2022 Feature, Small Newsroom winner

Road to Ruin

About the Project

You could see the destruction from space. Ed Boyda, a managing partner at Earthrise Media, was scoping satellite images for another project when he saw the clearcuts of old growth trees in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest — huge ravaged holes in the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.

He knew cuts that large had to be legal — how else would you get away with it? — but he couldn’t square it with protections like the Roadless Rule, which the Biden administration had recently reinstated. He also knew it was a story, so he turned to Grist. And a collaboration that stretched from Alaska to Norway, where Boyda is located, was born.

“Road to Ruin” upends the expectations that federal laws such as the Roadless Rule, literally passed to protect our nation’s forests, are working. This nearly year-long investigation revealed a shell game in which Congress approved land transfers between the state of Alaska and the National Forest Service, in some cases trading tracts of old-growth forest for land that had already been clear-cut. The land with the old growth would then be harvested.

If you’re not familiar with the Tongass, imagine vast swathes of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and red and yellow cedar, some towering as high as 200 feet. Two million people visit each year. The Tongass is also known as a vital source for sequestering carbon; it holds 44 percent of all the carbon stored in American forests. And because wildfire is rare in this part of the world, the Tongass isn’t just a carbon sink, it’s a steady one, vital to the fight against climate change.

Grist senior data reporter Clayton Aldern worked with Earthrise’s raw imagery and analysis, transforming them into charts, annotated maps, and scrollytelling graphics, Senior editor Katherine Lanpher recruited journalists on the ground in Alaska, netting public radio reporters Jacob Resneck and Eric Stone.

Resneck, the editor of CoastAlaska, a non-profit servicing public radio stations in Southeast Alaska, had logged nearly five years reporting there. He knew how to pester officials in Juneau, wade through state forestry data reports, and which Indigenous leaders would talk for the record. Stone, the news director for KRBD in Ketchikan, traveled to Prince of Wales Island and talked to the people affected most immediately by the cuts: the people who rely on Tongass to provide their food, such as deer and salmon. Destroy the forest, you destroy the habitat and the way residents in rural Alaska put food on the table.

The folks Stone talked to aren’t anti-logging; they just want responsible logging. As one told Stone, “You think about what a victory everybody was celebrating about the Roadless Rule coming back. But it really means nothing if there’s a back door.”

Exposing that “back door” took a village of nearly a dozen staffers from Grist, Boyda from Earthrise, and the journalists from CoastAlaska, to package a 4,000-word story with data analysis, maps, interactives, drone and still photography. It took, in other words, a true collaboration.

Judges Comments

Using visual effects both complex and straightforward, this feature offers a rich and compelling exploration of an issue more often treated in broad strokes. The satellite imagery and aerial photography that pack much of the explanatory force of the piece are coupled with striking portraits and character-driven moments in the text that transcend the technical, bringing the human and political dimensions of the issue into striking relief.