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Articles on Strip Mining, Great Lakes Erosion Win Top Environmental Journalism Prize

Harper's Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel have won the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism for articles on, respectively, the impact of strip mining on Appalachia and the ecological vulnerability of the Great Lakes.

Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, which took over the administration of the Oakes program this year from the Natural Resources Defense Council, made the announcement on Friday, Nov. 18. The award is given annually to an article or series in a U.S. news publication "that makes an exceptional contribution to public understanding of environmental issues." This is the first time magazine and newspaper entries were judged in separate categories, according to Arlene Morgan, director of the Oakes Award and dean of prizes and programs at the school.

The judges recognized Erik Reece for his essay "Death of a Mountain," which appeared in the April 2005 issue of Harper's, about the impact of mountaintop removal on the environment and life in Appalachia. Reece, who lectures in English at the University of Kentucky, followed the yearlong mining process that resulted in the leveling of Lost Mountain in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Through a series of journal-like entries that detail the mining process and its impact on the ecosystem of the area, Reece delivered a passionate critique of the mining industry's permitting process. He also provided a window into the lives of a people who have depended on the coal industry for generations.

"I came here to see what an eastern mountain looks like before, during and after its transformation into a western desert," Reece writes in the 19-page essay.

"It took me to a place I'd never been and taught me much I didn't know," said Oakes judge Dorothy Brown, an editor who specializes in science and medicine at The Philadelphia Inquirer. "I came away from the piece with a strong appreciation of the trade-offs of our energy-driven society."

The judges recognized Dan Egan in the newspaper category for his groundbreaking three-part series on the health of the Great Lakes. "Troubled Waters, the Great Invasion," which appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel nearly a year ago, illustrated how human intervention and non-native species have transformed and threatened Lake Michigan and other Great Lakes.

"We often read about how we have wrecked this or that ecosystem," said Morgan. "This series reveals the consequences of man's attempts to improve on the environment and the ripple effect of those actions on a huge American resource -- the Great Lakes -- over many years."

Two other pieces -- Elizabeth Kolbert's "The Climate of Man," which appeared in The New Yorker, and a Los Angeles Times project, "Environmental Politics," by Tom Hamburger, Alan C. Miller, Julie Cart and Henry Weinstein -- were named second-place winners.

The Oakes Award, which honors the career of the late John B. Oakes, a New York Times editor and pioneer in environmental journalism, has gained a reputation among journalists as a premier print environmental writing prize.

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Published: Nov 30, 2005
Last modified: Nov 29, 2005

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