When Tom Knudson took the podium Saturday in Kings Beach he didn’t talk much about himself. Instead, he did what he has been doing for nearly 20 years ” he told intriguing and little-known tales of a majestic mountain range undergoing dramatic changes.
He talked about the Alpine Chipmunk, a minute harbinger of a warming ecosystem, and yellow-bellied marmots. He praised the work of Derhman Guiliani, an obscure Big Pine naturalist who has no job and is not working on any research paper, but still spends his life tracking ground squirrels through the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains.
It’s those stories, that knack for observation and research, that has made Truckee’s Knudson the most accomplished journalist covering the Sierra Nevada today. It has landed him two Pulitzer Prizes. It has launched a Sierra Nevada environmental movement that lasts to this day.
“He is the kind of reporter who is not looking for the next community event or political squabble,” said Geoff McQuilkin, director of the Mono Lake Committee. “He is the kind of reporter who does a story that requires a couple hundred interviews, and requires him to drive 10,000 miles.”
And, since the 1990s, Knudson has been doing all his work from a small office in Truckee after convincing his newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, that if they wanted to cover the mountain range, it would be good “to have someone who actually lived there.”
Knudson’s 1991 series “Sierra in Peril” is recognized as the most influential piece of journalism written about the mountain range. It spurred the creation of numerous non-profits, led to federal land management reform and launched a congressional study of the ecosystem.
“I feel lucky that as a reporter I’ve been able to play a role in shaping public policy,” said Knudson by phone from his Truckee office Monday.
Knudson’s speech Saturday was part of the Sierra Nevada Alliance’s 15th annual conference. The organization, an umbrella group of over 100 Sierra Nevada non-profits, was launched in response to Knudson’s articles.
Since then he has both praised and criticized environmental groups in nearly two decades of investigative reporting.
His work has taken on the California’s culture of consumption “State of Denial,” the labor practices of Starbucks in Africa “Promises and Poverty” and environmental groups consumed with fundraising through alarmist tactics “Environmental Inc.”
“He’s been called a fierce friend of environmental groups,” said McQuilkin.
Lately, Knudson has been back on the road, tracking the effects of climate change. On the surface the issue lacks the visuals of some of Knudson’s past work ” the scarred earth of clear-cut logging, the sullied air that blows in from the valley ” but the end result could be far more intense.
“That’s the thing about climate change ” it might not be dramatic until it sneaks up on us and it is dramatic,” said Knudson.
Through all his work, no matter the change it has spurred or the praise it has garnered, Knudson is still putting the miles in, seeking out the stories hidden in the melting glaciers, the obscure logging operations in unpopulated areas, and the migrating populations of Sierra species.
“He dives into a mountain of information about the Sierra and pulls out the story,” said McQuilkin.
The Sierra Nevada Alliance was formed in 1993 to protect and restore the natural environment of the Sierra Nevada for future generations while ensuring healthy and sustainable communities. The organization works with nearly 100 groups committed to the environmental integrity of the Sierra Nevada.