2012 Grantham Prize Winner
Brandon Loomis, Rick Egan & David Noyce
The Salt Lake Tribune
Reporter Brandon Loomis, photographer Rick Egan and editor David Noyce received the US$75,000 Grantham Prize for this “measured” and “exhaustive” series about the causes of the decline of ancient conifer forests stretching from New Mexico northward to the Canadian border.
“Part of foresters’ diagnosis [of forest health],” Loomis writes, “reflects a cold reckoning of facts known for a generation: A century of Smokey Bear fire suppression and decades of timber-industry decline primed thick forests for giant blazes and for drought stress, which invites tree-killing insects. The other part is new: Warming winters and longer growing seasons have ignited a 14-year beetle explosion like none ever documented.”
In the Rocky Mountain West, the forests that define the high country and, in large measure, the region’s geographic identity have been under siege for more than a decade- by a natural cycle made significantly more severe by climate change. In exploring the science and human response to a phenomenon that is plainly visible to even the casual observer, The Salt Lake Tribune found that the forests Westerners have known and loved in recent generations are unlikely to look the same for generations, if ever again.
The team, led by the thorough reporting of Brandon Loomis and the stunning photography of Rick Egan, also detailed important policy and spending questions that play a pivotal role in mitigating the risk to city watersheds, popular recreation zones and endangered species. Loomis, Egan, and Noyce found that landscape-wide management is needed to slow the spread of bark beetles responsible for the widespread forest destruction. But even as these beetles spread in response to warming temperatures, the necessary management efforts are deemed fiscally impossible in a time of stagnant and shrinking government budgets. Nonetheless, the team argued that partnerships will be essential to manage these pests, but they must begin immediately.
While taking a regional approach to this issue, The Salt Lake Tribune also focused several stories narrowly on one imperiled species that may dictate terms of land use in the future for one of the region’s most iconic and loved places: Yellowstone. The whitebark pine’s demise threatens grizzly bears, and in turn, human activities that may be restricted to save the bears, the trees, or both. Their stories examine the interrelationships of those species and the people who live among them, and the science and constraints of significant but costly efforts to save a tree for which climate change is only the latest in a series of threats.
The Salt Lake Tribune has done what few newsrooms have been able to do: tell the story of the unexpected, yet devastating, effects of climate change at local and regional levels while combining science, policy, and a compelling narrative. In the process, “Our Dying Forests” serves as a model for other medium-sized news outlets, and has earned Loomis, Egan, and Noyce the world’s richest journalism prize for their hard work.
Grantham Prize Jury Comments on Our Dying Forests
As a student of the environment since his boyhood days in Alaska, and as a practitioner of environmental journalism since his graduation from the University of Nebraska, Brandon Loomis sensed that the Rocky Mountain West was in the grip of an ecological transformation of epic proportions. With the blessing of his editors at the Salt Lake Tribune, he set out to document it, explain it, and – to the extent possible – assess its consequences.
What he found was astonishing: the wholesale (and still accelerating) decline of ancient conifer forests stretching from New Mexico northward to the Canadian border; 40 million acres of white bark pine, spruce and aspen gone or going, victims of years of forest mismanagement as well as natural cycles made significantly more severe by drought, warmer winters and other factors related to climate change.
In measured tones, Loomis set forth the possible consequences: dwindling water supplies for western cities that depend on high-elevation forests for their drinking water; decreasing populations of species like cutthroat trout and grizzly bears, who depend on the white bark pine for much of their food supply; more and bigger wildfires.
This eight-part series required exhaustive shoe-leather – in this case, boot-leather — reporting that took Loomis beyond Utah to Colorado, Yellowstone, and Montana’s Bitterroot Forest, and involved countless interviews with foresters, academics, and concerned political leaders to document a population explosion of pernicious beetles due to rising temperatures. These beetles have consumed countless trees, setting the state for grim consequences. Rick Egan’s dramatic photography added impact to the series, as did the accompanying video presentations on the paper’s website.
In this and other ways, Loomis brought the effects of climate change to a regional, more easily-understood level – a fine example to other medium-sized papers seeking ways to make daunting scientific issues more accessible to their readers.
Experts have long been aware of the dangers implicit in the wholesale disappearance of ancient forests. Brandon Loomis’ reporting has now alerted a wider public.
About the Team
Brandon Loomis is public lands reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune. He has twice reported for the Tribune, 1998-2001 and 2007-present. Previously, he reported for the Anchorage Daily News, The Associated Press in Chicago, the Idaho Falls Post Register and the Jackson Hole Guide. Loomis was also a city editor at the Juneau Empire. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Journalism and was a 1993-94 Ted Scripps Graduate Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Michigan. He grew up in Ketchikan, Alaska, where he worked summers in fish-processing plants and a pulp mill.
Loomis envisioned the stories for “Our Dying Forests” and scouted locations to explore various aspects of the climate-bark beetle connection, then spent most of his summer and fall traveling the Rockies to execute them.
Rick Egan has been a staff photographer at The Salt Lake Tribune for 27 years. His love for photography started in seventh grade, when he used money from his paper route to construct a darkroom in his basement. He attended Snow College and Brigham Young University, where he studied photography and journalism. His first job out of college was at the Sun Advocate in Price, Utah, where he worked for a year before joining the Tribune. He has photographed assignments in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa. He grew up in Provo, Utah. Egan photographed the bulk of “Our Dying Forests,” learning about beetles as well as high-elevation forests, and bringing them to life for readers.
David Noyce is a news editor at The Salt Lake Tribune, where he has worked for 28 years. He has overseen stories on every subject ranging from artifacts to the zoo. He currently shepherds coverage of local government, politics, public lands, wildlife, the environment and religion. Brandon Loomis’ “Our Dying Forests” ranks among the best work he has ever seen or been associated with. Noyce graduated from the University of Utah and lives and dies — mostly dies — with the fortunes of the Chicago Cubs. He grew up in Salt Lake City. Noyce helped plan and guide the series, and edited it in its entirety.