Audubon in Action
Spreading Audubon’s Wings
Audubon’s new president is gung-ho about its future.
On September 1, David Yarnold took the Audubon helm as the 10th president in the organization’s 105-year history. For the preceding five and a half years he had served as executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, overseeing all operations—from programs to development—and playing a leading role in expanding EDF’s partnerships with corporations. Prior to working at EDF, he spent more than a quarter-century at the San Jose Mercury News, one of the nation’s premier newspapers. A Pulitzer Prize–winning editor, Yarnold, managed a global newsroom of more than 400 people who broke numerous stories on the environment and covered the rise of Silicon Valley. In addition, he was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists for editorial writing in 2005.
Audubon magazine editor-in-chief David Seideman recently sat down with the new president to discuss everything from the prospects for climate legislation to his 14-year-old daughter Nicole’s social media savvy.
You’re coming from one well-respected group to another. How do you see the similarities and differences between the two?
The primary difference is Audubon’s ability to spread its wings from Washington all the way down to grassroots action. It’s that grassroots action piece that reminds me of the best of journalism—that network of activists, states, chapters, and centers.
Both organizations have proud histories. I’m going to spend my first six months listening really hard. I’m committed to ensuring Audubon’s relevance and not just its legacy.
Both organizations understand the need to focus on results. It’s about creating change on the ground through transformational work that makes the planet a better place for our kids and grandkids. You can do it one IBA at a time. You can do it through state legislation. You can influence the science. And you can do it with federal legislation.
But every step of the way, any NGO needs to be accountable for its results.
When you say activist, you mean our citizen science, our education in the field, and the other efforts, too, right?
Of course, whether it’s the Christmas Bird Count, the citizen scientists, or the 34,500 volunteers who answered Audubon’s call in the Gulf of Mexico, no other organization could do that. So being asked to run Audubon and follow terrific leaders like John Flicker and Frank Gill is just an extraordinary honor.
How about birds? Obviously, EDF wasn’t as focused on birds.
Concern for birds has fueled Audubon’s use of education, science, advocacy, and grassroots commitment to advance conservation progress for decades, and it will continue to play a vital role in attracting the next generation of conservationists. In journalism, there’s a well-known adage: “Follow the money.’’ Audubon’s success proves that you can follow the birds in order to understand the health of a region’s ecosystem. Following the birds leads to focused conservation initiatives like the nation’s major flyways. That leads to sound policy. It leads to education.
And birds are charismatic, amazing creatures, as we all know. I’ve gone on a couple of great birding expeditions as a part of my time at EDF. But I’m looking forward to learning about birding from Audubon’s members and its staff. I’m finding birders in places that I absolutely didn’t expect to find them. The local newspaper in Westchester County where I live did a little story on me. And it turns out the photographer’s son is a 20-year-old birder. He’s a budding ornithologist. He volunteers at a local Audubon center. He lent me his binocs for the photograph. And I met a neighbor the other day whose son has the record for most birds sighted in a year in New York
So young people are excited?
Before I even started I had three encounters where people told me about young birders. Just last week, on vacation in Maine, I met a young guy who told me he started as a teen. Yes, there are huge numbers of young people who care about birds. I want them to be Audubon members.
Talk about your birding expeditions.
The best was in Iceland. The Látrabjarg Cliffs are the westernmost part of Iceland (and Europe), and we saw hundreds of thousands of Atlantic puffins and murres. There was more birdlife than I had seen in any place. We did this at one or two in the morning, and the sun was still up. It was just a spectacular moment. Then there was a park in the interior of Iceland. We saw a mating pair of gyrfalcons high on a cliff. I learned later that they’re the largest falcons in the world. And we saw dozens of species of waterfowl. That was an amazing trip. It opened my eyes to why people love birding. In the past six months I’ve probably read more about birds than ever before, and I’m just fascinated by their world. I’ve been deeply immersed in conservation issues all my life—but particularly at EDF—and seeing the natural world through the lens of birds is a terrific perspective.
Growing up in Northern California, did you explore a lot of nature?
As a kid my family moved virtually every year I was in grammar school. So I lived all over the country. But once we settled down and I went to high school and college in the Bay Area, I became an avid backpacker. My first full-time job was in a camping and backpacking store. I had the opportunity to hike Kings Canyon and Sequoia. Eventually I backpacked most of the John Muir Trail. I remember taking my son Adam—he was seven or eight—up into the Cascades and seeing mile-wide volcanic obsidian trails.
Native Californians think the environment is a birthright. I think it’s no surprise that California passed the first and most comprehensive climate legislation in the U.S. It’s under threat now—and I think we’ll beat back that threat that’s being funded primarily by a couple of Texas-based oil companies. I grew up like other Californians, whether it was day trips to the beach, backpacking in Yosemite, skiing at Tahoe, or going for a long bike ride in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Being out in nature was something we took for granted.
My other connection with the environment was at the Mercury News. We had some of the best environmental reporters on the West Coast. Their stories were almost always on the front page. We were one of the first papers to do investigative reporting about selenium poisoning of waterfowl at the Kesterson reservoir. That was a groundbreaking piece of environmental reporting.
Reader surveys told us that our customers wanted even more environmental reporting than we were giving them.
Your first journalism job was in a town on the Columbia River at the base of the Cascades.
I was up in Longview, Washington. I had been there two or three months, and I went to Merwin Lake, which is where the infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper allegedly parachuted to safety. I remember being out there on a boat and these great blue herons were taking off and flying over us. I’ve never forgotten that moment.
It seems as though there are many similarities between managing a newsroom and managing a sprawling, decentralized organization like Audubon.
I saw the similarities when I went to EDF, particularly the mission-focused staff. I actually found it refreshing to be in a place where everybody was pulling for the success of its leaders. Don’t get me wrong. I loved working in newsrooms. But that’s a tough room. It means volunteering to manage hundreds of trained skeptics who are inclined to distrust anyone in authority because that’s their job. So learning to build trust in a newsroom is great training.
Just as the world is changing for newspapers, the same goes for Audubon and other environmental NGOs. Any number of organizations that have gotten comfortable with the notion of a decentralized network that’s based on strong core principles. I think Audubon is going through some of the same growing pains. But the rewards are potentially enormous—figuring out how to create a seamless, integrated plan for habitat conservation that reaches from the halls of Congress to members’ backyards is an opportunity that few organizations have. Connecting the national work with the state work, the chapter work, the center work, and the citizen scientists makes Audubon greater than the sum of its parts.
There’s no changing how the world works. Either we’ll figure it out and take advantage of it, or we’re going to keep trying to reinvent the past. And I guarantee you that won’t work.
You were in the heartbeat of technology in Silicon Valley. How can Audubon better use technology to advance its mission?
My daughter, Nicole, is 14. We talked about reaching a younger audience, and she said, “Facebook, Dad. Facebook.” I’m sure that’s not the only thing we can do, but her advice has turned out to be petty good. I went out to the Gulf about 40 days into the disaster. It was an eye-opening experience—flying over this fractured, jigsawed landscape that we know can be put back together. Then being out on the water and being sprayed by an oil slick and coming back to the hotel room and taking a shower and having my jeans still feel oily and reeking of chemicals. But my most unforgettable memories are of the birds. I can’t get this image out of my head: there was a necklace of cloth boom that was intended to protect the islands. These coils of boom had washed up on the islands, five or ten yards onto the wetlands. The birds were sitting on the boom. In some cases they were oiled. It was heartbreaking.
So I got home and I was showing my pictures on the TV in the family room. My daughter is a fan of the TV show Glee, and she was looking at an episode on her laptop.
The last song from that episode is a very sweet, soulful acoustic version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” So I’ve got these pictures on the TV of oiled brown pelicans and of gulls sitting on booms and of these shrimp boats supposedly scraping up oil but to no real effect. And I’m hearing the song’s lyrics—“where bluebirds fly”—against the backdrop of these awful images. I just had the experience of the visuals and the sound together. We were able to get the rights to Glee’s version of the song from Fox Entertainment.
EDF’s staff then made the video that we had envisioned. Within two weeks it became the most viewed piece of social media EDF ever produced. We had upwards of a quarter-million views within two weeks; it spread like wildfire. So I’ve learned to take my daughter’s advice when it comes to social media.
The fact that you blog for the Huffington Post gives you great street cred around here. I wonder if you’re planning to continue.
Sure, and lots of other channels, too. There are endless opportunities for Audubon to talk about how effective it is.
That’s one thing we can always do a better job of. It’s not always in the DNA of environmentalists, because we’re so busy fighting that we take for granted what we achieve.
Absolutely. People are passionate about Audubon because of their engagement with us. It’s important to tell their stories, from our urban centers to grassroots work. Audubon’s strength is in the sum of its parts, and those stories deserve telling.
Let’s talk about fund-raising. You’ve had success in the teeth of the worst economy in our lifetimes. How do you duplicate that success here?
I think the key is having terrific, committed board members at the national, state, and chapter levels, as well as at our centers, and having a really good efficient, professional development operation—nationally, at the state level, and at the chapter level.
I think Audubon’s particular challenge will be finding a way to integrate all those efforts. But there are a lot of people who want to be Audubon’s partner in pursuit of its great goals. So making clear to those donors what the results are, what transformational change looks like, and then going out and achieving that is key.
Building a strong donor base is about relationship building, about understanding that there are people who are passionate about conservation, whether through birds or based on places they value, like coastal Louisiana. And being able to tap in to that passion in a systematic, effective way and give them the results for their investments—that’s what people want from their philanthropy.
Tell us a little about your plans to spend a month seeing Audubon from outside New York and D.C.
I thought the most important thing I could do in learning about Audubon is to go out and meet the network. It’s also a great opportunity to learn more about birding. After I spend a little time in New York and D.C. meeting the national staff, I’m going to be out on the road for more than a month. I’m going to be birding, meeting staff and visiting our centers and some of our sanctuaries. But mostly what I want to get is a view of Audubon from the field because it’s the field where that on-the-ground work gets done.
I’m going to start with coastal Louisiana and then I’ll be everywhere from the Beidler sanctuary in South Carolina to California and the Northwest and to Mexico to see how we work with our partners in BirdLife International.
I also want to draw media attention to the great work that’s being done in those states, cities, and centers. Mostly this is a good chance to learn the organization from the outside in—and not be overly influenced by the home office view of the world.
You’ve been optimistic about the opportunity to act on global warming, but legislation seems dead in the Senate. What do we do, and what role can Audubon play?
One role is to continue pressing for climate change action on the federal level. Another will be to support rule making and other legislation that can promote conservation. We’ll need to be good partners with other major environmental groups because I suspect EPA’s ability to protect the environment will continue to be challenged.
We’ll probably see more state-based efforts that can put market-based incentives into effect—because that’s really the key to success.
At the forefront of all that is restoration of coastal Louisiana wetlands. Audubon is one of the leaders of a small group that has joined forces to help restore the wetlands, working with local and national NGOs and with local and state governments. We already have $5 billion committed—but that’s just the opening ante.
The tragedy and the promise of coastal Louisiana is that restoration is absolutely doable. One of the lasting effects of the oil spill is that people understand that part of the baseline for managing drilling safety and environmental protections in America’s largest wetlands complex is restoration of that region. Audubon’s Dr. Paul Kemp and others have helped build the plans, and the science isn’t a mystery. That mitigation effort has to be at the top of the agenda.
Since we’re on the subject of global warming, can you connect the dots a little more?
I think what the Gulf did is help people understand that fossil fuels are going to be part of the energy mix in America for a long time to come. But this totally preventable disaster also made very clear that America needs to wean itself off fossil fuels. Just looking at the Gulf, the best way to guard against sea level rise, storm surge, more intense hurricanes all comes back to rebuilding the wetlands. So the connections are numerous.
You’ve also worked with the CEOs of 30 companies as part of the Climate Action Partnership. Corporate America doesn’t want a patchwork quilt of laws, right?
They want certainty. There are billions and billions of dollars locked up in potential new plant construction that could be unleashed. That would generate a significant privately funded jobs program in America. But energy companies and other multinationals want to know what the rules look like. So there’s no question that those CEOs all want the certainty of a uniform code. They also want to know that they can make those huge capital investments. They want to know that they are not going to be disproportionately affected by legislation, regionally or on an industry basis.
We haven’t had a chance to get into the implications of global business and what that means in terms of policies in China, where I’ve done a lot of work. Or what it means for developing countries. The fact is, it’s entirely likely that China will create a trading market for carbon before the U.S. does.
Will this put us at a competitive disadvantage?
Over time it will. There is no one path to the future, but one of those roads is likely to be increasing leadership from China and from other parts of the world. Sooner or later the U.S. is going to understand the opportunity it has in terms of energy conservation, in terms of job creation, and in terms of economic growth and national security. Even if we weren’t able to do it this year in Congress, sooner or later we will.
Any final thoughts?
I’m enormously optimistic about Audubon’s future. I wouldn’t have left a great organization like EDF if I wasn’t. I think that with the rising popularity of birding combined with the growing drumbeat for habitat protection, Audubon is at a pivotal moment. And I think it will pay for all of us who care about Audubon to behave the way we do when we’re birding: by collaborating.
We’ll be taking advantage of that wingspan—going from policy in Washington and national science and educational efforts to chapter-based action. Finding a way to link all that gives Audubon a place in the environmental world that no other organization occupies. And I’m just tremendously honored by the chance to lead Audubon in the future.
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Extreme Bird Counting
Last December, Fairbanks, Alaska, hit a frigid minus-38 degrees Fahrenheit. Without wind chill. Yet 69 Christmas Bird Counters braved the cold to tally up 24 species, from the northern goshawk to the common redpole. “The CBC is one of the best yardsticks” of bird populations, says Geoff LeBaron, who directs the program for Audubon. The 111th count runs December 14 through January 5. Here are a few more CBC extremes.—Michele Wilson
Outnumbered: Pine Prairie, Louisiana
During the 1987–1988 CBC, one group recorded 103 million birds—including more than 53 million red-winged blackbirds—a whopping 50 million more than the average tally for the total CBC.
110 Years and Counting: Central Park, New York
Participants who traverse the 843-acre park to count titmice and thrushes, juncos and sapsuckers are taking part in one of the longest continuous CBC efforts.
Southern Comfort: Cape Crozier, Antarctica
In 2008, during this southernmost count—and Antarctica’s only one to date—three participants saw 270,885 Adélie penguins, plus four other species.
Practically Dark: Prudhoe Bay, Alaska
Making do with a mere two and three-quarters hours of daylight, counters spotted only one species: the common raven.
Record Attendance: 110th CBC
Some 2,160 groups participated, and tallied more than 55 million individual birds.
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