covenant. May provides insights into Michener’s personal life: his three marriages, his unique working methods, and his social and political views. He also reveals the author’s hypersensitivity to criticism, his egotism, and his failure on some occasions to acknowledge the contributions of his assistants.

Examining Michener’s body of writing in its biographical and cultural contexts, May describes the creation of each novel and assesses the book’s strengths and shortcomings. His close readings underscore Michener’s innovativeness in presenting mountains of historical and cultural research in an engaging literary form.

This probing biography establishes Michener’s place in twentieth-century letters as it offers an unprecedented view of the man behind the typewriter.

Stephen J. May is the author of a literary biography of Zane Grey. He resides in Fort Collins, Colorado. Valerie Hemingway, a former secretary to Ernest Hemingway and wife of his youngest son, is the author of Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways.

(forthcoming, University of Oklahoma Press, October 2005)

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