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Local Newspapers Are Vital Environmental Watchdogs

By David Lillard Created: January 28, 2012 Last Updated: January 28, 2012
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A June 13, 2008 photo shows a large mountaintop coal mining operation in West Virginia. Editors of local newspapers in the Appalachians listed this practice as an example of an energy policy that does not take local interests to heart.(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

A June 13, 2008 photo shows a large mountaintop coal mining operation in West Virginia. Editors of local newspapers in the Appalachians listed this practice as an example of an energy policy that does not take local interests to heart.(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

While the environment isn’t a high priority in Washington this election year, local newspaper editors—and by extension their readers—say it ought to be. Clean water, public health, and climate change are all highly important issues in every U.S. region according to a new Blue Ridge Press survey of editors at a hundred local newspapers.

The editors of the nation’s more than 4,000 dailies, weeklies, and monthlies rarely ever get asked their views. And I should know; I’m one of them! But as editor of The Observer, in Jefferson County, West Virginia, I can tell you that my 25,000 readers do have a point of view, and they care deeply about the environment.

The failure of Washington to adequately protect the environment means that local interests must now step forward.

When federal and state officials failed to regulate natural gas fracking to protect drinking water in West Virginia, The Observer reported the issue. Despite typically cordial relations between the gas industry and environmentalists in the state, everyone is concerned that poorly regulated gas wells can pollute drinking water and wreck property values.

Here’s what the surveyed newspaper editors had to say: a resounding 85 percent declared safe drinking water “very important” to their readers, while 93 percent said “clean rivers and lakes for recreation” are just as important.

A Maine editor explains why: the “fishing and hunting culture”—his readership—wants to keep rivers and lakes clean and accessible. A Virginia editor agrees, saying that despite his readers’ conservative outlook, they “value deeply where they live” and want to keep their waters “primarily pristine.”

“Direct effects are what my readers are really concerned about,” adds a Southwest editor. If a federal or state policy is negatively impacting the local environment, then people are going to oppose it. An editor from Montana sums up this concern: “our local economy depends on good environmental preservation efforts.”

Americans are especially unhappy with national energy policies and big corporations that don’t take their home interests to heart. Editors in the Appalachian states offered mountaintop removal as an example, while another editor observed that even before Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, his readers were upset with “where the nuclear industry is going” in terms of an “aging infrastructure and site selection.”

Coastal newspaper editors, like those in Maine or on the Gulf, spoke of “alarming changes in fishery regulations that impact both the economy and tourism.” A Louisiana editor is shocked over the destruction of waterways by oil company dredging. A South Dakota editor explains this intensity of local passion, saying: “what happens upstream [in Washington or in corporate boardrooms] is always going to flow downstream.”

This grassroots concern is something Congress should seriously consider as it tries to gut the Clean Water Act and impose rampant hydraulic fracking on voters. The failure of Washington to adequately protect the environment means that local interests must now step forward to protect communities and families.

The Blue Ridge Press National Editor Survey, sponsored by the Park Foundation, confirms that the 20th century national focus of the environmental movement has clearly shifted in the 21st century to a local focus. Many Americans now see the protection of limited local natural resources against big government and extractive industries as vital.

That’s a message politicians need to hear in the run-up to the 2012 election. And you can bet local newspaper editors will be getting the word out loud and clear.

To receive a copy of the Blue Ridge Press National Newspaper Editor Survey, email scherer@blueridgepress.com. David Lillard is editor of The Observer monthly in Shepherdstown, W.Va, and the Director of Blue Ridge Press. Courtesy Blue Ridge Press.




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