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Audubon in Action

Audubon View

Matt Slaby/Luceo

There’s nothing like unrest in the middle east and rising prices at the gas pump to trigger a rush to drilling here in the United States. Factor in fears from the nuclear meltdown in Japan and you’ve got a full-fledged energy panic. And few good decisions get made in that kind of a frenzy.

The alternative is to take the bold steps that will make us less dependent on fossil fuels. We can do that through a sound, science-based approach that balances our need for energy with our need for a healthy environment.

For starters, we can look to the U.S. West. The sagebrush landscape—the epitome of wild lands and the American frontier—is home to diverse plants and animals, including the threatened greater sage-grouse, whose annual mating display is one of nature’s most arresting wildlife spectacles. Sagebrush habitat also supports the great mammals of the American West, from the pronghorn antelope to elk and mule deer.
The sagebrush West is also endowed with multiple sources of energy. The winds that sweep down the high plains in Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado have enormous potential to help our nation meet its energy needs. Oil and gas sit beneath this landscape. It’s easy to see why these lands are as vulnerable as they are unique. Too many of these vistas and too much of this important wildlife habitat have already been lost to oil extraction and the infrastructure it requires.

The good news is we have already learned that with sound science and good planning we can develop much-needed wind power and protect western wildlife, too.

By mapping the sites most important to greater sage-grouse, we’ve been able to steer energy development elsewhere, often to places that already bear a heavy human footprint. This siting model was pioneered by Audubon Wyoming along with former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal and other partners. It will minimize impacts from oil extraction—that’s helping to keep clean wind energy truly green.

The Interior Department recently embraced this approach in its newly announced guidelines, which will help wean America off fossil fuels—without contaminating water supplies or putting transmission lines in fragile habitats. Although further refinement is necessary before these policies are completed, it’s the right approach.

It’s also common sense. A recent bipartisan poll found that westerners in five states believe strong environmental protections and a new energy economy can and should be inseparable. Huge majorities—upwards of two-thirds of people surveyed—said that strong environmental protections should be the foundation for strong economic growth.

And that’s the anti-panic prescription we all need.
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The Long Haul
A year after the BP oil disaster, there’s still work to be done.

Gerry Ellis/National Audubon Society

The oil is nearly invisible. The black goop that smothered Gulf Coast beaches and front pages last summer has largely evaporated  from view. But out of sight should not be out of mind. “We need for people not to forget,” says Chris Canfield, Audubon’s Gulf Coast Conservation/Mississippi Flyway vice president.

In the aftermath of the crisis, Audubon’s bird experts worked with state and federal wildlife officials to forge an emergency response that would minimize harm to birds and their habitat. Audubon also mobilized thousands of volunteers, putting them to work feeding rehabilitated pelicans returned to the wild, transporting injured animals to rehab centers, and more. 

Today the push to restore the Gulf continues, keeping volunteers busy monitoring birds along the coast from Texas to Florida and offering tips on how bird lovers in every state can help. Protecting habitat and improving water quality nationwide, for example, is vital for migratory birds that stop in the Gulf, Canfield says.

Another goal is to rally people to contact their Congressional representatives and advocate for legislators to reform how they disburse the fines levied against BP under terms of the Clean Water Act. “Under current law, these penalties are not directed back to the region harmed by the disaster,” says David Ringer, Audubon’s Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico communications coordinator. “We want Congress to pass legislation dedicating the majority of these to renewing the Gulf.” In other words, instead of setting aside the money for future spills, the focus should center on directing those dollars toward Gulf region work today. Visit to send a letter to your senators and representative.
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On Board
In January the national Audubon society named six new directors to its board, including prominent leaders in the fields of science, conservation, finance, and education.


Leigh Altadonna
Altadonna, the assistant superintendent of schools in Abington, Pennsylvania, is the new eastern regional director. He has previously served on the board (1987 to 1993), and currently chairs the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove’s stewardship board and is a Wyncote Audubon Society board member.
Jon A. Anda
Head of UBS Securities Environmental Markets Group, Anda works with clean tech, utility, and industrial companies on applying environmental policy analytics to financial decision making. In 2007, after two decades at Morgan Stanley, he began full-time environmental markets work at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Joseph H. Ellis
In 2005 Ellis retired from Goldman, Sachs & Company, where he was principal liaison and consultant with global retailers. He has also served on the boards of The Nature Conservancy in New York State and the conservation nonprofit RARE. Ellis has written two books, including Birds in Wood and Paint.
Frank Gill
Renowned ornithologist Gill has returned to the board after acting as Audubon’s interim president. Gill previously served as the organization’s chief scientist, spearheading the Important Bird Areas program and pioneering new citizen science initiatives, including the Great Backyard Bird Count.
Joy Hester
Hester will serve as southwest regional director. A retired attorney, dedicated conservationist, and avid birder, she is past president of Houston Audubon, where her expertise in land transactions and contract issues made her instrumental in expanding the area’s sanctuary system.
Terry L. Root
A senior fellow at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, Root was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Her pioneering research has demonstrated the effects of global warming on plants and animals.

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302 Stories, Inc. (left); National Audubon Society

Safe Harbor
In 1971, in the glow of the first Earth Day, Governor Russell W. Peterson signed Delaware’s Coastal Zone Act into law, thus protecting the state’s eastern shore from further heavy industrial users, like oil refineries and bulk shipping stations. Four decades later a new documentary explores the national precedent set by Peterson, who served as president of National Audubon from 1979 to 1985 and who passed away in February, at 94. A former Dupont executive, Peterson (top, in front) championed the act partly because of the time he spent birding with his sons, as he explains in Delaware’s Coastal Zone Act: An Evolving Legacy, directed by Michael Oates. The hourlong film examines how environmental laws emerge and survive, often against political and economic tides. “For this act to pass in what is kind of like the corporate center of the United States is pretty remarkable,” says Oates, and a testament to Peterson’s vision. The film premieres in June, before being shown in Delaware schools. Visit to view a clip.—Nick Neely

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Courtesy of Seward Park Audubon Center

Tree Huggers
When Seattle’s Seward Park Environmental & Audubon Center opened in 2008, a talking tree named Garry Oak made its first appearance. The costumed naturalist and his new pal, Douglas-fir (funded by a state Department of Natural Resources grant), give tree ecology lessons to tots in the center’s preschool program and introduce them to leafy friends in the 277-acre park. “The students sway like trees; they think about putting down roots,” says Gail Gatton, center director. “We developed the program so that kids would take home the excitement and bring their families back to the park.” So far 3,400 students have met the trees, which will branch out into area libraries soon.—Michele Wilson

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Welcome Back
A sanctuary, sealed off by the border wall, reopens its doors.

Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary is open again, and it’s flourishing. It began welcoming visitors in January after being closed for 18 months, largely due to uncertainties over the U.S.–Mexico border wall, which now punches through the property in Brownsville, Texas. Volunteers have cleared trails on the 557-acre sanctuary, restoring paths into the nation’s last vestige of tropical sabal palm forest (above). The pump is again pulling water from the Rio Grande to fill the lake, nourishing vital habitat for a range of wildlife, from jaguarundis to up to 170 bird species, including green jays and great kiskadees.

The border wall was built, but the gate that would have closed off access to the sanctuary hasn’t been put in, and there’s no indication it will, says Bob Benson, executive director of Audubon Texas. “People visit from all over,” he says. “It’s one of the best places in the U.S. to go birding.”

Sabal Palm resumed business thanks to a partnership between Audubon and the Gorgas Science Foundation, a 64-year-old nonprofit that focuses on conservation and education. Operating the sanctuary under a 25-year lease, Gorgas plans to continue Sabal Palm’s legacy of science. Gorgas’s new headquarters is the sanctuary’s Rabb House—a Victorian river plantation home that had sat empty because of the cost of renovating it.

From his vantage point on a second-story porch, Gorgas president and CEO Larry Lof looks out over the vast forest. “We understand how special this place is,” he says. “All that’s changing is we’re adding another element—the history of the Rio Grande, the forest, and the plantation—to the sanctuary.” Lof’s weekly historical tours are proving popular. The first week 12 people showed up; most recently 48 attended.

This spring migratory birds have returned. So has Jimmy Paz, who retired as sanctuary manager after 12 years and now volunteers to give bird and forest tours. “The fence is actually an attraction,” says Paz. “Before people came for the birds and plants. Now new people come to see the border wall, and they come into the sanctuary and learn about the flora and fauna and history, too.”
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