>>The Next Century

Rising to the Cause

Linking Audubon's future to its past proves the enormous promise of people banding together in a common mission to save birds, wildlife, and habitat.

By David Seideman


In March 2003 the prospects for saving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from ruin looked grim indeed. Supporters of drilling for oil on the fragile Alaskan tundra had "moved within a single vote of guaranteeing President Bush one of his top domestic priorities," reported the Associated Press. An internal memo from the Senate's Republican leadership stated: "Dick Cheney has been working madly to secure the 50th vote."

In the end, of course, the pro-drilling forces failed, and someday conservationists will look back at the vote as a watershed moment. If these forces had prevailed, one of the planet's most pristine habitats, a haven for millions of migratory birds, would have been lost forever. Perhaps even more devastating, Congress would have effectively granted the administration carte blanche to plunder federal lands throughout the United States.

As the March 19 vote approached, insiders believed the outcome rested on Norm Coleman. The previous year the Minnesota Republican had campaigned, in part, on a pledge to fight for the Arctic Refuge. But now, as supporters of the energy bill tempted him with an offer to bring a power plant project—and 600 jobs—to his state, he was wavering.

Responding quickly, Audubon's policy team in D.C. buttonholed senators and their staffers at a public rally on Capitol Hill and, with the aid of Audubon Minnesota and its local Audubon chapters, fired off e-mail alerts to 10,000 grassroots activists. Twenty members of the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Minnesota River Valley Audubon chapters jammed Coleman's phone lines. When Susan Solterman, Audubon Minnesota's policy director, paid a personal visit to Coleman's office, she was struck by how "his staff was worn out by all the calls from thousands of constituents."

Despite the effort, on the day of the vote Audubon's grassroots coordinators, Desiree Groves and Kristen Berry, reported that Coleman's support seemed lost. Solterman and Minnesota chapter members immediately dropped everything and marched down to Coleman's Minneapolis office. An hour later they and other activists held a press conference that was covered by television, radio, and the print media. A blowup of a letter Coleman had sent to his constituents, declaring his commitment to protect the refuge, was held aloft as the cameras zoomed in.

Two hours later Coleman kept his word, and the measure went down to defeat. Its advocates had lost their best chance in a generation by just two votes (if the vote had been deadlocked, Vice-President Cheney would have broken the 50–50 tie). "We did a very good job of mobilizing our network," Solterman says, sizing up the roles of Audubon and an umbrella group called the Alaska Coalition in this historic event. "The chapters are essential whenever we are doing grassroots work. They get the message out even further than we do, to a wider and more diverse Audubon community."

While many groups deserve credit for the Arctic Refuge victory, Audubon more than pulled its weight. When time was of the essence, the organization once again exploited the unique combination of strengths that has made it such an effective force for conservation during the past century—and will make it one the next. In the time leading up to the vote, the Minnesota state office and its partners in the Alaska Coalition paid for a prominent billboard thanking Coleman for his campaign promise on the Arctic Refuge. They sponsored a traveling slide show by Caribou Commons, a Canadian environmental group, that opened the public's eyes to the beauty of the refuge, where vast herds of caribou evoke lofty comparisons to East Africa's famed Serengeti. In a glossy and widely distributed report, Audubon Alaska presented data documenting the 180 species of birds found in the refuge, including 70 that nest on the coastal plain—where oil development would occur—and more than 100 others that migrate to the refuge from six continents and all 50 states, including the golden eagle, the yellow wagtail, and the American golden plover. The October 2001 Audubon, whose cover story was "Where Nature Still Rules: Why We Should Leave the Arctic Refuge Alone," was sent to every member of the Senate by Audubon's Washington, D.C., office.

For an organization with a history as rich as Audubon's, a 100th birthday is the perfect occasion to connect its future to its past. Since its inception in 1905 Audubon has fostered a powerful conservation ethic by defining and defending a holy trinity—birds, wildlife, and habitat. Driving this mission's success has been a simple—if unconventional, at least in certain conservation circles—principle: People are not the problem; they are the solution. Audubon's band of professional and "citizen" scientists, from all across the Americas, provide the sound data that underlies the management of both species and land. Its network of sanctuaries and centers, combined with one of the nation's most venerable magazines, inform and educate millions of people on the critical part they play in protecting nature. The result is a constituency of environmentalists able to flex their muscles in state capitals covered by 26 Audubon state offices. "This is our heritage," says John Flicker, Audubon's 10th and current president, "and we build on it."


The army of Audubon volunteers working so hard to save birds—the clearest barometer of the health of our air, land, and water—complements and even supplants the work of government and universities. "We are not engaging people to do conservation work just to be altruistic," Flicker says. "We are doing it out of necessity, and because no other national organization is doing it. The collective action of citizens remains the greatest untapped force for conservation in the world."

This year marks the 104th anniversary of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), the world's oldest citizen-science project, which is based on the notion that it's human nature to protect what we can count (see "Tally Ho Ho Ho"). Perhaps the passenger pigeon could have been saved if anyone in 1900 had bothered to track its rapidly dwindling numbers. Fortunately for ornately feathered wading birds, the Audubon Society surveyed four southern states in 1910 and found that only 1,400 great egrets and 250 snowy egrets had survived the millinery trade's depredations. This disturbing news inspired a spate of state measures, such as New York's Audubon Plumage Law, which banned the sale of all native-bird feathers. This, in turn, led to the federal Migratory Bird Act just three years later.

Today more than 50,000 volunteers take part in the annual holiday count, rising at ungodly hours and braving cold, rain, and snow in close to 2,000 locations throughout the Western Hemisphere. The invaluable data collected during the CBC and other citizen-science projects—such as Audubon's Backyard Bird Count, which takes place in late winter—reveal long-term population trends and raise warning flags for species affected by pollution, degraded habitat, and disease.

The high-tech collection and tabulation of data, a far cry from yesteryear's pencil and paper, is making the counts easier and even more useful. Volunteers enter their findings via the Internet using basic protocols; the information is then organized for immediate scientific, educational, and public-policy purposes. This type of system holds enormous potential for inventorying all sorts of nature in addition to birds. Volunteers at New York City Audubon, for example, track the status of 173 significant open spaces in the city through just such a publicly accessible database.

Volunteers, often through chapter initiatives, are also fanning out across the country to identify Important Bird Areas (IBAs)—land that, based on scientific criteria, is deemed critical to birds' survival. To date, IBAs have been identified at 1,600 sites in 46 states, encompassing national wildlife refuges, sanctuaries, and national and city parks. Strung together like pearls in a necklace, these vital ecosystems—including San Francisco Bay, the Everglades, Long Island Sound, and the Mississippi River—form crucial links in migratory bird corridors.

If the fabled Singer Tract had been designated an IBA, the ivory-billed woodpecker might still be sounding its trumpet throughout that Louisiana forest. Instead the bird went the way of the passenger pigeon. "Those woods should be PRESERVED," Audubon's president John Baker wrote in 1937, as recounted in Phillip Hoose's fascinating new book, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. "That area should be a national monument." Baker, in his quixotic pursuit to protect the last handful of surviving ivory-bills, raised funds for an intensive three-year research project documenting their plight. He badgered mill owners, who brushed him off, declaring that "ethical considerations" did not apply to them. Baker then appealed to Congress, in vain, to pass a bill protecting the last 60,000 acres of the Singer Tract, where the ivory-bills still lived. In 1943, as the situation looked bleak, several members of New York City Audubon's staff, including Roger Tory Peterson, trekked to the site to bid farewell to the last living ivory-bills on this continent, just before the trees they had made their home came crashing down. The political and scientific battles Audubon has since waged for the last California condors and the northern spotted owl—both at risk of sharing the ivory-bill's fate—attest to its unyielding resolve to avert the extinction of another bird in this country.

Today so much attention is focused on the Yosemites and Yellowstones of America that we sometimes lose sight of vital habitat, like the Singer Tract, that is held in private hands. Ranches and farms cover more than a billion acres, or about half of the total U.S. landmass. If all the lawns in the nation were combined, they would carpet an estimated 21 million acres—an area larger than New England. Growing acknowledgment of the importance of this land—and of the decisions made by the people who own it—has spurred a new program called Audubon At Home. Its aim is to help individuals live their everyday lives in ways that are more sustainable for the earth. As Audubon readers know well, growing native plants and putting up backyard feeders can provide an invaluable food source to birds. Readers also know better than to contribute to the 80 million pounds of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides that U.S. homeowners dump on their homes, lawns, and gardens every year. After all, pesticides don't kill just the insects birds eat; they kill the birds themselves—up to 7 million annually.

There's no doubt the "green" lifestyle so many Americans now strive for will improve the health of our land, water, and air. We are already well on our way. Who would have predicted 15 years ago that recycling in this country would be as ingrained a civic duty as returning library books? Since Vice-President Cheney sneered at conservation as a "sign of personal virtue" in 2001, Californians have responded to their state's energy crisis by cutting consumption 10 percent or more each year, despite a soaring population. In another promising sign, some industry experts estimate that by 2007 the organic industry will almost quadruple, to $30.7 billion, revolutionizing agriculture as we know it today.

Audubon has always believed firmly in widening its influence to reach children, the next generation of conservationists. In its first few decades the organization enrolled millions of children in Junior Audubon clubs, which offered them buttons and leaflets and grammar school lessons as part of a national campaign to protect birds. Countless adults ascribe their love of nature to this early exposure. "The Audubon Association has long held that many problems of wildlife conservation ultimately will be solved in schoolrooms of the land rather than in legislative halls," Audubon president T. Gilbert Pearson wrote in a 1932 Bird-Lore, the precursor to Audubon. "Protective laws are necessary and important, but unless they are observed, they become valueless and ineffective."

Since 1924 Audubon centers and sanctuaries have further kindled interest in the outdoors, particularly among the nation's youth. Each year more than a million people flock to these oases in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods. A half-mile from my home in Brooklyn, my five-year-old daughter, my wife, and I often spend weekend afternoons at the Prospect Park Audubon Center. (We spent my daughter's most recent birthday there, too, accompanied by two dozen friends and family.) We sit in a giant oriole's nest watching a video on bird behavior and gaze through a cardinal's outsized head at film footage that offers a bird's-eye view of the world. In the lake just outside the center's doors, we ride a guided boat with an electric motor as it silently plies the water, with green herons and great egrets sailing above us. We revel in nature a world away from Brooklyn while still smack in it.

One of the striking features of this center—and, very soon, others—is the volunteer staff: high-school-age kids who mirror the incredible diversity of the surrounding neighborhoods, home to more than 100 racial and ethnic groups. The aging, largely white conservation movement (me included) will need to pull precisely these people into its fold in order to grow in scale and strength. By 2050, according to the 2000 census reports, whites will barely constitute a majority in this country—for the first time in our history. "California is already America 50 years from now," points out Bob Perciasepe, Audubon's chief operating officer. Latinos are the largest group in California today (though still not a majority), as reflected in the neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, where Audubon's new, sustainably built Debs Park center is helping thousands of local residents rediscover the nature in their midst. And because Debs Park is in the backyard of U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra, of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, center director Elsa Lopez has the juice to pick up the phone and call him anytime to talk about a vote.

Such presence in local communities enhances Audubon's clout when threats arise. In a lawsuit filed in federal court this year, Audubon North Carolina and other groups blocked the U.S. Navy from building a jet landing field that would have put massive flocks of tundra swans, snow geese, and other birds, which winter in this globally recognized Important Bird Area, at risk of jet collisions. Lena Gallitano, a chapter leader from Wake Audubon and a tireless grassroots campaigner, mobilized opposition through a combination of postcard campaigns, e-mail alerts, and personal appearances before county commissioners. "When there's been a need to do something, we build as much support as we can," Gallitano says. "I've seen hundreds of swans there at a time, and about 80 percent of the snow geese's eastern population go there in the winter."

For a generation, Audubon and other environmental groups spent long days in court to stop Nebraska's Platte River from being siphoned off for power, irrigation, and drinking water. Eighty percent of the world's sandhill cranes depend on the natural flow of the Platte, where they converge in spectacular fashion every year en route to their northern breeding grounds. The lawsuits proved largely effective, and today the Platte is a mecca of nature tourism. Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary and Iain Nicolson Audubon Center draw bird lovers from around the world. Now that the legal merry-go-round has stopped, farmers and conservationists—once pitted against one another—share cups of coffee as they work cooperatively to refine water-conservation measures, including an irrigation system that concentrates and directs water more efficiently. "You still need a hammer when things go really bad," Flicker says. "It's just that if you think of yourself only as being a hammer, then all of a sudden everything starts looking like a nail."

From day one, the path from education to political action has followed the magazine, which predates Audubon, the organization, by five years. "It had been the voice of the crusade that turned the tide against the slaughter of the egrets and other plume birds," wrote Frank Graham Jr. in The Audubon Ark, his seminal history of the organization, "and it spoke up powerfully about dozens of other issues." Cutting-edge photography and illustration, combined with the writing of such luminaries as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, have made Audubon the environmental magazine of record. It was the only major publication to blazon the ivory-bill's plight in the 1930s and to sound the alarm about DDT's hazards to wildlife during World War II (when the pesticide was widely regarded as a godsend). In recent years Audubon has broken ground by publishing the first consumer's guide to sustainable seafood, as well as articles on the truly damaging effect of feral cats and cell phone towers on bird populations.

The shrinking space for environmental stories in the profit-driven, mainstream media reaffirms the absolute necessity of magazines like Audubon. Besides raising awareness about serious topics that might otherwise be ignored by the press, the magazine serves as an instrument of change. Its influential audience ranks above those of all other magazines, as measured by such standards as working for political candidates or visiting elected officials.

Time and again Audubon readers feel compelled to do more than merely turn the pages. In May the magazine ran a feature about the elusive yellow-billed loon, whose plangent cry defines the wild spirit of the western Arctic, and about the Bush administration's alarming plans to allow drilling across the loon's breeding range. In response to the article's What You Can Do box, 250 readers fired off letters (which they took the time to handwrite or type) to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, expressing their displeasure with the plan. Although Norton shows no signs of budging, she cannot alter the historical record of the public's opinion that these letters leave.


This centennial issue will have been shipped before Election Day and will arrive in many homes after it. Without knowing the electoral outcome, it's impossible to determine just how many more 800-year-old trees in Alaska's Tongass forest will be reduced to lumber, or how many more pronghorn antelope will perish on the Rocky Mountain Front because of drilling in their habitat. It remains to be seen whether the bipartisan system of environmental oversight dating back to the Nixon administration will continue to serve the common good, or if it will be sacrificed by the current administration and its congressional allies on the altar of short-term expedience, for the industries whose largesse was key to putting them in power.

But if conservation were truly a lost cause, state governments would not be rushing to fill the policy vacuum left by Washington. Audubon California and Audubon New York have been working closely with state lawmakers on bills to preserve wetlands at a time when their loss would increase water pollution and flooding, and decrease habitat for endangered and game animals. California has passed "global warming" legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from new cars. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to support impending regulations requiring automakers to slash emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by as much as much 30 percent over the next 10 years. California's air-quality rules have set a precedent for northeastern states, which until now have been kept occupied suing the federal government to enforce national clean air regulations. These states are now devising their own rules: New York Governor George Pataki, with Audubon New York's strong backing, is leading 10 northeastern states in the development of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which would place a cap on power plant pollutants.

What spurred Congress to first pass landmark environmental acts by huge majorities was a need to rein in just this sort of chaos. After all, dirty air and water do not follow lines on a map. With uniform national standards, businesses will also operate more efficiently. "What a company doesn't want is to retool their facilities to meet one set of specific laws in one place and a different set in another place," says Audubon board chair Carol Browner, speaking from eight years' experience as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sure enough, just days after Browner expressed these views, Ford chairman and chief executive William Ford bristled about California's air rules in The New York Times: "What will happen, of course, is that California will do its thing, and then New England will start to weigh in, [then] New York State, and pretty soon we'll end up with a patchwork. I really would like to have a national approach to this, because otherwise we and other manufacturers will have a really hard time responding." The question, then, is not whether Washington will be forced to take a national approach on clean air and other issues but how soon.

In this age of globalization, the quilt of environmental policy is becoming a whole lot crazier, particularly as other nations begin to confront the world's most pressing problem: climate change. Audubon's role in international conservation stretches back to its founding year, when it convinced the Bahamas to pass laws to protect the American flamingo. Today Audubon flourishes in 15 Latin American countries, where it is a partner in a schoolyard ecology program that teaches children to understand and study the nature outside their classroom doors. Perciasepe envisions an even grander strategy. "Getting the Chinese and other Asians, and Africans and South Americans to grow in their sense of conservation is critical," he says. "The world is going to be a smaller place 100 years from now. People will have to work together."

While in this election year it's true that the environment lags behind war and the economy as an immediate concern, these polls tell only part of the story. In April one poll, conducted jointly by Democratic and Republican firms for The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, concluded that in the 17 battleground states in the 2004 election, 77 percent of voters said conservation issues would be "very" or "somewhat" important in determining their choice of candidates. These findings are consistent with polls indicating that two-thirds of Americans wholeheartedly support environmental progress. What's more, this constituency appears to be growing. The bipartisan poll also revealed that 77 percent of Latino voters, the nation's fastest-growing group, are willing to support new measures to fund conservation. In California, exit polling for Proposition 50—a clean drinking water and coast protection bond measure passed in 2002—found Latinos were more supportive of the measure than any other voting bloc.

There is, of course, the formidable possibility that the current political climate may worsen before it improves. "[But] remember, there have been no changes to the major environmental laws," Perciasepe says. "There have been proposals. There have been votes. There is simply not a majority in Congress or the desire to take the political heat back home."

Conservationists can also take heart in the broad consensus for preserving our nation's natural heritage that has endured since Theodore Roosevelt's progressive presidency. "There's a passion about protecting the beautiful places we all share—the rivers, lakes, shorelines, wetlands, and estuaries," Browner says. "It's sort of Mom and apple pie, the essence of who we are. That's the reason we have a national park system." And it's also the reason we have some of the world's most admired laws safeguarding endangered birds and wildlife and ensuring clean air and water.

Not long ago fifth graders from Kearney, Nebraska, took a field trip to Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary to explore the Platte River. For many of them it was their first trip to the river, though they live only a few miles away. Like the rest of the class, Heidi Caufield wrote a poem about what she saw, felt, and heard:

Springs of water cool against my feet
Sand between my toes.
Scents tickling my nose.
Listening, listening . . .
A twig breaks, a leaf falls, a river calls.

One hundred years ago, in her great-grandparents' time, Heidi's kindred spirits heard the urgent call and delivered snowy egrets from the clutches of plume hunters. A century from now, in her great- grandchildren's time, more people will no doubt follow Heidi's newfound passion to heed the wild's cry. They will respond in wonderful ways we can only imagine, and the earth will be better for it.


© 2004 National Audubon Society

Sound off! Send a letter to the editor
about this piece.

Enjoy Audubon on-line? Check out our print edition!