As one year ends and another begins, it’s time to step back and take stock. At Coastal Review Online that means reviewing what I think were the top stories of the more than 240 that appeared here in 2013.
Some of the stories on my Top 10 list made waves; others caused a few ripples. A few went beyond the headlines to explore important topics in depth. I chose some simply because they were good reads or slightly offbeat.
A 250-acre tract in Pamlico County was completely cleared, and activists worry what that means the future of wetlands protection. Photo: Rick Dove
As I culled through the stories, though, a theme quickly emerged. Many of those on the top of the list explore the inherent conflict that exists between protecting our coastal environment and the remaking of our state government to be smaller, less reliant on rules and regulations and more focused on jobs and economic development. A new Republican governor and GOP majorities in the state legislature have cut budgets, eliminated rules and refashioned the state’s major environmental agency to be more, in their words, “customer friendly.” How they did that while still upholding their constitutional duty to protect the state’s natural resources was at the heart of stories about returned federal grants and wetland protections.
Legislative reporting was an important part of the news service while the N.C. General Assembly was in session. Our coverage of environmental bills also focused sharply on the conflicts between political philosophy and constitutional obligation.
Though it’s still unclear how well limited government more intent on creating jobs will protect our environment, the stories start to provide an answer. You can expect the topic to continue to be an important focus of our reporting this year
The Top 10
1. State Declines $600K in Federal Grants, Sept. 23
No story we did last year received more statewide attention than the one we broke about the state’s refusal of almost $600,000 in federal grants to strengthen its wetlands program and to monitor streams in the central Piedmont where fracking for natural gas is likely to occur. Most daily newspapers and large TV stations in the state did their own versions after our story broke. So did major Internet sites, such as Salon, the Huffington Post and Grist. The story even inspired an online petition demanding that the state ask for the money back.
It didn’t. State officials maintain that the grants no longer meet the “core” mission of restructured environmental agencies and that they can do work themselves if necessary without federal help, though the state originally applied for the grants.
The hot-button issue of fracking was certainly one reason why the story had such statewide traction. The News & Observer, in an editorial that prominently credited us for breaking the story, hit upon what I think is the larger reason: Returning the grants was the first indication of the new administration’s commitment to environmental protection.
2. Pamlico Land Clearing Raises Concerns, Oct. 3
This is another story we broke. Though it didn’t get much play across the state, the story raised a fuss in Pamlico County and stirred the local government to action.
A Midwest grain farmer bought several thousand acres near the Neuse River and cleared several hundred for farming. No wetland permits were needed because state and federal agencies charged with protecting wetlands decided none was present.
Local farmers and real-estate agents, knowing how wet the land can get, found that hard to believe. They took their case to the county commissioners, who wanted answers from the permitting agencies and began the process of fashioning a local ordinance that would require that the county be notified before large-scale land clearing is done in the future. We covered that story as well.
3. Can the Coast Still Be Protected?, Feb. 15
We were able to break the first two stories because we’re in the loop. As an environmental organization we often hear things before others do. We broke this story because we know things.
The legislature was considering a severe remake of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission that we knew would raise alarms at the federal agency that supports the state’s coastal-management program. We broke the story that the changes, if approved, would likely threaten the millions of dollars the state gets each year in federal grants for its coastal program.
Worried about what loss of federal money would do to the program, coastal legislators forced the bill to be pulled. It was later modified and passed.
4. Bill Guts Safeguards for Terminal Groins, May 15
We led the reporting on a bill that would have removed most of the environmental and financial safeguards legislators put in place in 2012 when they lifted the ban on small jetties along the beach. Proponents of these so-called terminal groins found that building them would be difficult with the restrictions in place. So they lobbied legislators to remove them.
Publicity about the bill slowed it down and triggered the opposition of Gov. Pat McCrory. A much more moderate version eventually passed as part of the state budget.
Plants like this one in Ahoskie will turn trees from Eastern North Carolina into pellets that will power European utilities.
5. Are Wood Pellets Really Green?, Jan. 8-11
This four-part series explained the policies and science behind the use of wood pellets to generate electricity. It remains the fullest exploration of the subject published in the state.
Throughout the year we also followed plans at the state ports to ship pellets made from Eastern N.C. trees to utility companies in Europe and the changing overseas’ policies that will influence the development of this emerging issue.
Expect more of these types of in-depth stories about topical issues in the new year.
6. Bad Moon Arising Over State’s Wetlands?, Dec. 17-18
This was another series of stories that stepped back from the headlines to delve deeper into breaking news. Brad Rich, an experienced reporter who has longed covered coastal environmental issues, explained whether a series of policy decisions made by new administrators of state environmental agencies are indicators of how wetlands will be protected in the future.
7. News Service Takes Next Logical Step, Sept. 5
The N.C. Press Association, the state’s only professional journalism trade organization, accepted Coastal Review Online’s application for membership. This was big news for us because it helped mark us as a legitimate news outlet.
Despite its connection to a well-known environmental advocacy group, the news service has tried hard to meet journalistic standards of fairness and balance. Membership in the association proves that we generally met those standards.
“We saw stories that were objective and could appear anywhere,” Beth Grace, the association’s executive director, said at the time after reviewing our archives. “We got over our fears fast. We liked that you have a focus of coverage, but you don’t have a mindset.”
That made an old newsman like me smile.
Bleached keyhole urchins, better known as sand dollars, covered the winter beach on Bear Island. Photo: Sam Bland
8. Our Coast: Bear Island in the Winter, Jan. 31
“Our Coast” is an ongoing series that highlights places where people can go to experience the coast’s natural beauty. Sam Bland, the retired superintendent of Bear Island State Park near Swansboro and now the N.C. Coastal Federation’s naturalist, has written many of the “Our Coast” features. Unlike most of our writers, Sam isn’t a professional, but as his winter walk along the beach as Bear Island shows he has a knack for writing and brings to the task a deep knowledge of the nature of the coast.
Sam, a native of Carteret County, often sprinkles his stories with personal experiences, like he did in his account of gigging for flounder. Our readers seem to appreciate it.
9. There’s No Classroom Like the One Outdoors, Nov. 25-26
This two-part series illustrates how the federation’s educational philosophy of taking kids outside to learn about the coastal environment fits into new research that shows that kids have more meaningful learning experiences when they get out of the classroom.
10. Jockey’s Ridge: Saving the Giant, Feb, 21; Our Coast: A Tour of N.C. 12, June 12-13
These were among my favorite stories of 2013. I couldn’t decide between them for the final spot on the list. So I declared a tie. As editor, I can do that, you know.
The first story is about the late Carolista Flecther Baum, who 40 years ago last year stepped out in front of bulldozers to start a movement to save the highest sand dune on the East Coast. The dune is now preserved as a state park. I’m a sucker for historical stories, especially those that show that the actions of one person can indeed change history.
I’m also partial to offbeat stories, like our travelogue of sorts that takes readers on a guided tour of battered N.C 12 on the Outer Banks. Nowhere on the East Coast are the effects of a rising sea more apparent than along a 25-mile ribbon of asphalt on Bodie and Hatteras islands. All it takes is a car to see the future of America’s barrier islands. This story tells you what to look for.