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Is Massachusetts Audubon a Good Model for NAS?

by Jim Britell, Conservation Chair, Kalmiopsis Audubon Society

Summary:  NAS wants to use Massachusetts Audubon's refuge network as a model to help it expand membership, but has drawn erroneous conclusions from the Mass. experience. Massachusetts Audubon would serve as a great model for us. If we did what they do, we might grow to their relative size too. But it is how they provide hands on advice on land use issues in their centers not their centers mere existence that has created Mass Audubon's explosive growth. People need hands-on help with local land use issues, like zoning and sprawl. If NAS fills that niche for the country the way Mass Audubon does for their state, we can have the same relative proportion of members to population they do. Posted to an Audubon list 04/00.


I agree completely with NAS that Mass Audubon might serve as a great model for us. If we did what they do we would grow to their relative size too. However NAS is looking at the wrong things to emulate.

A few years ago Mass Audubon undertook a major campaign against sprawl and began to advocate for better local land use. Today, they are ready willing and able to help their members with technical support to fight local zoning and development problems and have a number of experts on staff and prepared materials to handle many hundred inquiries a year from their members about how to stop development in their neighborhoods. It is this function and NOT their centers that added several tens of thousand of members to their rolls in recent years till they now are at 68,000 members (1% + of the population of Massachusetts). After land use advocacy brings in the new members THEN they encourage them to use the centers but it is not probably the centers that have caused their growth - except that the enters also provide a place to do local land use.

As you know, KAS also does active land use advocacy and is constantly helping our members fight local developers too and we also have about 1% of our population as members. We spend half our budget on out of pocket expenses for this function. In the last 5 years we have filed briefs, testified or and made appeals on over 100 separate sprawl and development issues and this function brings in most of our new members. In the last 5 years KAS has stopped probably over 50 different projects, land conversions and rezonings and this is what our members want and the reason we have routinely a 40-50% response rate to our fund raisers and have two years operating funds on hand. Last week for example we won an appeal that stopped a new subdivision locally because of water and wetlands issues and in the process got several new members from the local neighbors who had looked to us to "save" their neighborhood - which we did. In the celebration afterwards I sort of suggested that they join our local chapter. In this case we filed briefs and gave testimony and they did too and they paid for a lawyer (which we recommended - his fees will be approx $4,000). So we actively entered the proceedings - the planning commission hearing, which we won; and then the subsequent appeal to County Commissioners (which we also won) with two activist organizations in opposition - KAS and a local group which we help form just for this particular land use issue, and of course many unaffiliated local citizens too. In the process KAS made a lot of new friends who had never been interested in KAS or activism or the environment before.

But this is not just a local oddment unique to our county. In the last election nationally there were several hundred local referendums on sprawl which passed and even Bush has in his way come out against sprawl. So this is a big hot button issue for most people and they simply have no place to turn for hands-on help with their local fights.

The only way to really grow a membership is to give people what they really need and these days it is technical help with local land use fights. Mass Audubon believes as we do that overdevelopment and sprawl is adversely affecting songbirds by removing habitat so this fits perfectly into theirs (and our) core mission.

If NAS took on land use as a major issue, (and I think we must), as Mass Audubon does and projected Mass Audubon's state workloads to a national workload for NAS, NAS would have to professionally handle perhaps 15,000 local land use inquiries a year across the country. A lot, yes, but the future of our organizational growth lies with this sort of very hands on local advocacy that people are thirsting for. So if you focus merely on Mass Audubon's centers and ignore their land use and anti-sprawl programs you will miss the main lesson that Mass Audubon can teach us.

Some Thoughts About "Centers" In General.

At least in the west, public visitors centers of all kinds from history to interpretive are suffering declining visitor days probably because there are fewer families with spare time with fewer kids too. Increasing maintenance costs are making it harder for all such facilities to break even. Also privatization and public service budget cuts are increasing the demand for volunteer hosts and docents everywhere as seemingly every state park, and historical, visitor, environmental center looks increasing to volunteers to fill vacant jobs created by budget cutbacks. At least in Oregon every volunteer driven organization is suffering from a shortage of volunteers.

We are entering the time of cocooning where people spend more time at home. As well, increasingly sophisticated entertainment is raising the threshold of what the public demands from educational or amusement experiences. And it is getting more expensive to prepare, and continually refresh and repair the exhibits and public displays that are the centerpieces of public nature facilities. (Have you tracked the cost of labor and materials for example to replace a burned out projection bulb in a professional quality slide projector. ) But a meeting to oppose a proposed development down the block will get folks (young people with families ) to turn out to a meeting which only costs few dollars to put together.

What people want is it is help with fighting developers and stopping sprawl and this is the most in your face contentious and controversial activism one can do. Because fighting sprawl is tough - fighting over forests and clear cutting is a walk around the block in comparison.

The way NAS is going it will just continue to only attract a declining base of white middle aged and older birders. And I think that when you run the numbers on the core membership and how long they have been members, you will see that our core membership is declining - not even staying the same. The in-and-out member churning masks a decline in our core membership.

Our Chapters will NEVER become extinct but NAS state offices and central office might. There is a great future out there meeting people's needs, but of course in able to do so we will have to take on the tough jobs that no one wants to do but which cry out for solution. I am frankly much concerned that the parlay of TNC and California state office thinking at the highest levels of NAS may well be the end of any growth for NAS except financial, and not a sound foundation for the kind of growth any real activist would wish to be associated with.

So given its present policies, yes, NAS will certainly grow financially - there is no end of $ for enviro groups that are willing to take moderate positions. But let's maintain our perspective. NAS's total yearly national budget is less than 3% of Pew assets. What Bill gates lost the other day- in just one day's stock fluctuations in the market, could fund NAS for 120 years. So corporations are just delighted to send us "walking around" money as long was we are don't cause anyone any trouble and behave like the TNC or WWF. But sooner or later the Defenders or some national group that sees the need to provide serious technical and organizing support for our chapters, and has a feel for chapter needs, will smarten up and peel off our chapters or even entire states. We are vulnerable to a takeover because NAS as it is now constituted is simply irrelevant to the needs of local chapters and is not providing what people want.

Organizations are either growing or dying. An honest look at membership renewals and demographics will make it clear that NAS nationally, is dying. But its chapters will have a very bright future - either under the NAS wing, or in some organization that takes an active interest in the issues being faced at the local level.

NAS's and its chapters problems have never been financial. There has always been and there will always be, sufficient money to do what needs to be done. But if one's goal is simply financial growth, and you have no real core purpose, then you will never have enough money.

©2000 Jim Britell
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