Audubon in Action
There’s an alarming movement taking shape today to roll back decades of environmental progress. An ill-informed and angry mob of legislators threaten birds, habitat, and human health, from Washington, D.C., to our statehouses. Developers and their pocket politicians across the country are using budget deficits as cover to gut some of our most basic and successful environmental protections.
The power of Audubon—through individual and collective action—has never mattered more.
More than 350 Audubon chapters and state offices signed on to an unprecedented letter to every Senator and the White House, rising up to beat back an assault on the Clean Air Act. But you can bet that looming budget battles in the House of Representatives will include attacks on critical conservation programs. Expect to see the EPA become a whipping boy—and for every special interest to try to loosen safeguards, even on toxic substances like mercury.
Equally worrisome and insidious is what is happening in state legislatures. Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, described the state’s legislative session as “the worst for the environment I have seen in 20 years.” Audubon’s network of chapters and activists joined other conservationists to derail efforts to weaken water protections and close state parks. Florida’s governor and legislature have crippled citizens’ ability to challenge ill-advised development and environmental permits, including those for oil wells and pipelines—while also slashing much-needed funds for Everglades restoration.
In Minnesota, a long list of funding cuts and environmental protection cuts threatens to allow industry and business interests to pollute the state’s famous waters—by slapping a virtual gag order on concerned Minnesotans.
Public review and oversight are also on the chopping block in Oregon, as the state’s senate considers legislation that would undermine protections for important natural resource areas, including rivers and estuaries, in favor of industrial development. These are only a few of the places where Audubon, our chapters, and our conservationist partners are pulling out all the stops in the fight to hold hard-won environmental ground.
This spring, at Audubon’s Women in Conservation luncheon, honoree Sigourney Weaver quoted Gloria Steinem in front of a packed ballroom at New York’s Plaza Hotel. “The truth will set you free,” she said. “But first it will piss you off.” If reading about what’s happening to the environmental protections many of us fought for angers you, I urge you to heed Sigourney’s advice. Use that anger as a catalyst for action. Become an Audubon activist. Get involved with your local chapter. Raise your voice for birds and the environment. To learn how you can get involved, go to audubon.org.
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Winds of Change
Thousands of the nation’s deadliest turbines will be phased out.
East of San Francisco, more than 5,000 wind turbines stand on the rolling hills that shoulder Interstate 580 on the edge of California’s Central Valley. In the coming years approximately half of the towering structures—infamous for killing birds—will be replaced, a victory years in the making for several Audubon chapters.
Built in the 1980s, the Altamont Pass wind farm was one of the nation’s earliest, and it remains one of the largest, generating 125 megawatts on average. Each year, however, thousands of songbirds and raptors still spiral out of the sky there due to deadly collisions, despite a 2007 settlement that aimed to reduce mortality. “Altamont has been the big black eye of wind energy,” says Bob Power, executive director of Santa Clara Valley Audubon.
But change is on the wind. Last December five Audubon chapters—Golden Gate, Santa Clara Valley, Mount Diablo, Ohlone, and Marin—joined the state’s attorney general’s office to sign an ambitious settlement with Altamont’s largest operator, NextEra Energy Resources. By 2015 the company must completely “repower,” replacing or removing 2,400 older turbines. “It’s easy to be parochial, to argue we just can’t have any turbines” in the area, says Mike Lynes, conservation director for Golden Gate Audubon. “But we have to balance that with a larger concern for renewable energy.”
The new, 1.5-megawatt turbines will be monstrous and efficient, each capable of replacing 10 to 30 old ones. Their design is safer for birds, and they’ll be sited to avoid saddles or ravines that attract prey and funnel air. The repowering will occur in phases that incorporate mortality feedback, and for each new megawatt, NextEra will contribute $10,500 toward restoration and further study. In all, the changes might reduce bird strikes in repowered areas by as much as 80 percent. “The fact that five Audubon chapters were able to band together and share resources was a big help,” says Lynes. “We’ve been stuck in a morass for years, trying to tinker around with old turbines, but this broke the logjam.”
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What’s small, yellowish, and wears a distinct black cap? With the Audubon Birds online guide, users can quickly identify, say, a male Wilson’s warbler. The website showcases more than 750 species, including all of the breeding birds in North America. “It’s the 21st century way to do a bird guide,” notes Greg Butcher, Audubon’s director of bird conservation. “Little nuances of range, quick questions about biology—having something at your fingertips to refer to is always helpful.” Audubon, with Green Mountain Digital, offers the guide as an app for the iPhone, iPad, and Android, too, making it easy to ID on the go. Just search or browse by bird name or family. More experienced birders will enjoy entering species names to learn about plumage or subtleties of behavior. The Wilson’s warbler, for one, “searches the outsides of leafy branches, often catching flying insects on the wing.” And with just a few easy clicks, its staccato song will play. Try it out at audubonbirds.org.—Nick Neely
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Chapter and Verse In late March more than 350 Audubon chapters and state offices sent a letter to the Senate and White House urging them to “reject the draconian cuts” proposed by the House of Representatives to programs protecting air, water, and habitat. At stake, for instance, were the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports national wildlife refuges, parks, and forests, and the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, crucial to the nation’s wildlife-rich marshes. The letter also encouraged Congress to ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency would retain the authority—and funding—to address challenges like global warming. “The root and source of our influence comes from our chapters,” says Connie Mahan, Audubon’s director of grassroots outreach. “You have to keep layering it on until finally you achieve your victory.” The budget battle continues, but the White House and Senate seem to agree with this message. “The continuing resolution did restore a lot of funding for much of what we care about,” says Mahan. “But we will have to remain vigilant.”—Nick Neely
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A unique project uses body art to help save endangered species.
This summer Molly Tsongas, 30, will face a gun to protect the Steller sea lion—a tattoo gun, that is. Through Tatzoo, her TogetherGreen project, Tsongas—social media director for brand-building organization Citizen—and nine contest winners will each get inked with a unique tattoo of an endangered species. Last summer Tsongas asked people aged 18 to 35 to submit ideas to raise awareness about a single endangered California animal. With projects for each species wrapped up this spring—like the sticker campaign that placed blue whale facts in coffee drinkers’ hands one cup at a time—the winners will soon go under the gun to receive a permanent reminder of their animals’ plights.
Where did the idea for Tatzoo come from?
My goal was really to find new and creative ways to unleash what I saw was untapped potential among members of the millennial generation, to be much more involved in the biodiversity and conservation movement and to move it in new directions.
What’s an example of a winner’s project?
Ashlee Jensen chose the northern spotted owl and decided to raise awareness by brewing a microbeer she called Spotted OwlBrew. Each bottle had a hanging tag with a spotted owl on the back and trivia questions about the species. She threw a Spotted Owl Brew Fest and handed out free beer.
Why just one species per participant?
If they don’t feel responsible for all the species, they feel more empowered, more in control. It gives them hope. Whether or not I even knew or cared about the Steller sea lion before, I now feel a sense of responsibility.
What was your Steller sea lion project?
I thought we’d capitalize on how sea lions cuddle to get people to identify with the species. We invited people all over San Francisco to a popular park. We had about 50 people all brave enough to consider the concept of cuddling with strangers. (To view the “cuddle mob,” click here.)
Was it difficult to find 10 artists to create the tattoos?
I was really apprehensive at first. I didn’t know these tattoo artists, and I had this impression that they’d be less interested in my cause. But they’re artists and they’re drawing these species on people’s bodies all the time. Folks are looking for ways to make a positive impact. I think there’s a lot of untapped passion.
The mouth of the Mississippi River speaks not just of America’s territorial history and great ports but also of its complex environmental challenges, says Allison Whipple Rockefeller, chair of the Rachel Carson Awards Council. In April members of the council—a key element of Audubon’s Women in Conservation program—toured the Louisiana Coast along with Audubon President David Yarnold. They saw dune and barrier island erosion, dead and dying cypress trees, and tar balls on the beach of Grand Isle. But it was the region’s resilience, both human and natural, that made the strongest impression. “We all know experiences that are just awful and heartbreaking also bring out deep beauty in people and their willingness to help,” says Rockefeller. At Audubon’s oldest preserve, Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary (above), the group saw why Audubon staff worked tirelessly there last year to combat oil and safeguard wetlands. Boating on the delta, they saw why Audubon is building an alliance of landowners committed to restoring the Mississippi Delta across a quarter-million acres, one project that’s part of a larger effort in the region. “Some places that you visit, it’s easy to have a sense of hopelessness, but this ecosystem is vibrant,” Rockefeller says. At the annual Women in Conservation luncheon in New York City in May—where actress Sigourney Weaver and artist Maya Lin received awards for their dedication to conservation—many “Women of the Gulf” the council met on the trip were honored for their heroism during and after last year’s spill. To see videos of the honorees, click here.—Nick Neely
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