The National Audubon Society brought its biennial convention to my city — Milwaukee, Wisconsin — in late July, and I was thrilled to be among the 570-plus participants. The event is not so much a meeting of the general Audubon membership but rather a gathering of national staff members, leaders of Audubon’s state and local chapters and sanctuaries across the country, affiliated conservation groups, staff from Audubon’s BirdLife International partner groups throughout the Western Hemisphere, and other organizations that share Audubon’s vision. The convention was part pep rally, part information sharing, and part social gathering with friends old and new.
Here are my top 10 takeaways from the weekend:
10: Milwaukee is a conservation leader
Brew City is more than beer and bratwurst. It’s also the home of the Urban Ecology Center, an innovative nonprofit with facilities in three neighborhoods that work to connect residents to nature. I have taken part in its Green Birding Challenge over the years, and when my kids were younger, they enjoyed outings to the center. I joined about 20-some convention attendees for a discussion about the center’s work and a tour of Three Bridges Park, a 24-acre oasis on the Menomonee River that is home to many native plants, animals, and birds.
The Milwaukee area is also home to Bird City Wisconsin, the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, and a county park system that just received Important Bird Area status. It’s no wonder why Audubon chose to host the event here.
9: Defending America’s bird law
David Yarnold, Audubon’s president and CEO, addressed the convention during an hour-long keynote (available to watch on Facebook). He recalled one of the founding issues of Audubon — the protection of birds from the widespread killing of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that ultimately led to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. “That law was working really well,” he said. “Industry was collaborating with conservationists. There had only been a couple of fines — Exxon Valdez and the BP oil spill and some smaller fines. It persuaded industry to behave responsibly, which they want to do anyway.”
But in late 2017, the Trump administration mounted a “sneak attack” on the law. Yarnold summarized the weakening of the law: “that if you accidentally kill a bird you didn’t mean to, no problem. And that’s bullshit,” he said to strong applause. Audubon and other conservation groups are currently suing the Department of the Interior to overturn the 2017 change. “And if need be, we will help craft legislation to replace the MBTA if that is necessary,” he added.
8: An updated climate-change report
Yarnold also noted that in October, Audubon will release an update to its 2014 report about birds and climate change, which found that climate change threatens nearly half the bird species in the continental United States and Canada. He said the new report will “drill down” with maps that can assist conservation planning decisions, incorporating scenarios with intense wildfires and sea-level rise.
7: New centers in Pennsylvania
In the last few months, Audubon Pennsylvania has opened two multi-million dollar facilities: the $18 million Discovery Center in East Fairmount Park, in Philadelphia, and the $17.5 million John James Audubon Center in Montgomery County. Audubon celebrated the accomplishment by awarding its Charles H. Callison Staff Award to Jean Bochnowski, Audubon Pennsylvania’s deputy director for centers and operations. Bochnowski led the development and completion of the two centers.
“Regardless of the challenges, Jean was always there demonstrating how to creatively figure it out and move forward. We couldn’t have a better mentor,” says Audubon PA’s Carrie Barron. And of Jean’s work on the John James Audubon Center, David Yarnold recently told Bochnowski: “All along, you knew what you wanted this to look like and you insisted on the execution of your vision. Well done on all accounts: artistic, managerial, projection of the brand. It’s a tour de force.”