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How a curious kid from Atherton started and grew a global environmental news site

 
Rhett Butler takes photos as he ascends into the rainforest canopy in Amacayacu National Park in Colombia. He has traveled the world for his Mongabay environmental news website since founding it in 1999. (Photo courtesy Mongabay.)

The way Rhett Butler tells the story, he was inspired to become a champion of the natural environment by a childhood full of family travel to out-of-the-way destinations such as Borneo, Madagascar and Ecuador.

But the genesis of his Mongabay environmental news and education website -- now a nonprofit with more than 35 employees and 200 correspondents in 50 counties, and a multi-million dollar annual budget -- also has a lot to do with a publisher's lack of funding at the same time a new phenomenon called "the internet" was starting to take off.

Prioritizing travel

Mr. Butler, 39, grew up in Atherton and attended Laurel, Encinal, Hillview and Menlo-Atherton schools. His father, Penn Butler, was a corporate attorney with lots of airline miles. His mom, Nancy Butler, was a travel agent with connections and perks.

(Rhett Butler says it wasn't only because of his parents' sense of humor that he ended up named after a lead character in "Gone With the Wind." There's also a family connection: When Clark Gable, who played the role in the movie, wanted a role model for the film "Test Pilot," he and Mr. Butler's grandfather, the only survivor of an Air Corps plane crash, became short-term roommates.)

"My parents decided to prioritize travel," Rhett Butler says. "Instead of going to where normal people go, like Disneyland ... we'd go to Venezuela."

His parents also indulged his fascination with reptiles and amphibians, and the rainforests. It helps, he says, that many rainforests were near nice beaches and "my mom was a fan of snorkeling."

At 12, Rhett and his family visited a mostly indigenous community in eastern Ecuador that didn't see a lot of outsiders. "I made friends with the kids my age, and looked for frogs in the forest," Mr. Butler remembers.

A few months after returning to Atherton, Rhett saw a front page article in the San Francisco Chronicle about an oil spill on the Rio Napo, upriver from the village where his friends and the frogs lived. "The whole area was now an oil slick," he says, with the fate of the friends and frog unknown.

During Rhett's high school years, the family visited Borneo. There Rhett met a researcher who started exchanging letters with him. (It was the pre-email age.) Soon, a letter conveyed the sad news that part of the forest they had explored together was gone it had been leveled and pulped for paper.

A rainforest passion

Rhett's passion became sharing the story of rainforests -- the biodiversity of their inhabitants, and the fragility of their existence. "I wanted to try to raise awareness of what was happening to these forests," he says.

In the meantime, Rhett had also shown an aptitude for research and writing after being frustrated by the fact that he couldn't find a book telling how to take care of tropical fresh water fish, the type most often found in pet stores. He wrote that book himself, and it was published while Rhett was only a junior in high school.

At the University of California San Diego, he majored in biology and economics, but mostly studied finance because, as he says, "I didn't really see myself going on the biology path." In his free time, he worked on researching and writing a book about rainforests.

Graduating in only three years, thanks to Advanced Placement credits he'd earned at Menlo-Atherton, he spent what would have been the fourth year finishing the rainforest book. A university press agreed to publish it, and with the book edited and peer reviewed, "everything was looking good," Mr. Butler says. "And then the publisher said, we don't have the resources to print photographs in the book."

The book without photos "defeated the purpose of what we were trying to do," to show the beauty, diversity and fragility of the rainforests, he says.

Nosy Mangabe

It was 1999, and the internet was becoming ubiquitous, so instead of sending his book off to the university press, Mr. Butler tried something different. He posted the book online, with photos, as a website.

He named the site Mongabay, a variation on the name of one of the places he loves, Nosy Mangabe, an island in Madagascar covered with rainforest, home to chameleons and geckos and frogs, and surrounded by coral reefs that whales pass on their annual migrations.

"It meant a lot to me," Mr. Butler says.

Plus, he says, the name was unique and a search for it brought up few other websites.

With the "book" out in the world, Mr. Butler joined a Silicon Valley startup called SurfWax, a search engine that he says was probably "about five or eight years before its time."

He worked on the Mongabay website on nights and weekends. And then, in mid-2003, Google began paying to place ads on websites. He signed up, and "within six months, the revenue from the ads was equal to about half my take-home pay," he says.

Pursuing that passion

"I thought, maybe I could quit my job and pursue my passion," Mr. Butler says. He did just that, much to the consternation of his parents. "They were quite skeptical," he says.

He first expanded his website aimed at informing kids about rainforests, which he had translated into 39 languages. Then he launched an environmental news service.

Although "the news service was literally just me in my apartment writing news articles," it gained respect because Mr. Butler was "ruthlessly objective in the reporting." "We were consistent," he says, and he wrote a lot.

Mr. Butler wrote so much, in fact, that "people thought Mongabay was a big entity," he says, and asked him for favors such as the loan of his (nonexistent) helicopter.

Becoming a nonprofit

The website survived, even through the dot.com bust, but didn't thrive. That began to change in 2012 when Mr. Butler decided to become a nonprofit "so I could go to philanthropic organizations and individuals" for grants and donations to fund more reporting projects.

With a two-year grant from the Ford Foundation, Mongabay began its first project, an Indonesian news service.

"At that time, I had been to Indonesia only once, and I spoke maybe two words of Indonesian," he says. But he felt the country was at a tipping point, with rampant development destroying communities and forests.

Transparency about what was going on there was lacking, so he believed, he says, "there would be a lot of interest, (and) I could really have some impact."

Mr. Butler's job posting for three environmental reporters brought 200 applicants in two weeks. He hired four of them, and a month later launched the Mongabay Indonesia website. A month later it was the most read Indonesian language environmental news service, he says.

"It happened really fast. I think it showed there was a real hunger for information there," he says.

Mongabay also hired a network of Indonesian correspondents, many of them journalists who can't write about environmental topics for the other publications they work for.

Duplicating success

The success of the Indonesian website has since been duplicated in Latin America and, soon will be launched in India. The company now has a podcast and has recently hired videographers.

"We've been growing at pretty much 100 percent a year," Mr. Butler says. "It's going to slow down, we can't grow like that forever."

Funders have included the MacArthur Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the government of Norway, the California Community Foundation, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The success means Mr. Butler's role has changed. "I've gone from creating the content, writing probably 70-80 hours a week, to almost writing nothing because I'm so focused on managing the organization, (and) strategy," he said, as well as doing most of the fundraising. Still, in 2016 he averaged 95-hour work weeks, he says.

Changes ahead

But that's about to change as well. Mr. Butler and his wife, Alyson Blume (who grew up in Menlo Park), are expecting their first child soon.

"I recognize that once I have a family, it will change quite a bit," he says. "I want to be around for my child and give him similar experiences to what I had growing up. I think it's really important."

His parents still live in Atherton, and his mom's still a travel agent, although his dad recently retired. One thing has changed, though.

"They're very supportive of what I do now," Mr. Butler says. "They're no longer skeptics."

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How Mongabay's reporting changed things

Three stories, reported by the Mongabay environmental news and education website, demonstrate the impacts of its reporting.

Clear-cutting

In 2016 Mongabay reported that a company that had successfully marketed itself as sustainably growing cacao in the Peruvian Amazon was actually clear-cutting rainforest and in conflicts with nearby indigenous people.

Mongabay uncovered the situation because it had partnered with NASA and the World Resources Institute to use satellite imaging to monitor changes in the world's forests. The satellite images showed marked changes in an area that had previously been forest.

When Mongabay sent a reporter to investigate, United Cacao hired a law firm. "They told us we couldn't publish the story," Mr. Butler says. "They threatened to shut us down." However, when Mongabay responded with the facts it had uncovered, and pointed out to the law firm that it was violating its own stated core values by defending the cacao growers, the law firm dropped United Cacao as a client, Mr. Butler says.

This July, United Cacao declared itself insolvent, according to a press release on the company's own website.

"We're not an advocacy group," Mr. Butler says. "We're just trying to do objective reporting and have an impact. It's great to see stuff like this happen as a result."

Illegal trade

Starting in 2009, Mongabay reported that following a military coup in Madagascar, once-protected forests of valuable rosewood were being illegally harvested and sold.

In 2010 Rhett Butler wrote: "Tens of thousands of hectares were affected, including some of the island's most biologically diverse national parks: Marojejy, Masoala, and Makira. Illegal logging spurred the rise of a commercial bushmeat trade. Hunters slaughtered rare and gentle lemurs for restaurants.

"Timber trafficking, which involved armed gangs marauding through national parks, also hurt tourism, a critical source of direct and indirect income for many Malagasy, as the people of Madagascar are known. Rosewood traders intimidated, and in some cases, beat, those who attempted to stop the plunder."

Mongabay's reporting helped spark a global outcry that pressured companies doing the illegal logging and shipping to stop. Eventually, the Madagascar government banned rosewood exports.

Coal plant

In 2009, Mongabay learned about a coal plant planned for the tip of Malaysian Borneo, where rainforests and mangroves, which provided the livelihoods of local farmers and fishermen, and coral reefs would be at risk.

Mongabay's reporting brought international attention to the issue, including research by Daniel Kammen, a University of California, Berkeley professor and a renewable energy expert at the World Bank, showing the area didn't need the coal plant.

The story was picked up by other media, including Time magazine, and in 2011 the Malaysian government canceled the project.

Since then, they and other Southeast Asian countries have sought to use cleaner energy sources.

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More on Mongabay

Mongabay has two websites: the news site at Mongabay.com (with versions in English, Chinese, German, Spanish, French, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese and Portuguese) and the nonprofit's website, Mongabay.org.

The Mongabay sites total more than 28 million visits a year, the organization says. Other websites and publications can use Mongabay content free of charge.

Kids.Mongabay.com is the website for students. It's available in 24 languages and has a section for teachers.

Travel.Mongabay.com contains photos from around the world that can be used for non-commercial purposes.

Mongabay.org/about/financial-information has the organization's annual reports and IRS 990 forms.

The "Opportunities" tab on Mongabay.org has jobs, paid reporting projects, and internships as well as a signup for an email list with updates on opportunities.

Go to Mongabay.org/donate to donate.

At facebook.com/mongabay is the organization's Facebook page, where videos are posted.

Wildtech.Mongabay.com showcases some of the technological resources Mongabay uses to monitor the global environment.

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Comments

4 people like this
Posted by John Sutton
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 9, 2017 at 11:59 am

An amazing story. Impressive that he was able to turn his love of nature into such an impactful organization.


2 people like this
Posted by Marilyn Wong
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Nov 9, 2017 at 3:29 pm

I remember you Rhett. I was a teacher at Laurel and I worked with your mom at Laurel's Art and Science Fair. My daughter Kamberly was I'm your class and members you as well. You have had an incredible life. Congratulations on soon becoming a father!

Best Regards,

Marilyn


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