Audubon Society thinks big to save birds

Few people fighting the traffic along the Tamiami Trail, a stretch of U.S. 41 running across South Florida from Miami to Naples, appreciate the reasons for the slow-moving line of cars and trucks.
Some people might tell you that the delays are because a bridge is being built to help increase water flow in the Everglades, from the north to Florida Bay in the south. There are even some who say they believe that an increased flow of water will lead to increased flooding.
Julie Hill-Gabriel, director of Everglades Policy for the South Florida chapter of the Audubon Society, is not much concerned with the traffic and she does not think more flooding is the main issue.
She knows the bridge is a step in restoring the flow of water that was interrupted when the Tamiami Trail was built decades ago. It is a project that she and many members of the Audubon organization long had fought for. The first phase of construction is going to create a one-mile-long bridge. But there is some hope that the bridge will eventually be at least 5.5 miles long. Some people say the bridge should be 11 miles long.
“Restoring the Everglades has a number of purposes, but one of the measures of success is when the abundance of bird life returns,” said Hill-Gabriel.
Today, the Florida Audubon Society has expanded its goals in wildlife preservation to include projects such as Everglades restoration. While still working to protect birds, the Florida Audubon has also committed to the restoration and conservation of natural ecosystems.
The Everglades ecosystem was not well understood at the time the Tamiami Trail was built across the Florida Peninsula in 1928.
The road, as useful as it has been to millions of people driving across the state from one coast to the other, functioned as a dam that blocked the southward flow of water through the Everglades. Engineers put in concrete culverts that were intended to take the water under the Tamiami Trail and on southward. But the culverts were nothing like the great open expanse that was there before the road went in. And sometimes the culverts, which were only a few feet in diameter, got jammed with bushes and tree branches and other debris.
Some of Florida Audubon’s latest focal points, besides bird conservation, are education about coastal resources, encouraging people to care about national parks, and work on the Everglades. None of these can be done without money, Audubon says.
Margaret Spontak, development director for Audubon of Florida, said her office’s job was to “create and implement annual development plans and strategy.”
Audubon raises money with special events, site tours, direct and through online newsletters. Spontak said that the primary focus of fundraising was on getting private grants and support from foundations. Her office helps the organization go after government grants.
. With the money it raises, Tropical Audubon, as the Miami chapter is called, is able to conduct its own research. It works together with scientists and policymakers to develop projects to restore and maintain parts of the environment of South Florida and preserve its wildlife.
Hill-Gabriel and Jane Graham, Everglades policy associate, are both lawyers. They use their legal backgrounds to create policies with the help of the scientific team. Hill-Gabriel lobbies in Washington, D.C. She said the Everglades restoration project has served as a model for other restoration projects around the country.
Jonathan Webber, conservation campaign manager for the Audubon, said that Florida’s is the second largest of the 44 state Audubon chapters.
Webber, who comes from a political background, brings his grass roots movement expertise to Audubon through several projects. In one project, Florida Special Places, Audubon asks people to submit a picture, story, video or all of these about their favorite public parks. The objective is to draw attention to the parks.
The Audubon Society was started in 1886 by George Bird Grinnell, an editor for the natural history magazine Forest and Stream. Growing up, Grinnell had had a great interest in studying birds. As a boy he attended school at the Audubon Park where Lucy Audubon, wife of John James Audubon, tutored him.
John James Audubon was a well-known naturalist and painter. His book The Birds of America was a collection of more than 400 life-size portraits of birds. It inspired Grinnell to start an organization for the protection and preservation of birds and he named it for Audubon. Within its first year, the Audubon Society had more than 30,000 members.
The organization’s small staff was overwhelmed and in three years the Audubon collapses. But in 1896, Harriet Hemenway, a Boston socialite, created the Massachusetts Audubon Society. She was troubled by the slaughter of birds for their plumage in the Everglades and elsewhere, mainly to get feathers for ladies’ hats. Soon there were more than 15 Audubon societies.
In 1905, the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals was formed. Its goal was to protect birds from hunters who wanted feathers and meat.
With the support of Hemenway and President Theodore Roosevelt, many states prohibited the sale of the feathers of their official state birds.
In Florida, Roosevelt designated Pelican Island, east of Sebastian, on the Atlantic coast, as the first federal bird reservation.
The Audubon Society suffered step setbacks. Many of its wardens, hired to enforce the law at conservation sites, had to be let go for lack of funding. Some sites were ransacked and burned by hunters.
Yet the National Audubon Society pressed on and won legislation to protect wildlife.
One of Audubon’s biggest projects in Florida has been the restoration of the Kissimmee River in the central part of the state, north of Lake Okeechobee. The meandering waterway had been straightened by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s to reduce the chances of flooding of farms and ranches and the edges of coastal cities.
The canal that the Army built drained 31,000 acres of wetland. Most of the wetland wildlife died off or went elsewhere. Audubon says it expects the restoration of the Kissimmee River to help bring back the bald eagle and other birds that originally lived along the river. The work on the river is also expected to improve water quality in the Everglades. So far three sections of the river stretching over 24 miles have been restored.
“The biggest challenge,” for the work Audubon is doing, said Webber “is just a matter of time and effort.”
“You can’t fake it,” he said. “You have to get out there, get into the community and talk to people.” #

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