If the medium is the message as Marshall McLuhan famously noted, then the Environment Hawai’i newsletter is a serious statement. Streamlined and concentrated, the publication has spent the last 15—as its name implies—aggressively reporting the threats that face Hawai’i’s environment.
But like many plant and animal species throughout Hawai’i, Environment Hawai’i is on the brink of extinction. Financial troubles may lead to its demise as early as this June.
“When I think of Environment Hawai’i having to close, a sadness comes over me knowing that Hawai’i’s important environmental stories will go unreported,” said Patrician Tummons, one of the Hilo-based newsletter’s two founders. “There are so many critical issues crying out for coverage.”
Since its founding in 1990, the newsletter has attracted a diverse readership, including government agencies, elected officials, planning firms, attorneys, legislators, students and residents. You’d think such a large fan base would make the newsletter—which has never run advertisements—financially sound. But that’s not the case.
In fact, the newsletter has been having troubles for some time. In 2003, the Hewlett Foundation—one of a number of organizations that provides grants to the newsletter to keep it afloat—curtailed its funding of nonprofits in Hawai’i. Then there’s the fact that many people just read EH online, where it’s available for free.
“I know there are a lot of people who read EH who don’t subscribe to it,” said Tummons. “We’ve managed to keep Environment Hawai’i’s subscription price bare-bones low [$35 a year] so it’s affordable for everyone.”
To raise money, Tummons is considering charging a fee to see the publication online. “We were able to coast for a couple of years, but now we may have to call it quits without an increase in public donations and subscriptions,” said Tummons.
Founders Tummons and Marjorie Ziegler created the independent, nonprofit newsletter to provide a higher standard of environmental reporting than that appearing in Hawai’i’s newspapers.
Visually unassuming, this 12-page, double-sided monthly is printed on recycled paper and contains no advertisements or fluff to distract the reader’s attention. For 15 years, its two writers—just two—have helped shape public perception of Hawai’i’s environmental reality.
The award-winning publication has reported on species protection, fisheries management, stream restoration, wastewater treatment and water contamination, to name a few. In 2003, the Hawai’i Society of Professional Journalists honored the newsletter.
“We don’t get our information from news releases or interviews,” said Tummons. “We’re not satisfied with the rehearsed responses often obtained from lifetime bureaucrats.”
In 1993, Tummon’s research uncovered how the Del Monte Corporation had stockpiled Heptachlor—a pesticide banned in 1978. And that they were still spraying it on their pineapple fields across Oahu. Environment Hawai’i’s reporting directly led the company to stop using the poison.
A year later, Tummons broke the story of how Hawai’i’s longline fishermen were snagging endangered sea turtles. “We kept reporting on this situation and building on the story until there was widespread awareness,” said Tummons.
It took time, but it worked. In February 1999, the Center for Marine Conservation and the Turtle Island Restoration Network sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, attempting to ban the practice.
“In November of that year, federal district Judge David Ezra issued an injunction banning the entire longline fleet from about one million square miles of the Pacific around Hawai’i,” said Tummons. “That lasted a couple of years. The final resolution included restrictions on the swordfish fishery, changes in gear that make it less likely that turtles will get hooked, changes in bait [from squid to mackerel] among other positive changes.”
For local environmental activists, the thought of losing Environment Hawai’i is tough to bear.
“EH reporters are often the lone public presence at crucial meetings of state and county regulatory agencies responsible for public health and the continued survival of our rarest and most unique life forms,” said Lucienne de Naie, vice chairwoman of the Hawai’i chapter of the Sierra Club. “Without EH’s excellent research and reporting the public would have limited scrutiny and knowledge of vital decisions being made every day that affect us all and generations to come.” MTW