Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Audubon's Sound "Lifeline"

Terry Backer, the Long Island Soundkeeper, once said that the cleanup of Long Island Sound was too important to leave to the government. “If we allow the government to do this on their own, they’re going to bog down in the bureaucracy and take too long to do it.”

I think what he meant was that the people need to act as a watchdog and a prod. But who are “the people”? Long Island Sound has suffered from not having a strong, coherent constituency. Fifteen years ago, New York Audubon and Save the Sound provided a great public service when they organized the Long Island Sound Watershed Alliance and held a bunch of “Listen to the Sound” public meetings, at which dozens of people stood up and proclaimed that the time for action had come.

How effective the watershed alliance has been since then is an open question. Save the Sound barely saved itself from going under last September, but it had to merge with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment to do it. Although I like and admire Terry Backer and Dave Miller, at Audubon New York, by now they are both insiders, part of the establishment, rather than grassroots activists; and although they’ve been effective legislators (Terry’s in the Connecticut House) and lobbyists (Dave has important access both in Albany and Washington), I can’t honestly say whether they’ve been effective in helping keep the Sound’s grassroots constituency alive. They might disagree, but the point is that no person or organization can do everything; doing one thing well is probably as much as we should expect.

Which brings me to Audubon and its new Long Island Sound program, which it is calling “Lifeline to an Estuary in Distress.” Carolyn Hughes, who used to be the director of EPA’s Long Island Sound office and is now deputy director of Audubon Connecticut, sent me a copy of the campaign’s new brochure/case statement. Here’s an excerpt:

Audubon’s campaign addresses the fundamental challenges of water quality restoration and habitat protection – two key areas where improvements will result in the most significant benefits to people, birds, marine organisms and other wildlife. Audubon will focus on eliminating hypoxia and protecting open space…

It goes on to say, among many other things, that the two chapters – Audubon Connecticut and Audubon New York – will be working with National Audubon Audubon to set science-based priorities for restoration and stewardship.

And it says that Audubon New York has hired a new staff person to work with grassroots activists, and that Audubon Connecticut will soon do the same.

Back in 1990, at the first LISWA Citizens Summit, Connecticut DEP Commissioner Leslie Carrothers said, “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having private organizations for coalitions to advance their interests on the Sound.”

The Sound cleanup needs Audubon – or somebody – to succeed at doing just that.

(A few footnotes:

The case statement says that Audubon is seeking to raise $350,000 per year over three years, although there’s no indication what the money would be used for specifically. It’s worth noting that Charity Navigator, a website that evaluates how efficient non-profits are in spending the money they raise, gave National Audubon a two-star rating out of a maximum of four stars, and that its president, John Flicker, makes $286,000 a year. I could not find separate ratings for the New York and Connecticut chapters. People should check it out and of course make their own decisions.

Disclosure: Carolyn Hughes recruited me to give a talk at a recent Audubon get-together in Greenwich, and I asked for and received a modest honorarium in the low three figures. In the newspaper business it would have been an unacceptable conflict of interest to take money from someone you’re writing about. Readers can decide for themselves if it constitutes a conflict for me now.

The three Audubon organizations that I mention here are separate from the Connecticut Audubon Society, which operates the Connecticut Coastal Center, on the Sound in Milford, and the Birdcraft Museum, in Fairfield. My understanding is that there’s little love lost between the three national organizations and the independent Connecticut Audubon Society. As far as I can tell, though, they’re all doing a good job.)


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