Chopping down environmentalists

Ten years ago, Tom Knudson was the hero of environmentalists in California. Today, he is something closer to their sworn enemy. The story of how he made that polar transformation says much about the states of both journalism and politics.

Knudson is the Sacramento Bee reporter who 10 years ago pocketed the Pulitzer Prize for his “Sierras in Peril” series examining rampant environmental problems in Sierra forests, prompting much official “we’ve got to do something” hand wringing.

Since then, he’s turned his journalistic guns on his one-time allies—environmentalists—accusing them of everything from greed and self-aggrandizement to hampering sound forest and watershed management efforts.

Regular readers of this column may remember an item last April when Bites sounded a note of support for a point Knudson made that week in his “Environment, Inc.” series accusing environmental groups such as the Sierra Club of being more focused on fundraising than saving the planet.

“Club Sierra and the other environmental institutions have become fat and happy when they should be scrappy and discontent,” Bites wrote at the time. Remember? Well, perhaps you don’t remember, but the Sierra Clubbers sure do, and they’re still pissed off about that little dig.

People like Sierra Club California’s Legislative Director Bill Allyaud objected that he and others there work their little butts off to make even incremental gains on a political playing field heavily stacked in favor of big money interests like the timber industry. Fat and happy they are not, said he.

At the time, Bites defended both my dig and Knudson’s point against a barrage of criticism that lingered for months. Bites noted that Governor Gray Davis had just killed an effort to crack down on clear-cutting with hardly a public whimper out of the Sierra Club, which was unwilling to expend either political or fiscal capital to force a showdown on the issue. Allyaud may be lean and mean, but fat and happy still seemed to fit his larger organization.

Sure, Knudson had been slapping environmentalists hard over this and that, but Bites wasn’t buying the environmentalists’ notion that he was on some kind of jihad against the movement. Environmentalists loved it when Knudson was zinging the loggers but seemed to be thin skinned when the pen was aimed at them.

But today, Bites isn’t quite so sure. It’s looking more and more like Knudson is setting aside journalistic objectivity and intellectual honesty in his quest to “get” environmentalists, just as they said he was.

The latest indication is a story that ran over the weekend titled “Drilling debate jolts old image of Indians,” which also bore the “Environment, Inc.” logo. In it, Knudson takes environmentalists to task for using the Gwich’in Indians in their arguments against drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the tribe lives and hunts.

He then cites reporting in a petroleum industry trade journal noting that the Gwich’in Indians have “joined forces with an oil firm to tap into energy resources on their lands,” going on at great length to slam environmentalists for using poor Indians as pawns in their diabolical plans to protect the environment from oil drilling.

Now, a casual reader might miss the fact that the Gwich’in want to drill on less sensitive tribal lands in Canada and oppose drilling in the Alaskan refuge. But beyond that potential misimpression lie questions of substance: Why can’t reasonable people oppose drilling in one place but not another? And what’s wrong with environmentalists adding concerns about the native population to their long list of reasons for opposing drilling in the refuge?

The article is deceptive reporting at best, or a cheap shot at environmentalists if we’re being a little less gracious. But at worst, it’s part of a growing body of evidence that Knudson is doing whatever it takes to knock environmentalists off the pedestal on which he placed them.

Then again, maybe that’s exactly what Bites is now doing to Knudson. Hmm, now there’s something to ponder.