It's More than Just Birds

March 10, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- It used to be that the National Audubon Society was for the birds. That's not really true any more, and it's causing some serious problems, not least for the Society. It's also at the heart of a full-blown institutional identity crisis.

Bird-watchers created the Society, and made it America's first great conservation organization. Writing in 1985 in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of John James Audubon, the Society's president, Russell Peterson, noted that "so many bird-watchers, from Teddy Roosevelt to Rachel Carson, have spearheaded the environmental movement." And so they had.

A broad interest in environmental issues and admiration for the Society's then-spectacular magazine, Audubon, led me to become a member about 20 years ago. Thousands more joined for similar reasons. The Society seemed an intelligent, informed and sane conservation organization with a long record of concrete achievements.

The magazine especially was outstanding. Under its editor, Les Line, it published work by such distinguished writers as Loren Eiseley, Joseph Wood Krutch, Hal Borland and Edwin Way Teale. There was some fine reporting on controversial subjects by John Mitchell, Ted Williams (not the ballplayer), and others. The photographs -- including many by the versatile Line -- were consistently first-rate.

Audubon covered a variety of environmental issues, but birds were a top priority, and each issue contained a "Birdland" column by Frank Graham Jr. This mix of topics appeared to reflect the Society's interests. I liked it, and as time went on and I became more knowledgeable about birds, I liked it even more.

But institutions change. As the 1980s wore on and the Reagan administration persistently poked at the beehive of American environmentalism, green groups of all kinds grew both larger and more competitive with one another.

New members meant more money, and there was strong pressure to be all things to all activists. The Audubon Society, unfortunately, did not resist this pressure very well.

A new president, Peter A. A. Berle, replaced Mr. Peterson in late 1985. Mr. Berle's regular column in Audubon was, interminably, about government policy: oil policy, farm policy, biotechnology policy, population policy, timber policy, global-warming policy.

Birds were mentioned ever less frequently. By mid-1988, the "Birdland" column had been dropped.

That year, the caption of an Audubon photo of a Cooper's hawk stretching its tail feathers described the bird as stretching its wings. It was an understandable editorial slip, but it seemed symbolic. "Wings do not grow out from the bottom of a bird," a reader advised dryly in the next issue.

In 1991, Les Line retired. Mr. Berle wrote that "Les is leaving us, but his views about nature have served as a benchmark for the last quarter-century." He didn't add that the next quarter-century will be very different, but it seemed implicit.

The next editor promised to make the magazine better and more relevant. There followed a redesign, which left it looking just like dozens of other magazines, with less text, cuter graphics, more white space and not-quite-as-good photos. After a while I let my subscription expire.

Meanwhile, friction grew between local, ornithologically-oriented Audubon Society chapters and the national office. This was partly over focus, and partly over money. National was spending a lot, and thought the chapters should contribute a larger portion of their dues.

Many resisted. (This confrontation did not occur in Maryland, where the independent Maryland Ornithological Society is the dominant bird-watchers' organization.)

Also in the name of budget-balancing, the Society began to tighten the strings on American Birds, its hard-news journal for serious ornithologists. In one of his last "Birdland" columns for Audubon, Frank Graham Jr. had called American Birds "the one ornithological publication [we] simply cannot do without."

Eirik Blom of Bel Air, a columnist for Bird Watcher's Digest (not affiliated with the Audubon Society), this month reported yet another down-sizing of American Birds with the caustic note that "Audubon has gutted its only useful publication with no possible reward other than the ill-will of thousands of bird-watchers."

Meanwhile, within Audubon, another controversy roars on over whether or not the organization is too soft on hunting.

One faction believes the Society, if it is to grow and flourish, needs to make common cause with sporting groups. Another says if that happens it will prove that the Society has sold out to the National Rifle Association.

So the organizational blood flows and the red ink grows. Audubon flounders and American Birds fades. The Society undergoes self-analysis and tries on new costumes it hopes will suit the 1990s.

And the bird-watchers, on the sidelines, look on in bemused disappointment at the circus being conducted under John James Audubon's name.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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