Saturday, January 23, 2010

Changes at National Audubon

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: It’s not easy being the president of the National Audubon Society (NAS). This is a very large and very decentralized organization, with hundreds of local chapters that often act autonomously. Many of these chapters have been in existence for a very long time and have developed very strong personalities, so to speak, and in some cases there has been friction between the chapters and the national office for decades. Then there’s an identity problem: the media may think of Audubon as a birdwatching organization, but the birdwatchers think of it as an environmental organization. The truth is that it’s somewhere in between, an environmental org focused on birds, wildlife, and their habitat. The president of this group has to juggle all kinds of conflicting personalities, and at the same time, try to save the world.

I have worked for National Audubon (not as an employee, but continuously on contract) for 25 years now, first as associate editor of American Birds (which they published until the late 1990s) and more recently as a field editor for Audubon Magazine. For the last 15 years of that time, the president of Audubon has been a dynamic, hard-working individual named John Flicker. Despite being named for a bird, he’s not mainly a bird person. He was trained in law and he did impressive things with The Nature Conservancy before coming to NAS. But when the situation called for it, John would get out there in the field with the Audubon troops, pursuing bird sightings with zest and energy. He did everything with zest and energy, and he accomplished a lot in his time at Audubon.
Left: John Flicker. Right: Northern Flicker. Illustrations not to scale.

The news this week was that Flicker is stepping down as NAS president, going on to do different things. Already, some people are offering assessments of his term. John was a major believer in the value of Audubon Centers, and he pushed an initiative called a “2020 Vision” that aimed to open a thousand such centers by the year 2020. I don’t think the initiative is on track to hit that one thousand mark (after all, that would be about one per week for 20 years), but many Audubon Centers have opened and they are already having a fabulous positive influence -- for example, here in Ohio, the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, right in the heart of Columbus, is perfectly situated to reach a large urban audience and teach them about nature. Many other centers are also up and running. So even if the effort falls short of 1,000 by 2020, it would be totally wrong to call it a failure.

I’ve heard a few people comment that NAS lost members during John Flicker’s term. That’s true in a narrow sense, but the fact is that the majority of membership organizations and publications have declined in the last 15 years, as people have gotten more and more of the same benefits from joining online communities. I think it’s a credit to Flicker that Audubon is still as strong as it is.
National Audubon is launching a search for the next president. But in the meantime, big news for birders is that the interim head of NAS will be Dr. Frank Gill, Audubon’s senior scientist. Frank is a world-class ornithologist and a remarkable dynamo who has done so many things that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Like some of the very best ornithologists, he started off as a rabid kid birder, and he went on to do research that took him all over the world: studying sunbirds in Africa, white-eyes and seabirds on islands in the Indian Ocean, hermit hummingbirds in South America, as well as landmark studies of warblers and chickadees in North America. He headed up the bird department at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia for several years before going to Audubon as senior vice-president for science. While at the Academy, he started project VIREO (the world’s foremost scientific collection of bird photos) and launched the Birds of North America project (now online at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). He was responsible for the worldwide list of standardized bird names of the International Ornithological Congress. His textbook on Ornithology, now in its third edition, is a standard college text.

I could go on about what he’s done. But mainly I wanted to add a personal note. Frank has been a friend of mine since the late 1980s, when I worked for him at the Academy for a couple of years; and in addition to being a great ornithologist, he’s also a great birder, and tons of fun to hang out with. At the Academy and later at the Audubon offices, a familiar sound was Frank’s booming laugh echoing down the hallway. Conversation with him is always a dizzying experience; he comes up with enough new ideas in a day to keep a normal person occupied for a year. A day in the field with him is a combination of perceptive birding, deep insights, and crazy jokes, in about equal measures. Frank Gill is brilliant, dynamic, down-to-earth, and totally dedicated to birds. He’s only the interim president of Audubon, but while he’s in charge there, the organization is definitely in good hands.


The press release from NAS is here:

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for the update kenn. It is nice to have your personal take on the news we have been hearing.

    We'll hope all the changes come to some greater good. Cheryl

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  2. A great post with some great information. Thanks

    dan

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  3. And you would not want to be the next Audubon president because...?:-) I agree with Cheryl that it is great to get "inside information." Good point about the online communities, too!

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  4. Wow.
    Great summary, Kenn. I think John will go down as a truly visionary leader of the organization. During my tenure at NAS (early '00s), one got the distinct impression he was swimming against the tide, in part because of institutional inertia ("but we've always done it THIS way") and partly because of the impossible (if eminently worthy) goal he set for the organization (the centers plan). I for one was inspired by his ability to hear beyond the noise of the squabbles (dues-sharing, Audubon International, etc.), and appreciated his smart, quiet style. Best of luck to him.

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  5. Thanks Ken for the wonderful insights. We now have an Audubon Center in central Phoenix thanks to John Flicker's vision and commitment.
    Come visit when you next come west to bird SE Arizona.

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  6. Thanks all for the good comments. Eric, I wouldn't last a day as Audubon president even if they were crazy enough to ask me! Dan Cooper, good to hear from you, I know that you were in the thick of things at Audubon for a while and I certainly agree about John Flicker's smart, quiet style. Tice, thanks for the invitation, we'll take you up on it at some point. I have heard fine things about the Rio Salado center in Phoenix and I think it's fabulous to have an Audubon Center so well situated to educate an urban population .. as you say, thanks to John Flicker's vision. You and your colleagues at Audubon Arizona are accomplishing great things and making the most of that opportunity; here's wishing you continued success.

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  7. Thank you for presenting a fair and balanced picture of the Flicker years, Kenn. I agree that John's vision of Audubon Centers already is having a significant positive impact. Many children are getting direct, hands-on learning experiences out in the natural world because of these centers.

    Of course, the goal of establishing 1,000 Audubon Centers by 2020 probably always was an impossible dream, but I think Audubon management put unnecessary roadblocks in the way of achieving a much bigger piece of that dream. I know they wanted to "protect the Audubon brand," which is very valuable and protecting it an important thing to do, but they stifled or refused to participate in local partnerships that could have leveraged all of the same elements that enable the standard model Audubon Center to build a culture of conservation in any given community.

    Here in Leavenworth, Washington, we are very proud to have a locally-owned and operated nature center, called Barn Beach Reserve, that started out as an Audubon Center project and still has all of the "Essential Elements of an Audubon Center," except the name. The Reserve is also home to the town's museum and a local arts organization. In a small, rural community like Leavenworth, partnerships like this can be a very important key to becoming sucessful.

    To close on a positive note, I agree with Dan Cooper that John will (or at least should) go down in Audubon history as a truly visionary leader. Because of his leadership, there are a whole lot of children in our country who are learning about nature outdoors where they can hear, see, touch and smell it, and that's a very good thing indeed.

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  8. I had the distinct pleasure of working with Frank Gill during much of my tenure at Audubon and thoroughly enjoyed it. Audubon really got back to birds during his time as SVP of Science and he really attracted some great talent to the organization.

    I wish him much luck in his new role.

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