Saving the Everglades
This past November, Audubon won a huge victory when Congress approved a 20-year, $7.8 billion plan to save the ailing Florida Everglades. In an effort to halt 50 years of environmental decline, the newly authorized Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) will return the natural flow of water to the famed "river of grass" and greatly improve the habitat of dozens of endangered and threatened species, including the Florida panther, the snail kite, and the Cape Sable seaside sparrow. Stuart Strahl, an ecologist and the president of Audubon of Florida, helped win broad support for the plan by championing science-based conservation. Strahl recently spoke to the magazine about the historic importance of the new restoration plan and the critical role that Audubon played in making it a reality.
Question: It's been a long, hard-fought struggle, but the battle has finally been won. Will this restoration plan go down in the annals of conservation as a truly historic achievement?
Answer: Absolutely! It's the biggest environmental project ever undertaken in the United States. The greater Everglades ecosystem stretches from Orlando to the Florida Keys. It includes three national parks and preserves, three marine sanctuaries, more than a dozen national wildlife refuges, and five tropical estuaries. This restoration project will ensure the ecological viability of all those habitats and protected areas.
Q. How long has Audubon been involved in the fight to save the Everglades?
A. Since the turn of the last century. Before World War II our scientists and sanctuary managers collected much of the baseline data that will be used to measure the ecological success of the restoration. We helped found the Everglades coalition in the late 1960s, and working with our chapters and the former Florida Audubon Society, we've made increasingly strong grassroots efforts in Everglades battles for the past 30 years.
Q. What role did Audubon play in shaping the final plan and making it a reality?
A. Audubon has been at the forefront of this battle on all fronts. Our team of more than two dozen scientists, policy staff, educators, and advocates has been working aggressively throughout this decade on improving the plan as it developed from its conceptual stages to the passage of the final legislation this year.
Q. How soon until the 68 threatened and endangered species in the Everglades begin to recover?
A. It's hard to say. Some species will recover quickly when local conditions improve. Others, such as some of the wading birds, are more sensitive to the health of vast areas of the 'glades. However, we expect major improvements to the ecology of the Everglades within the next 10 years, and we should start to see signs of improvements in wildlife populations as that happens.
Q. Do you foresee any stumbling blocks that could undermine the restoration?
A. Public and political will is remarkably fickle when it comes to long-term solutions. Because of the 20-plus-year duration of this project, we should anticipate the potential for changes in the political landscape on both a regional and a national scale. Our public will to restore this ecosystem will be dependent on maintaining an ongoing program of education and the technical expertise to ensure that the plan is properly implemented.
Q. So what's the next step? And how do you keep the plan moving forward?
A. We have passed the conceptual and political components of restoration and have initiated funding for the program. Now come the detailed design, implementation, and authorization phases. Each of the nearly 70 or more projects under the CERP umbrella will undergo this process, and the environmental community needs to become more involved than ever. Audubon made the decision long ago that we are not going to sit on the sidelines and watch, but rather that we would be directly involved in the technical details of the restoration plan. As a result, Everglades restoration has become the highest nationwide priority for Audubon. Now our goal must be to ensure that this vision is carried out. That's something that will occupy us for decades to come.
Stealthy Footprints in the Swamp
Visitors to Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in southern Florida will find much to admire at the new $3 million Blair Audubon Center--not least of which is how hard it is to see. The sand-colored building with sage-green trim blends in perfectly with the pines and palmettos that surround it. But walk a short distance down the path toward the cypress swamp's famous 2.25-mile-long boardwalk, look back, and the 11,000-square-foot center seems to have vanished entirely. That, says Ed Carlson, executive director of Corkscrew, is no accident: "We planned the building to disappear into the landscape."
The center's unique shape and building material reflect its state-of-the-art, conservation-minded construction. It was designed to fit like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle between the ancient slash pines that held first claim to the site. The only extensive use of wood is found on the interior ceiling and the deck that wraps around most of the visitor center.
Inside the center, visitors will find everything from a nature store to a spectacular multimedia exhibit that reproduces the seasonal life of a cypress swamp. Highlights include a treetop-level view of a wood stork colony, a display of life below the surface of the swamp's fertile mud, and a 600-gallon aquarium. But the showstopper may be the Swamp Theater's 14-minute theater program, which features a sophisticated system of lights and speakers that simulates the sensory experience of life in a swamp. At one point the cry of a red-shouldered hawk tracks from one hidden speaker to another so that the bird seems to fly overhead.
With its cutting-edge design and innovative exhibits, the Blair Audubon Center at Corkscrew is the first of a new generation of education centers that Audubon will be opening nationwide in the new millennium. "The Blair Center is a wonderful model for creating an indoor experience that truly prepares visitors for outdoor discovery," says Tamar Chotzen, senior vice-president of centers and education. "It will help people know what to look for, and why Corkscrew is such a special place."
To reach the sanctuary, located north of Naples, drive east on Highway 86 (Immokalee Road) to Sanctuary Road West, which dead-ends into the sanctuary's parking lot. For information, call 941-348-9151 or visit www.audubon.org/local/sanctuary/corkscrew/.
Up for the Count
Bird lovers unite! No matter where you are in North America from February 16 to 19, you can participate in the Fourth Annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Bird populations are in a continual state of flux, and this annual event serves as a snapshot, documenting where different species are during a four-day period. The results help ornithologists spot trends and identify species that may be in trouble. "By tracking changes in bird distribution and abundance over time, such a vast database can serve as the SOS for species that may be in trouble," says John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which hosts the event with the National Audubon Society.
The GBBC depends on "citizen science" for its success. Participants observe and tally the numbers and species of birds visiting their bird feeders, schoolyards, and parks. Counts are submitted over the Internet by clicking on the GBBC icon at BirdSource, an interactive web site devoted to gathering information from birdwatchers (www.birdsource.org). The site is packed with helpful information for beginners and experts alike, including full-color pictures of birds, identification tips, recordings of bird calls, and distribution maps.
Last year 62,000 checklists from participants counted nearly 4.8 million birds. Topping the charts at 368,391 individuals sighted was the Canada goose. Backyard Bird Count data are combined with those from the annual Christmas Bird Count to provide an immense picture of winter birds and to gain insight into their population dynamics.
This year Audubon and the Cornell Lab are asking participants to pay special attention to one particular backyard visitor--the quail. Ornithologists are concerned that habitat loss in some areas has led to a decline in the population of some quail species, and they hope that the GBBC will help determine where that loss is most pronounced. "While most people recognize quail when they see them, few are aware that some species, including the northern bobwhite in the East and the scaled quail in the Southwest, are experiencing severe population declines," says Frank Gill, Audubon's senior vice-president for science. Quail are relatively easy to identify, so even casual observers can play an important role by sending in their counts. Birders are also being asked to keep a watchful eye out for the red-headed woodpecker and the northern flicker, both of which are showing signs of serious population declines.
"The GBBC is a terrific way for individuals, families, schools, and community groups to contribute to a better understanding of birds," says Gill. "I can't think of a better way to spend a little time on a late-winter day."
There's no fee or registration required to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. Those who do not have Internet access can contact their local library, nature club, scout troop, or Wild Birds Unlimited Outlet (toll-free at 888-302-2473). For more information about getting involved, you can also contact Natural Wonders stores (www.naturalwonders.com). So mark your calendar, dust off your binoculars, and happy counting.
A red-tailed hawk, brought in with two broken legs, is recuperating at Gary Pearson's small animal hospital--the only one in North Dakota whose door is always open for wild-animal emergencies. A solo practitioner, Pearson has been in since 7:30 a.m., and until he leaves at 10:00 tonight he'll attend to the usual gamut of pets. He'll also manage to write another letter to North Dakota governor Edward Schafer about one of the longest-running, most expensive, and most environmentally destructive water-diversion projects ever: the Garrison Diversion Unit.
For more than 30 years, Pearson, a modern-day David, has been battling the project, a Goliath-size, government-supported quagmire of drained wetlands, inundated prairies, and eroded soil. Authorized in 1965, the Garrison project initially called for up to 280 billion gallons of water to be diverted annually from behind the Garrison Dam, on the Missouri River, through hundreds of miles of canals to irrigate some 250,000 acres of farmland. (The project has since been scaled back significantly.) "Every time there is a development on this issue, Gary Pearson is there," says Daniel P. Beard, the National Audubon Society's senior vice-president for public policy. "We're lucky to have him."
Waterlogged landscapes have been a part of Pearson's life since childhood. He grew up in northern Ohio, on the edge of a marsh, where he spent his days squirrel hunting and birdwatching. In 1967 Pearson went to North Dakota to work as a research veterinarian at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, in Jamestown, when it was under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Soon after arriving, he joined Audubon, and in 1969 he founded what later became the Dakota Prairie Audubon Society to help create an alliance against the Garrison Diversion Unit.
Pearson's most effective weapon is his writing. "For Gary, the pen truly is mightier than the sword," says Genevieve Thompson, Audubon's North Dakota state executive director. He has drafted reviews of dozens of environmental-impact statements, testimony for dozens of congressional hearings, and thousands of letters--not to mention endless editorials and articles.
In 1975 Pearson's activism and achievements may have cost him his job. "As I became more conspicuous in my criticism of the project, [the state's governor and senators] took a keen interest in my career," he says wryly. The Fish and Wildlife Service decided to transfer him to Wisconsin. When Pearson turned down the transfer, he was fired. "Interestingly, I was not even given an address to report to," he notes. "After that," he says, "I opened my veterinary hospital and probably have caused more trouble for the proponents of these projects than I would have if they'd left me where I was."
Pearson's "quiet persistence" has been crucial, says Beard. "If it hadn't been for Gary, the Garrison project would have gone a lot further than it has." Beard tells of a public hearing that took place in Bismarck: It was 25 below zero--cold even for North Dakota. But Pearson, in a car with a faulty heater, made the 100-mile drive. The event was memorable, Beard recalls, "because it epitomized everything about Gary. He had to go the extra mile . . . and he gave an articulate testimony." That persistence--and its results--has won him awards from both Audubon and the National Wildlife Federation.
So what has kept Pearson so tireless for more than 30 years? "I suppose some would say pure orneriness," he says with a chuckle. And then, in true Pearson fashion, he pulls out a sheet of paper. "I have relied heavily on a couple of things that Aldo Leopold wrote," he says, reading from the paper: " ŽA thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of a biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.' I think that is a good compass to go by."
--Gretel H. Schueller
Miller's Winning Streak
Long before he took up birding, Dave Miller, the executive director of the National Audubon Society of New York State, was an ardent Yankees fan. Last summer, as the Bronx Bombers were on their way to their third consecutive world championship, Miller was pursuing other victories while birding with New York's governor George Pataki. Here, at the Montezuma Wetlands Complex in upstate New York, he helps the governor spot a great blue heron. When it comes to winning protection for birds, Miller's record is as impressive as the Yankees'; since 1998 he has helped persuade Pataki to designate 11 state Bird Conservation Areas, including the vital wetlands at Montezuma.
Ongoing through mid-March: Winter Bird Watch, Broken Bow, OK. See bald eagles and other migratory species. The birds are seen flying, fishing, and roosting in trees along the river. Beavers Bend Nature Center (580-494-6556; email@example.com).
Ongoing through March 31: Whale Watching, Oxnard and Ventura, CA. Coastal boat trips to observe the annual migration of gray whales. Island Packers (805-642-1393).
January 6-14: Wilderness Wildlife Week, Pigeon Forge, TN. Workshops, hikes, fly-fishing, and bird walks. Pigeon Forge Department of Special Events (865-429-7350).
January 12-15: Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival, Morro Bay, CA. Art exhibits, speakers, and guided tours. Celebrate the return of birds to their winter roosts. Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce (800-231-0592; www.morro-bay.net/birds).
January 20: Winter Bird & Bat Festival, Albuquerque, NM. Guest speakers, bird walks, and children's activities. Rio Grande Nature Center State Park (505-344-7240).
January 21: Kaw Valley Eagles Day, Lawrence, KS. A one-day bald eagle celebration. Multimedia presentations and guided eagle viewing. Jayhawk Audubon Society and the Corps of Engineers (785-842-0475; www.audubon.org/chapter/ks/jayhawk/).
February 2-3: Winter Wings Weekend, Lake Village, AR. Field trips and lake tours for birdwatchers and nature lovers. Lake Chicot State Park (870-265-5480).
February 3-4: 14th Annual Upper Skagit Bald Eagle Festival, Concrete, WA. Planned activities include guest speakers and guided field trips. Cheri Cook-Blodgett (360-853-7009; www.skagiteagle.org). The eagle interpretive center is open on weekends until mid-February (360-853-7614).
February 9-11: Weekend for Wildlife, Sea Island, GA. Come participate in the largest fund-raiser for the non-game endangered wildlife program. Cocktail parties, banquets, live animal shows, birding trails, and tours of the Crystal Georgia Islands. Georgia Department of Natural Resources (706-557-3031).
February 10: Everglades Day, Boynton Beach, FL. Have fun and learn all about the Everglades. Bird and butterfly walks, canoe trips, and guest speakers. Sponsored by the Audubon Society of the Everglades (561-433-4063; www.myweb.flinet. com/audubon/).
February 16-18: California Duck Days 2001, Davis, CA. More than 40 amazing field trips led, in part, by Yolo Audubon members. Educational displays and demonstrations about wetlands and wildlife (530-758-1286; www.duckdays.org).
In Bomoseen, Vermont, it's known as the bill that won't die. During the past three years, state representatives have tried repeatedly to introduce legislation that would permit the drawdown of Lake Bomoseen, which Jim Shallow, executive director of Audubon Vermont, calls "one of the state's premier bird habitats." Some landowners near the lake want to lower the water level to protect their boats, docks, and shoreline from ice damage. But environmentalists and even biologists from Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources have contended that the real damage would be to the lake's sensitive wetlands and the wildlife that depends on them.
Roy Pilcher, co-president of the Rutland County Audubon Society, has mobilized chapters statewide in a vigorous lobbying and letter-writing campaign that has thus far successfully blocked the bill's passage. Pilcher believes, however, that the pro-drawdown forces may try to resurrect the bill in the next legislative session, which begins in January. "If that happens," he says, "we will continue the fight to protect this valuable wetlands."
There's probably no other place in the world where birders have to take a class in military munitions before venturing out with their binoculars. But at bomb site B-70 on the Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, it's the only way visitors can get clearance to observe the area's population of burrowing owls. Members of the Choctawhatchee Audubon Society, in collaboration with U.S. Air Force biologists, are monitoring the owls' population and breeding success but must learn the difference between dangerous bombs and duds before entering the habitat of the elusive owl. No one is quite sure why the birds are making their home in the explosive landscape; biologists believe the owls have somehow been desensitized to the noise. Thus far, neither species--owl or birder--has suffered bomb-ruffled feathers.
Forget the China; I'll Take the Puffins
Trying to save the environment and buy a unique wedding gift at the same time? That's exactly what Ann and Scott Hedges were thinking when they posted a link to Audubon's Adopt-a-Puffin program on the bridal-registry section of their wedding web site. By ceremony time the Hedges were the proud "parents" of six puffins. You don't have to be planning your nuptials to participate in the program. For a $100 donation, participants receive a certificate of adoption, a photograph, a list of the bird's vital statistics, and a yearly update of what their animal has been up to. The program has successfully restored birds to former breeding sites in the Gulf of Maine. It also helps manage area colonies of a variety of seabirds, including terns and storm petrels, whose populations have been declining. For more info, go to http://puffin.bird.audubon.org/.
A five-person volunteer birding team from the Audubon Society of Greenwich, Connecticut, may hold the record for greatest age diversity. Ranging in years from 8 to 74, the members are donating their time and birdwatching skills to the Egret and Heron Project, a survey of the great egrets, snowy egrets, and black-crowned night herons on Great Captains Island, located in Long Island Sound. Last summer the chapter bought a used, 13-foot Boston Whaler to make weekly surveying trips to the island. The nests of the chosen subjects were checked twice each week until the young birds fledged. The project, which will pick up again next summer, is looking to find a correlation between nest productivity, predation by other species, and human impact.
Birders far and wide call this road stop "magical" and pull over whenever they pass through southern Arizona. It is the Patagonia Roadside Rest, along scenic Route 82, and it offers birdwatchers a chance to glimpse numerous species from south of the border, including the thick-billed kingbird, the northern beardless tyrannulet, and the violet-crowned hummingbird. But Arizona Highway Department officials claim that occasional falling rocks along the mountainous desert road have made this popular spot unsafe, and they're planning to move the road north toward Sonoita Creek. Kevin Dahl, executive director of the Tucson Audubon Society, says that "this would destroy critical wildlife habitat that is home to more than 300 birds and four rare species of fish." Instead of moving the road, Tucson Audubon has proposed various alternatives, such as the installation of blinking lights and warning signs that would be activated on the area's rare rainy days, when there's a greater chance of rockfall. State officials are now considering all the options and have delayed the project until an environmental assessment can be completed. In the meantime, Dahl is asking that anyone interested in learning more contact him at 520-622-5622 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2001 NASI
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