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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/Corbis

White House
Bush Is for the Birds

One day last October, Audubon’s editor-in-chief received a phone call that nearly knocked him off his chair. The White House Office of Media Affairs wanted to know if the magazine would like to cover an event in three days at which President George W. Bush would announce major bird initiatives.

No one at Audubon could recall any White House ever contacting the magazine, let alone one that had been harshly criticized over the past seven years in these pages for, among other things, depriving the National Park Service of adequate funding, censoring global warming reports, and adding the fewest number of species to the endangered-species list of any presidency since the law was enacted 35 years ago. But the National Audubon policy staff had recently held discussions with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne about Audubon’s report on “Common Birds in Decline” (“Wakeup Call,” July-August 2007).

Three days after the White House called, early on Saturday morning, I found myself at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland, as one of three working journalists outside the regular White House press pool. First Lady Laura Bush and President Bush, dressed in khakis and a windbreaker, stepped out of a black Chevy Suburban. The President then shook my hand and the talon of a research screech-owl, which he called a “cute little fella.” (His father, George H. Bush, will be forever remembered for referring to another owl, the northern spotted, as “that little furry-feathery guy.”)

At the podium the President announced a grab bag of policies to benefit birds, including the restoration of 200,000 more acres of wildlife preserves by 2009; the preservation of five migratory habitats in Mexico; the creation, by the end of his term, of a State of the Birds Report to catalog bird data (potentially done with the help of Audubon and other bird conservation groups); and recovery credit trading, a promising new program in which groups would pay private landowners to maintain bird habitat by offsetting destruction from building or development. “[These policies] show our commitment to protecting America’s migratory birds, conserving habitat they depend on, and ensuring that generations of Americans will enjoy the beauty of birds for decades to come,” Bush declared.

Why the new interest now, in the twilight of his term? Perhaps it stems from Laura Bush, the President’s own “birdwatcher extraordinaire,” as he describes her. She went to Fort Hood last year to see a prototype of the recovery credit-trading program to aid golden-cheeked warblers and vireos. “I’m guessing that her visit somehow elevated attention to this effort in the White House,” says Michael Bean, chair of the wildlife program at Environmental Defense, which developed the model with several other groups.

Nor would it hurt the President’s party to burnish its environmental image in an election year. Regardless of his motives, if he ends up carrying through with his promises and putting birds on the political map, it may well be good news for all sorts of cute fellas.—Susan Cosier

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