National Audubon Society History

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Nonprofit Company
Incorporated: 1905 as National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals
Employees: 300
Operating Revenues: $62 million (1997 est.)
SICs: 8699 Membership Organizations, Not Elsewhere Classified; 2721 Periodicals; 8641 Civic & Social Associations; 8733 Noncommercial Research Organizations

Company Perspectives:

The mission of the National Audubon Society is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems by focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats, for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity.

Company History:

The National Audubon Society (NAS or the Society), one of the largest private conservation organizations in this country, seeks to advance public understanding of the value and need of conserving soil, water, plants, and wildlife, as well as to encourage progress through intelligent use of natural resources. Incorporated in 1905 as a nonprofit organization, this leading grassroots Society organizes citizen action in support of specific conservation goals and conducts environmental research as well as programs on conservation issues. In North America, NAS has over 550,000 members and 518 chapters across North America; on a nationwide basis the Society manages 104 Audubon Wildlife Sanctuaries and Nature Centers. NAS produces elementary classroom curricula for its "Audubon Adventures" program, which reaches half-a-million children in 16,000 classrooms across the nation. "Audubon's Animal Adventures" is rated as one of the highest original series of the Disney Channel and won the Genesis Award for the "Outstanding Cable Television Children's Series." "Wild Wings: Heading South," airs on PBS and on BBC; the series features "electronic field trips" on the World Wide Web and enables children in 1,000 schools in the United States and Great Britain to learn about and track migrating birds in the Old World and the New World. A curriculum for another program, "Wild Wings: Heading North," enables 12,000 students in U.S. schools to track and study migrating geese in real time, via the Web, during the four months of the birds' migration. The Society has over 105 books available for purchase and publishes the bimonthly Audubon magazine. NAS also sponsors staff-led "Nature Odysseys" to destinations around the world. The Society takes scientifically informed positions on all environmental issues in which it engages, works in conjunction with its chapters for wise environmental policies and laws, and initiates or joins in legal actions against activities destructive to the environment.

Awakening Awareness to Exploitation: 1886-1905

The roots of the National Audubon Society go as far back as 1886 when, according to Frank Graham, Jr.'s book titled The Audubon Ark: A History of the National Audubon Society, "the first Audubon Society was the ephemeral creation" of George Bird Grinnell, the proprietor of Forest and Stream, the 19th century's leading hunting and fishing journal in the United States. The young editor published hard-hitting editorials about the slaughter of wild birds and animals; he became a leader in the campaign that outlawed market hunting and the mindless killing of birds to meet fashion demands for bird plumes--or even entire birds&mdashø decorate hats, clothing, and coiffures. In the February 11, 1886 issue of Forest and Stream Grinnell encouraged his readers to join him in forming the Audubon Society for the protection of wild birds and their eggs. He named the Society in honor of John James Audubon (1785-1851)--the ornithologist, explorer, and wildlife artist whose widow had been young Grinnell's teacher in New York City. Membership was open to everyone refusing to wear bird feathers as ornaments and/or willing to prevent the killing of wild birds not used for food and the destruction of their eggs.

The Audubon Society collected no dues, owned no property, lobbied no legislatures, and sued no malefactors. After a year, the organization emerged as a separate publication called the Audubon Magazine, which sold for six cents a copy or 50 cents for an annual subscription. The first issue reported that "Within the past few years, the destruction of our birds has increased at a rate which is alarming. This destruction now takes place on such a large scale as to seriously threaten the existence of a number of our most useful species." By 1887, the Society was a New York organization of 39,000 members. Overwhelmed by the response, Grinnell had neither the time nor the staff at Forest and Stream to keep up with additional correspondence and administrative details; he disbanded the group in 1888.

But Grinnell's concern for bird preservation was not a dead issue. In 1896, several of Boston's fashionable ladies recruited some prominent naturalists and ornithologists to form a society for the protection of birds: the Massachusetts Audubon Society was to discourage "the buying and wearing, for ornamental purposes, of the feathers of any wild birds and to otherwise further the protection of native birds." Members of the Society distributed leaflets to educate the public, wrote letters to newspaper editors, and spoke to politicians. To recruit junior members, as Grinnell had done, the Society supported a Bird Day in the schools by sending teachers the forms needed to enroll youngsters at no cost, provided they signed a pledge card that read: "I promise not to harm birds or their eggs, and to protect them both whenever I am able." After a few months, an Audubon Society was established in Pennsylvania and, by 1899, 15 other states had formed Audubon Societies.

While various states implemented legislation to protect birds, Senator Hoar of Massachusetts and Representative John F. Lacy focused on the passage of national legislation prohibiting interstate shipment of birds and other animals killed in violation of state laws; Congress passed the Lacy Act in 1900. Although at that time only five states had passed laws to protect birds, between 1895 and 1905, 32 additional states adopted model bird protection laws. In 1899 ornithologist Frank Chapman's publication of Bird-Lore magazine, gave the Audubon movement a unifying national forum. Furthermore, in 1900 Chapman sponsored the first national Christmas Bird Count. By the end of the century, more than 42,000 birders participated in this annual census and provided valuable data to ornithologists.

William Dutcher, an early leader of the Audubon movement, urged the state-based Audubon Societies to unite in order to have greater national clout. In 1901 some of these societies formed a loose alliance called the "National Committee of the Audubon Societies of America" and chose Dutcher as chairman. Then, in 1905, the National Committee incorporated as the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals (Audubon), with William Dutcher as the president who "almost singlehandedly pulled the movement together," Graham commented in The Audubon Ark. Dutcher found a staunch ally in Abbott H. Thayer, an artist whose book about the protective coloration of animals inspired the new art of camouflage during World War I. Thayer provided Dutcher with the financial means to take forceful action against bird killers. The public contributed $1,400 to the Thayer Fund, which Dutcher enthusiastically used to set up a warden system to enforce conservation laws.

Evolving Advocacy, Action, and Research: 1906-35

The Audubon Society was instrumental in obtaining the passage in New York of the Audubon Act (1911), which prohibited the sale of feathers of native wild birds in the state, and of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918), which prohibited the killing or capturing of most non-game bird species. During the first decades of the 20th century, NAS succeeded in saving from possible extinction many species; for example, the American and snowy egrets, terns, gulls, waterfowl, and some species of insectivorous birds. The Society also campaigned for the U.S. government to protect vital wildlife areas by establishing a National Wildlife Refuge system.

In 1910 President Dutcher was succeeded by T. Gilbert Pearson, whose 30 years in office were characterized by creative support of a warden and sanctuary system, nature education for children, political action, and a close working relationship with biologists in the federal government. During his tenure, NAS received the 26,000 acres of Louisiana marshlands that became the Paul J. Rainey Sanctuary, the oldest Audubon sanctuary. When Pearson left the Audubon presidency, the Audubon board chose Kermit Roosevelt, son of conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt, as president. The board also created the position of executive director and offered it to John Hopkinson Baker, a practical businessman and field birder who gave up his investment business to accept the new position. Baker built an elite staff composed mainly of naturalists in their 20s and 30s, strengthened the association's avian research, emphasized nature education, encouraged campaigns for the protection of nesting colonies, and gave a high priority to the education of children.

Among the schoolchildren who joined the Junior Audubon program was Roger Tory Peterson, a bird lover and talented artist. Whenever Peterson saw a new bird, he noted its distinguishing characteristics--such as thickness of the bill, a bar in the wing, color in the tail, a crest, a bright patch on throat or rump--in sketches that he used as guides during his field trips. Peterson tried to publish his collection of sketches but did not succeed until he received an offer from Houghton Mifflin to publish the guide without advance payment and--because of the high cost of making plates of the sketches--no royalties for the first thousand copies sold. The first 2,000 copies of A Field Guide to the Birds, published in April 1934, included only species found in the eastern United States, but the book sold within a week; 5,000 additional copies were printed and sold almost immediately. Each plate represented a group of related species; slim black pointers indicated distinguishing characteristics and the text gave information on each bird's voice, range, and habitat. "The Peterson System of Identification," endured as the basic method of identifying birds. Baker hired Peterson as Audubon educational director and art director of Bird-Lore magazine. The artist-naturalist visited classrooms and museums and created leaflets that would appeal to children of different age groups. When he left Audubon to enlist in World War II, nine million American children were members of the Junior Audubon program NAS President Pearson had designed in the fall of 1910.

Widening the Scope of Concern: 1936-59

During the 1930s NAS sponsored many scientific research projects on endangered birds, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker and the roseate spoonbill. In the summer of 1936 the Audubon Association opened a camp on Hog Island in Maine's Muscongus Bay to educate adults about conservation of natural resources. Audubon Camp's summer sessions were an immediate success. Meanwhile, Baker persuaded Chapman to sell the Bird-Lore magazine to the Audubon association. In 1941 the name of the magazine was changed to Audubon Magazine and later shortened to Audubon. A year earlier the board of directors changed the name of "National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals" to "National Audubon Society" (NAS or the Society). In 1953 NAS adopted the flying great egret as its emblem.

Although most of NAS's state organizations remained aloof from Baker's operations, vigorous little urban "bird clubs" sprang up across the country. These clubs considered themselves nominal NAS affiliates but were devoted mostly to outings led by local naturalists. For instance, St. Louis Bird Club President Wayne Short organized bird walks and asked some of the leading naturalists (including Roger Peterson) who had brought their color motion-picture cameras into their favorite wildlife haunts, to be part of a series of lectures during the winter months. Within a few years, an average of a thousand people attended each lecture.

World War II brought wartime problems that cut into the Society's membership and programs. Baker accepted Short's offer to set up a program, called "Audubon Screen Tours," that would visit various cities during the winter months. Within a few years, more than 50 cities, from New England to California, were in the program. Baker, promoted to president in 1944, was always on the alert for land acquisition and dealt successfully on the personal level with potential financial contributors. He was also among the first to foresee the danger inherent in technological innovation; it was he who warned against the growing enthusiasm for unrestricted use of DDT, the insecticide the U.S. Army used to protect its troops against lice, malarial mosquitoes, and a typhoid epidemic. According to the May 26, 1945 issue of the New Yorker, Baker said that "If DDT should ever be used widely and without care, we would have a country without freshwater fish, serpents, frogs, and most of the birds we have now."

National Presence: 1960-89

When Carl Buchheister succeeded Baker in 1959, NAS entered one of the most intense series of legislative struggles in the modern conservation era. Buchheister built up NAS's branch and chapter system; then he encouraged lobbies in state legislatures and in Congress for the passage of laws to protect wildlife, natural habitats, and the environment; the Society issued leaflets, booklets, and other informational materials on natural history and the environment. During his tenure NAS staff and members played a leading role in the enactment of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Endangered Species Acts. In 1961 NAS formed a Nature Centers Division by merging with Nature Centers for Young America, Inc. These Centers worked with school boards and other community organizations to give children living experiences of outdoor life.

In 1962 NAS took the lead in the defense of marine biologist Rachel Carson, whose book, Silent Spring, touched off a furious controversy by documenting how DDT and its new sister poisons were contaminating the earth. The eventual result was a virtual ban of DDT in this country. NAS's Audubon magazine published a series of articles on pesticide legislation and regulation and became a force in the struggle for pesticide reform. When Buchheister retired in 1967, he had consolidated the Society nationally, made friends with state leaders, directed the upgrading of the Society's magazine, and led the staff into increased participation in national issues, such as elimination of air and water pollution, support of land-use planning, need for energy conservation, and opposition to the giving away of public lands. Growth in membership broadened NAS involvement in environmental issues. For example, for 11 years NAS worked with the people of Washington state for the creation in 1968 of North Cascades National Park in order to save that area of high jagged mountains, deep forests of giant trees, and rushing rivers. NAS leadership passed on to Elvis T. Stahr in 1968, to Russell W. Peterson in 1979, and to Peter A.A. Berle in 1985.

President Stahr brought his considerable talents and Washington connections to serve as environmental leader and advocate for reform. He prevented the building of a dam that would have destroyed Kentucky's Red River Gorge. He also led NAS's support of a coalition formed by other national organizations to save Florida's Everglades National Park from almost certain destruction. A mammoth jetport projected to be built north of the park would have restricted and polluted the flow of fresh water vital to the Everglades. Stahr's influence in Washington and NAS's painstaking collection of environmental facts brought about the federal government's cancellation of the project. In addition, when the Internal Revenue Service threatened the tax-deductible status of the Society and of other nonprofit organizations, Stahr organized and chaired the "Coalition of Concerned Charities," composed of some 60 national nonprofit organizations that were not founded primarily to influence legislation. His leadership led to the 1976 Tax Reform Act, which allowed nonprofit organizations to spend up to one million dollars annually for lobbying expenditures. During Stahr's tenure, NAS membership grew 340 percent, from 88,000 members to 388,000. The Society's assets, excluding properties, rose from $8.1 million to $18.5 million.

In 1979, Russell W. Peterson, after a long career in industry and government, began his NAS presidency with the slogan "Think Globally, Act Locally." In The Audubon Ark, Graham quoted him as commenting that "Environmental degradation knows no borders.... One nation's radioactive waste dumped in the ocean may end up in another country's tuna sandwiches." Peterson's enthusiasm for facing global issues (such as the threat posed to the global environment by nuclear arms and the population explosion), was not shared by the majority of NAS staff and members who remained more interested in wildlife protection than in global politics, but his vision for NAS involvement in global issues would surface as an NAS guideline before the end of the century. Peterson's more obvious contribution, during his tenure, was introducing NAS to the world of television through a cooperative arrangement with Ted Turner, creator of the Turner Broadcasting System. The young Turner's sense of showmanship and Peterson's eagerness to spread the Audubon message resulted in a television-film series, titled The World of Audubon, about people working to protect wildlife and the environment.

In 1985 Peter A.A. Berle left his work in a law firm to work as the next NAS president because, according to Graham's quote, he saw "the job as a chance to make a difference in an area of great importance." Berle knew that NAS operated at a loss but it was only in 1987 that he and the board of directors realized the extent of the NAS deficit. As they struggled to balance income and expenses, contemporary events--such as the world's oil glut eliminating the license fees NAS received from companies extracting natural gas from the Rainey Sanctuary, the rapid rise of liability-insurance premiums for the Society's physical properties (sanctuaries, summer camps, nature centers, etc.), and increases in the cost of paper and postage--severely crippled NAS operations. To avoid a total collapse, the board proposed a restructuring of the Society's regional operations but was met with an uproar among chapter leaders because they had not been consulted. Berle asked Chairman Donal C. O'Brien, Jr., to "democratize" the board by adding representation from the chapters. Tightened expenditures and aggressive fundraising made for a dramatic fiscal turnaround. On June 30, 1988, NAS had an annual budget of over $32 million in place. The deficit had disappeared and a new sense of mission revived among the Society's chapters and staff.

The 1990s and Beyond

To meet the need for new headquarters, in 1990 NAS bought, remodeled the interior, and restored the exterior of a century-old Romanesque Revival loft building in Manhattan. The renovated Audubon House that opened in 1992 symbolized NAS goals for conservation of both natural resources and the urban environment: it was a model of the energy-efficient, environmentally responsible workplace. For instance, Audubon House's energy-efficient features--from the thermal shell to the lighting reductions--were designed to reduce the Society's annual energy costs by 64 percent.

During the early 1990s, Berle continued to foster grassroots active participation in the Society's goals. NAS membership rose to over 550,000 men and women who gave the Society high visibility and nationwide political leverage for the protection of ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest, the prevention of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the preservation of wetlands and reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act. The grassroots element also played a decisive role in defining the future of the Society. In 1994 Chairman O'Brien and other members of the board, NAS members, chapter leaders, and staff joined forces to forge the Strategic Plan for Audubon 2000 (The Plan), a plan that was to make the Society one of the strongest and most effective grassroots organizations for environmental advocacy at the community, state, and national levels.

Berle was succeeded by John Flicker, who assumed the office of NAS President/CEO in 1995. Flicker had served 21 years with The Nature Conservancy (an organization that bought and managed wildlife habitats). Among other accomplishments, he had designed and promoted the $3 billion Preservation 2000 land-acquisition program. Under his leadership NAS scored dramatic victories and substantial progress in its National Campaigns; for example, legislation to revise the priorities of the National Wildlife Refuges; return of the Everglades to a healthy, thriving ecosystem; passage of a new, stronger Endangered Species Act; policies to halt destruction of wetlands; and prevention of water-diversion projects that would destroy natural habitats on Nebraska's Platte River. Flicker supported decentralization of senior staff and stressed the need for heavy investment in the Society's distinctive grassroots network as the primary instrument of environmental advocacy. "A decentralized state program structure is better able to address uniquely local needs and opportunities," wrote Flicker in his 1997 Annual Report. He also stressed expansion of educational programs to nurture appreciation of nature and understanding of the essential link between ecological health and the well-being of human civilization.

For more than a century, NAS and the conservation movement had grown and evolved together. The 21st century would bring new challenges to a worldwide culture of conservation but the National Audubon Society, as a grassroots powerhouse, was geared to lead the conservation movement into a bright and sustainable future.

Further Reading:

  • Atteberry, Ann, "Birders Flock to Wildlife Refuges in Southeast Texas," Dallas Morning News, July 19, 1998, p. G6.
  • ------, "Off the Beaten Bayou in Cajun Country," Dallas Morning News, October 1, 1995, p. G8.
  • Bandrapalli, Suman, "So, Who's Coming to Dinner? It Depends on What You're Serving," Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 1998, p. 11.
  • Begley, Sharon, "Audubon's Empty Nest: Bye-Bye Little Birdie; Hello Corporate Savvy," Newsweek, June 24, 1991, p. 57.
  • "Building Audubon Centers," Audubon, September 1997, p. 112.
  • Evans, Brock, "A Time of Crisis: The Giveaway of Our Public Lands," Vital Speeches, September 1, 1995, pp. 689-95.
  • Flicker, John, "Building Diversity at Audubon," Audubon, March 1998.
  • ------, "Tracking Birds on the Net," Audubon, May 1998.
  • Graham, Frank, Jr., The Audubon Ark: A History of the National Audubon Society, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, 336 p.
  • Isbell, Connie M., "Growing Up in the Fisheries Crises," Audubon, May 1998.
  • Lemonik, Michael D., "Winged Victory," Time, July 11, 1994, p. 53.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 26. St. James Press, 1999.

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