Worrisome Trends in The National Audubon Society

by Jim Britell, Conservation Chair, Kalmiopsis Audubon Society

Sweeping changes in Chapter - national financial relationships may undermine the chapters. Audubon's membership is stagnating yet its assets are increasing as it turns from activism into a Nature Conservancy type real estate acquisition outfit. An elder in the conservation movement warns that the conscience and the heart of the environmental movement has been hijacked by corporate interests. Posted to an Audubon list 07/00.

Background: Elders in the conservation movement have been warning us that the conscience and the heart of the environmental movement has been hijacked by corporate interests. Now, recent proposed sweeping changes in Chapter - national financial relationships and a new policy of creating a thousand new centrally controlled and staffed offices and centers may undermine and displace the 500 volunteer-based chapters. Audubon's membership is stagnating yet its assets are increasing as it turns from activism into a Nature Conservancy type real estate acquisition outfit. (An exchange from an Audubon email list.)

Patricia said:

"I have decided to stop agonizing about the dues share. I believe that changes to the magazine and "branding" and a new emphasis on centers, education and state offices will be more significant in the long run than this issue of dues share."

I agree with this sentiment.

NAS's current membership strategy is to subsidize new memberships and this has the effect of inflating the totals on the membership rolls and concealing the fact that NAS is shrinking - as its assets are dramatically increasing. (total contributions to NAS were up from 22 million to 35 million in the last reporting year 1998).

We have many thousands of members with little or no financial investment in their membership who only will stay on till they have to pay. "New members" put on the rolls by cooking the books with free and below cost memberships, will never be in the black. In any case, with the proposed complicated formulas needed to compute the chapter's share of membership dues they would need to hire an accountant to keep it straight. But a reduced dues share for chapters does not seem to be the worst problem in Audubon's new Plans.

The real problem is that State offices will need to engage in massive and continuous fund raising into the indefinite future to support themselves and to raise the vast sums to build 1000 new nature centers all over the country. Current volunteer-based chapters won't be able to exist viably in the same localities, side by side, with professionally run fund raising "centers".

Worse, the same Audubon state folks who are fund raising in a geographic area, will be unlikely to take on the bad guys in the same geographic area over environmental issues. And I don't think they will want local activist chapters to take them on either?

We already saw this in California in the past where that "successful" state office always seemed a tad reluctant to get much involved with tough issues or controversy or to alienate people they were raising from or could possibly raise money from. Big corporate donors have an unfortunate tendency to also often be involved with condo developments in wetlands, industrial recreation and the disneyfication of nature etc.

What is looming is a massive real estate acquisition process whose result will be a property and real estate driven organization totally obsessed with fund raising and as unwilling to take on big money interests and their "friends" as the TNC is today.

Now if you think TNC is a model for conflict-free environmental solutions, then NAS's plan is prudent even shrewd; if on the other hand you believe, as many working activists do, that groups like TNC et. al, often behave as little more than shills for extractive interests, then you would view this plan differently.

Now I have read on this list many references to how we are all the big happy Audubon family with just a lot of colorful healthy diversity.


The people in the Audubon family I belong to are passionate about the environment and willingly take on anyone who wants to destroy it. They don't get in bed with the big ten accounting firms, TNC, and the kinds of people that advertise in the Audubon magazine, nor go around "branding" themselves. And they don't care about money because they work for free, as volunteers. Real families don't have some members working for free or donating their money to the family and sacrificing and others who get paid for every single thing they do. Mixed paid professional/volunteer organizations have an intrinsic problem that only the most enlightened management can overcome. A paid professional organization usually has a pecking order and hierarchy strictly based on pay and on rank and title. In such a system the lowest paid intern in the mail room will always outrank and have more status than the best unpaid volunteer. I mean if you rank people on their pay, where does an unpaid person fall?

Below is a speech given recently by one of the older generation of distinguished folks, Michael Frome At the Northwest Wilderness Conference, who helped create Wilderness activism in the US. His view is as a very old timer and part of the generation that created the environmental movement we are heirs to.

His view about Audubon is the same as some of the Audubon activists I know, it is the same as mine and he comes up independently with the same solution I have arrived at. The big problem he sees for the future is industrial recreation because its architects are a who's who of the same American corporations you go to fund real estate projects. His priority list of environmental issues (which I agree with completely) is probably a perfect inverse of NAS's.

Basically Frome is saying that the conscience and the heart of the environmental movement has been hijacked by corporate interests and that this began with Audubon and others in 1985 when we began to change from volunteer to a corporate driven organization. He also says that the torch is being passed from his generation to a new generation over the heads of the current leaders of national organizations - in a sort of generation skipping way.

Since His views and those of David Brower and the most active Audubon activists and those of the younger activists in the Julia Butterfly cohort are so similar in their substance, I hope that the readers on this list will read them carefully.

Anyway I assume that dues share is an item thrown in to draw folks away from the real issues and in the end NAS will rescind it or even increase the dues share. In the resulting warm glow of "Hurrah look how nice our one big family works together" they can proceed with the basic plan which I believe is to turn Audubon into a money machine and rid itself of nuisance activists.

In America, the tough guys always get the ground.

Frome's Speech follows

Dr. Michael Frome is a distinguished historian from Bellingham, Washington. He has studied and written on the history of the national parks for decades.

Remarks of Michael Frome At Northwest Wilderness Conference Seattle, April 1, 2000

"In 1956 Representative John P. Saylor of Pennsylvania introduced the Wilderness Bill in the House of Representatives. For eight years Saylor led the uphill legislative battle and never gave up. In 1961, when the going was tough, he declared: "I cannot believe the American people have become so crass, so dollar-minded, so exploitation-conscious that they must develop every last little bit of wilderness that still exists."

"John Saylor was by any measure a wilderness hero. Personally, I have never thought of myself as particularly heroic in the wilderness movement, despite the flattering title of the program here, 'An Evening With Conservation Greats.' The best I can say for myself is that I was on the scene during a critical and exciting period, and that I was privileged to know the principals like Saylor and to write with caring about their activities and the issues.

"Harvey Broome, one of the founders of the Wilderness Society and president of the society when the Wilderness Act became law, was a special hero and friend of mine. Shortly after he died in 1968, Representative Saylor paid tribute to Harvey on the House floor with these words: 'We must resolve never to falter, as he never faltered, and to take inspiration from his life to fight all the harder for the future of the wilderness. His spirit knows no boundaries and will be with us in the years ahead.'

"I think that's what it's all about and why we're here today. Those people of forty and fifty years ago were missionaries and visionaries, giving broad shoulders to stand on. Howard Zahniser, who drafted the Wilderness Bill, created reality out of a dream. I remember many beautiful people like Zahnie, Harvey Broome and John Saylor, who supported the cause. For example, the National Audubon Society was headed by Carl Bucheister and Charles Callision, who were motivated by principle and high purpose, and when he retired Callison established the Public Lands Institute with his own money and energy to defend the integrity of the people's landed estate. Oh Charlie, where are you when we need you?

"But something has happened between then and now. In 1985 the National Audubon Society, Sierra Club and Wilderness Society all were shopping for new executive directors. Those organizations were at mid-life, facing marked transformation from volunteer efforts to business enterprise. They didn't look to grassroots wilderness campaigners for their new executives. No, all three engaged professional search companies, specifying that they were looking for leaders strong in fund raising, finance and budget; they wanted management specialists - and were willing to pay high prices for them.

"These and other national environmental organizations, I fear, have grown away from the grassroots to mirror the foxes they had been chasing. They seem to me to have turned tame, corporate and compromising, into raging moderates replacing activism with pragmatic politics, and a willingness to settle for paper victories.

"It grieves me deeply to read a statement by a Wilderness Society representative calling the new management plan for Yosemite National Park 'an elegant balance between park protection and visitor use and enjoyment.' It sickens me when this plan clearly would turn Yosemite Valley into a pricey crowded commercial resort benefiting above all the park concessionaire, the multinational Delaware North, better known for its facilities at race tracks and baseball parks.

"Likewise, it distresses me to learn that national environmental organizations have endorsed the proposed giveaway of 272 acres of the Kaibab National Forest at the gateway to Grand Canyon National Park for construction of 1270 hotel rooms and 270,000 square feet of retail mall shopping, the equivalent of four large department stores.

"Our public agencies, the Forest Service and National Park Service, have lost their way. They want to think of themselves as 'marketers' of mass recreation as a commodity, building 'partnerships' with commercial interests, the bigger the better, and treating the public as 'customers.' Environmentalists need to bring the agencies back on track as resource stewards in committed public service.

"Providing sanctuary for America's wildlife heritage should be the single most important role of the national parks and wilderness of the national forests at a time when diversity on the planet is so thoroughly endangered. The National Park Service and Forest Service should be apostles and advocates for mountain lions, wolves, grizzly bears and buffalo. Wild animals make a park a park, but wildlife has been crowded out of its habitat in every park without exception. Animals are not protected from snowmobiles, sightseeing airplanes, helicopters, tour buses, cars, concessionaires, hikers, bikers and park administrators.

"For this reason I support wholeheartedly the National Day of Action on June 10, initiated by Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness and cooperating grassroots organizations to insure that the voice of industrial recreation is not the only message heard by Congress and the media about the misguided, misleading and misanthropic Recreation Fee Demonstration Program. Stewardship of public lands -- especially wilderness -- often requires limitation of use, but Fee Demonstration provides a powerful incentive for managers to avoid anything that will limit use -- the more use they can generate the greater their budgets. Money is not the simple answer, but Congress must provide the funding to do the necessary administration to maintain these national treasures for future generations. It should not order administrators to merchandise the resource in order to pay their salaries. That is the message to get across on June 10.

"It will be a great day. I hope somehow that Butterfly Hill will be with us - that beautiful butterfly who lived on a platform six feet by eight feet in size from December 10, 1997 until December 18,1999 high up in her beloved thousand-year-old tree in northern California. It was her island of hope in a sea of desolation. And when Butterfly climbed down, after 738 days, she said, 'You can't protect animals without protecting their home, which is also our home.'

"Butterfly had a sign high in the tree that read RESPECT YOUR ELDERS, which leads me to tell her, on behalf of the heroes of the wilderness movement who are gone, Your elders respect you. John P. Saylor in 1968 said that he was proud to consider himself a fellow to Bob Marshall, Olaus Murie, Howard Zahniser, and Harvey Broome: 'They were all great leaders,' he said, 'for the saving of wilderness for our time, for all time. They have passed on, but their legacy falls to new leaders, as their spirit lives on.' Yes, their spirit lives on and the legacy is yours."

©2000 Jim Britell
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