The majority of my posts this summer will focus on federal environmental agencies, laws and policies. However, for most journalists, we are far more likely to report local news: the pollution-producing factory that came to town, the sudden increase in bacteria in a nearby lake, or the decrease in funding for science programs at the city’s middle school.
The stories that hit us and our audience the hardest. The ones we remember.
I grew up in Merrimack, a moderately sized suburb in southern New Hampshire known for moose, maple syrup, and New England’s Anhueser-Busch brewery. I remember the first environmental story I heard about my hometown, even though it occurred more than a decade ago, when I was 12 and more concerned with reading Tiger Beat than the newspaper. As I think about the story now, I wonder how I would go about reporting it, now knowing the resources and information available.
In March 2004, a beaver dam on private land was mysteriously demolished. Within a week, four other dams, these on town-owned conservation land, were also destroyed. The Merrimack police partnered with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department to locate the suspect responsible for destroying the dams, a crime that carried a fine of $5,000. As a result of the lost dams, beavers abandoned the wetland area, the water level sank by four feet, and fish and bird populations were threatened. Environmental officials predicted it would take two years for the ecosystem to recover.
Read the original full story from the NH Business Review here.
While it’s not the hard-hitting news breakthrough that would shock a nation, my town reacted. I remember residents who lived near wetlands forming a makeshift neighborhood watch committee to prevent further damage to dams. Others got to work patching the dams to reverse the damage. School kids adopted the beaver as their favorite animal. People suddenly cared. The community came together and created an online forum (high-tech in those days!) to share updates until the suspect turned himself in.
But what if this story had happened in 2015? How would I go about reporting it, who would I contact, what documents would I request, and what would my impact be? As an experiment (I am half-scientist, after all), I decided to see if I could recreate the story and retrace the journalists’ steps using public information available now.
Step 1: The Police Report
My first step in investigating this local crime begins with those first on the scene: police. Merrimack Police Department keeps a well-maintained website, which includes PDFs of daily call logs, up-to-date press releases, and even a map illustrating where each category of incident (vandalism, in the case of the beavers) incident occurs. A request for the suspect’s criminal record if convicted from the NH State Police Department may prove difficult, costly, and time-consuming, but could also make for an interesting story.
However, nothing outweighs speaking to the actual officers: Merrimack lists contact information for general inquiries, as well as emails for captains and lieutenants. As for the police report or the arrest record for the suspect, these require an in-person trip to the station and can be complicated by Fifth Amendment rights during an open investigation.
Step 2: The Law
So…the we called the police. What now? Destroying beaver dams sounds cruel, but is it illegal? A simple Google search (literally, “NH law beaver dams”) turns up the original wording of the official-sounding “TITLE XVIII FISH AND GAME CHAPTER 210 FUR-BEARING ANIMALS Beaver Section 210:9.” Past cases and violators can be found through the NH State Court’s new E-court Project, although the system was implemented only a few years ago and doesn’t include the 2004 case.
Step 3: Moving Up the Ladder
The law is regulated at the state level through the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. A quick glance through the Department’s website uncovers an interactive map that illustrates state-owned wildlife conservation areas and a copy of the state’s mandated wildlife action plan listing policies for land and resource management, as well as research and conservation plans for animals like beavers. The Law Enforcement Division’s mission statement is promising to those seeking information, citing an “obligation to respond to the increasing public demands in a timely and respectful manner. To be successful, the mission must be administered without prejudice, always mindful that in the execution of their duties they act not for themselves, but for the public. The enforcement division’s patrol map also names the particular official responsible for Merrimack (area 41).
Step 4: Follow Up and Impact
Don’t let the investigation stop here. A look into annual police reports or statistics from other towns or the state police can uncover patterns and elevate the story to a state or regional level. Or maybe there’s no larger meaning, but at least checking can add some extra practice in requesting and locating information.
How would you report the story differently in your own hometown? Who else would you contact, or what other information would you seek? Have you encountered a particular office or agency that was difficult to cooperate with? Share your own hometown story in the comments section here or email me or tweet @amayrianne.
Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.