American Birding Podcast



Jeepers, Teapers!

I know that some of you will take offense at my taking the Republicans to task. Please feel free to be affronted. The Republican Party is working around the clock to scrap several decades of environmental protections, and I find it egregiously offensive that people who enjoy the outdoors, those whose recreational interests are dependent on a healthy environment, are willing to blithely watch the from the sidelines.

Every reform movement has a lunatic fringeTheodore Roosevelt

TLEsmall President Obama proposes to double fuel economy standards by 2025. If he succeeds, American autos will average almost 60 miles to the gallon. The president’s proposal is the largest increase in mileage requirements since the government began regulating consumption of gasoline by cars in the 1970s. The auto industry backs him.

See how easy that is? Park the partisanship, and propose what is best for the country. I cannot conceive of a single argument against higher fuel efficiency in American cars. But let’s see what happens in Congress. I have no doubt that House Republicans will still bare the knives and eviscerate the new standard. For Tea Party Republicans, the Teapers, no good deed goes unpunished.

[Surprise, surprise. The Republicans proved me prescient even before the publication of this article. According to the Huffington Post, "Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has launched an investigation into whether the Obama administration violated administrative law by holding closed-door meetings with the auto industry in the months before a recent announcement of new limits mandating increased fuel efficiency for American cars and trucks." 

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (a Michigan Republican) said "we need a balanced approach to fuel economy regulation with reasonable and achievable targets that will reduce our consumption of oil and greenhouse gas emissions while preserving U.S. jobs and promoting U.S. manufacturing…we do not believe the Administration’s current proposal will achieve that balanced approach and believe instead it could have a detrimental effect on the U.S. economy."

Both men are toeing the Republican line. The Party believes that any environmental protection must be "balanced" by short-term economic concerns. The fallacy of this approach is long-term environmental concerns eventually become short-term crises. What could have been solved relatively cheaply becomes oppressively expensive to resolve. There is nothing "conservative" about procrastination.

Upton has another link to this story. He originally authored the Energy Independence and Security Act, the legislation that proposed to regulate light bulbs. Upton then did a 180 and joined conservatives in killing his own bill.] 

Consider the Teaper opposition to energy efficient homes, such as those using energy efficient light bulbs. Joe Barton is a Teaper Republican from my home state, Texas. Joe doesn’t like the government meddling in household affairs. Joe says “we don’t think the federal government should tell people what kind of lighting to use in their homes” and therefore opposes any attempt by the government to regulate energy efficiency. Interestingly, Joe has no qualms about defining what a household can or cannot be when it comes to the people who live within. He supports a constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between one man and one woman living together, no doubt with their stash of incandescent light bulbs.

Joe and his fellow Republicans do not like environmentalists. Senator Orrin Hatch recently commented that “our nation must not allow and cannot afford to let [environmental] extremists hijack our laws and hold the American people hostage to their radical views.” Radical? Extreme?

Let’s look at extremism in its most classical form, the Teapers themselves. This Republican Congress has been called the most aggressively anti-environment in American history, for good reason. It is. For you doubters, the following articles offer an excellent primer about where the Teapers would lead our country.

1. Anti-Environment Votes in the 112th Congress

2. Republicans Attack Obama's Environmental Protection

3. Republicans Seek Big Cuts in Environmental Rules

4. The GOP's Environmental Hit List is Horrifying

5. 40 Million Hunters and Anglers Fed Up with GOP's Anti-Environment Agenda

6. Keith Olberman's TV Rant

Some of you, I suspect, will be offended by my taking the Republicans to task. Please feel free to be affronted. The Republican Party is working around the clock to scrap several decades of environmental protections, and I find it egregiously offensive that people who enjoy the outdoors, those whose recreational interests are dependent on a healthy environment, are willing to blithely watch the big game from the sidelines.

More of you will wonder what this topic has to do with birding. Thanks for asking. In deference to the American Birding Association (ABA) I am limiting this discussion to the partisanship that affects birds and their habitats. After all, the ABA only recently decided that conservation is an acceptable topic for the organization. The ABA is little more than a bit player in this farce.

H.R. 2584 is an environmental spending bill that will fund the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Department of Interior (Interior) for Fiscal Year 2012. Congress will be considering this bill in the next week or two. According to Steve Holmer with the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), H.R. 2584 “is one of the worst assaults on birds and other wildlife ever to come before Congress because the bill is loaded with draconian funding cuts amounting to $2 billion and anti-environmental provisions that will wreak havoc on our land, water, air, and wildlife aimed at preventing EPA and Interior from moving forward with environmental rules and regulations.”

Here are a few of the programs being targeted by Republicans (thanks to Steve for these summaries).

•The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act: funding for this program is crucial because it is the only federal U.S. grants program specifically dedicated to the conservation of our migratory birds throughout the Americas.

•The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NWCA): provides funding for conservation projects that benefit wetland birds, has been reduced by over 40%. NACWA has leveraged over $2 billion in matching funds affecting 20 million acres through the work of more than 4,000 partners and has fostered public and private sector cooperation for migratory bird conservation, flood control, erosion control, and water quality. Every dollar of federal money invested in the program is matched by an average of 3.2 dollars from non-federal entities.

•State Wildlife Grants: is the nation’s core program for preventing birds and wildlife from becoming endangered in addition to supporting strategic conservation investments in every state and territory has been reduced by over 64%. The State and Tribal Wildlife Grants program was created to assist states with their voluntary efforts to protect the more than 12,000 at-risk wildlife species around the United States from becoming endangered. The program leverages more than $100 million per year in state, tribal, local, and private dollars that directly support jobs in virtually all states. Slashing funding for this program also undermines the federal government’s ten year investment in State Wildlife Action Plans. LPC

•Rep. Neugebauer (R-TX) seeks to prohibit protection of the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act.

•There is also an amendment offered by Representative Calvert (R-CA), which blocks measures to protect imperiled species from harmful pesticides. If adopted, it would prohibit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from implementing any measures recommended by federal wildlife experts to protect endangered species from pesticides.

Sadly, this river rages on. I am convinced that there is no environmental or conservation program in the nation that will not attract the ire and opposition of some Republicans. I would like to believe that birds and birding would escape their vitriol, but I have seen no evidence that our interests have been given safe passage. We are in the cross hairs.

Why are these environmental and conservation issues so partisan? Shouldn’t the earth’s well-being trump partisan politics? Let’s consider a few factors that contribute to the conflict.

This about the budget, right? Not really. We are spending more on two ill-considered wars than we have invested in environmental protections since our founding. A new study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies found the cost of these wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) to be shockingly higher than the $1 trillion President Obama regularly quotes. When taking into account the long-term costs of caring for veterans, interest payments on deficit spending and other factors, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan could cost as much as $4.4 trillion, according to the report. Compared to the cost of war, the cost of environmental protection is chump change.

What about jobs? Don't environmental regulations force employers to cut back on personnel? Aren't environmental protection expenses onerous for big business? For the most part the answer, again, is no. According to a study by Resources for the Future, “our results enable us to reject claims that environmental spending imposes large hidden costs on manufacturing plants. In fact, our best estimate indicates a modest though statistically insignificant overstatement of regulatory costs.”

If not about deficits, jobs, war, or big business, why all the fuss? Why would Republicans insist on targeting virtually every environmental and conservation law in the books? Is the party just loopy?

The Republican’s anti-environment stance, I fear, is all about political gamesmanship and has little to do with the challenges facing us. Anti-environmentalism is now an integral part of (and a plank in) the Republican manifesto, principles governed not by reality but by affectation. Political principles, like religious principles, are tests of faith. Republicans choose the dark side in environmental debates because to do otherwise is heresy. Environmental issues have joined no new taxes, no family planning, no illegal immigration, and no social safety net as irreducible (and nonnegotiable) planks in the Republican platform.

How more blatantly anti-environment do Republicans need to be before birders act to protect themselves and their interests? Think about birds metaphorically, not literally. In this argument birds serve as surrogates for the natural world, and birders as stand-ins for conservationists. No matter how dire the situation, I see no uprising, no eruption. Perhaps the economy has everyone’s attention, and there is no room left for issues such as birds and birding. Maybe the economy and the wars have sucked the oxygen out of the room. Perhaps birders simply lack the courage to act. If you are wondering how this impacts you, here is an article about the 100 state parks facing closure. If you are shocked now, just wait until you get the list of federal closures and cut-backs. 

One can travel a safe route to conservation. Send a check to the Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society, or ABC once a year and discharge your duty. Your mind is at rest; your duty is done. Let others fight on the front.

But what if the land conservancy approach isn’t enough? As I have noted countless times over the past two decades, you cannot buy enough habitat to insure the protection of biodiversity on this planet. Only by engaging the public and nurturing a culture of conservation will we be able to affect the policy changes that are required to truly protect life on earth.

Need proof? I refer you to a recent paper in the Marine Ecology Progress Series. The paper is titled Ongoing global biodiversity loss and the need to move beyond protected areas: a review of the technical and practical shortcomings of protected areas on land and sea. Authors Mora and Sale state “the current pace of the establishment of new, protected areas will not be able to overcome current trends of loss of marine and terrestrial biodiversity.” They note that “the only successful approach [to successfully establishing Protected Areas] requires that local communities understand and embrace the proposed PA program — this requires education to build social and political support and ‘local participation’ in the design and management of PAs." 

Piping Plover webWith Mora and Safe in mind, let's look at one of the high profile bird conservation programs – Teaming With Wildlife (Teaming). To what degree has it succeeded? To what extent has it built social and political support?

According to the Teaming website, “millions of American birdwatchers, hikers, anglers, hunters and outdoor enthusiasts want at-risk fish and wildlife conserved in their states before they become rare and more costly to protect.” The Teaming partnership claims “the Teaming With Wildlife Act has the support of more than 5,900 organizations and businesses which represent millions of birdwatchers, hikers, anglers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts across the country.”

Yet this broadly supported initiative has struggled for over two decades to secure the funding necessary to effectively address the decline in nongame bird species (more than 95% of fish and wildlife held in public trust by the states are not hunted nor fished).

According to a Teaming fact page, “In 1980, Congress passed the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, encouraging states to develop conservation plans for nongame fish and wildlife. However, the Act was not funded and many states lacked the resources to do the planning alone.”

“In 2001, Congress created the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program and the State Wildlife Grants program, which, for the first time, provided funding to state fish and wildlife agencies for the management of nongame species. The funding was distributed to states with the condition that each state develop a Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (State Wildlife Action Plan). States have received an average of $1 million per state per year to manage thousands of nongame species.”

That last sentence in the fact sheet is misleading. In truth, states have received funding to develop their action plans, and are only now preparing to begin implementation. With the new proposed federal budget (i.e., gutted), states will have shiny new plans and little funding for on-the-ground conservation. The proposed federal budget reduces the State Wildlife Grant program by two-thirds.

Other than the staffs of the nearly 6000 organizations supporting Teaming, few others Americans will know. Even fewer Americans will care. In truth, 6000 organizations do not translate into meaningful political clout. Here is an example. During these recent budget debates former senator Alan Simpson, never one to mince words, tossed a bras d'honneur at AARP. Remember, AARP has over 35 million members, eclipsing environmental organizational membership by an order of magnitude. Simpson reportedly said that AARP is “38 million people bound together by love of airline discounts." In other words, being a member does not make you an actor.

The point I am making is that the number of organizations behind an initiative or cause does not directly translate into the number of people that can be politically roused. To be fair, few members of the general public were asked to care about bird conservation. Review the Teaming five-year state wildlife grant report. Most of what you see will be research, planning, and conservation projects. Little mention is made of recreation and education, although they too are expressed goals of the program. Virtually nothing has been accomplished to build social and political support. Now we desperately need the public to stave off these budgetary attacks, yet the public has no sense of the crisis or why it should give a damn in the first place.

From the beginning the group has been warned (I spoke at the first congressional hearing about Teaming) that public engagement must be a primary component of any bird conservation initiative. My pleas have gone, from the beginning, unrecognized (in truth, were excoriated). In fact, the initial state wildlife grants, if I recall correctly, specifically excluded recreation and education from funding (I believe at the demand of Defenders of Wildlife). To this day groups that oppose hunting are precluded from receiving a grant (thank you, IAFWA).

Partners in Flight (PIF) received the same warning and responded with similar ennui. I cannot count the number of times this topic has been discussed at PIF conferences and meetings (Cape May, Asilomar, McAllen, for example). Now, when public support is crucial, there is no public to be found. We could have spent the past twenty years nurturing this culture of conservation, but instead we spent the time and money on everything but engagement. Shame on Teaming; shame on PIF.

None of these mistakes are uncorrectable, and none of the people making these mistakes are beyond salvation. Their decisions were foolish; the people involved, however, are not fools. The mistakes were errors of omission, not commission. The people I know from Teaming, PIF, and similar bird conservation efforts are almost exclusively biologists, and they instinctively follow their proclivities. They hold conferences, publish research papers, give each other awards, and, in the end, get screwed to the wall by those who do understand the value of public sentiment. 

We need to acknowledge the impact of these errors, and the degree to which these failings in our bird conservation strategies have left birds and their habitats assailable. With a mea culpa behind us, we can focus on engaging the general public in our cause. Yet, at this moment, I have yet to hear a single word of recognition or confession. For absolution, there first must be an admission of sin. 

Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed…Abraham Lincoln

Engagement, communications, marketing, education, and interpretation, those factors that comprise the human dimension, are where the dollars and hours should now be spent. By education I mean far more than a Louvian last child in the woods. To be blunt, we cannot wait for fourth graders to pull our rear ends from the fire. We need public support and involvement now.

Public sentiment, I am sad to say, is not with us. I suspect that most Americans are oblivious to our concerns, and unaware of the implications of the budget being considered. They are disengaged from us because we were disengaged from them. They don't care about us because we have never cared about them.

The Teapers aren't to blame for the jam we're in. Teapers have always existed in one malicious form or the other. I do, however, blame us for stupidly ignoring what should have been obvious. 

Snail Kite Bird conservation is fundamentally about politics, and politics is fundamentally about body count. Yet birding is cursed by being a closed community, a clique where members are more interested in impressing each other than in explaining the wonders of birds to the world outside. How else can you explain big years, big days, life lists, tics, twitches, the minute differences between the Empidonax flycatchers, and the like?

Poets such as Neruda have tried to engage the public. Artists such as Fuertes and Sutton have tried as well. Authors such as Jonathan Franzen and J.D. Salinger have tried. But most hard-core birders, those who pursue birds as aggressively as collectors once chased Cabbage Patch dolls, appear to care little about the unwashed masses. The crowds are little more than traffic congestion to bypass before reaching the next lifer.

If there were enough members in the birding clique to swing an election, the myopia would be forgivable. I would feel secure. But to protect birds and birding from these recent Teaper assaults, birders and birding will have no choice but to engage the public. I have seen little evidence of a willingness to do this in the past. I see little reason to be confident of a change in the future.

Freeman Tilden, in Interpreting Our Heritage, quotes a National Park Service directive in 1953 to the agency's field offices:

Protection through appreciation, appreciation through understanding, and understanding through interpretation…National Park Service

The public lacks understanding because the environmental and conservation communities have devoted time and funds to protection and have ignored the need for interpretation and engagement. Tilden would not have disagreed with the need to protect. In fact, in his later years he wrote "it has always been my philosophy to protect first and to interpret second." But I would argue that the "protect first" age is over; we will never win this battle with a fusillade of fact, or by nuking them with knowledge.

Tilden said that interpretation is revelation based on knowledge. The intent of interpretation is to provoke, not merely to inform. If we are to have any hope of halting the Teapers, we will have to provoke the public, as well as ourselves, into action. And that, my friends, is the role of interpretation.

The President Surrenders by  Paul Krugman

Debt Ceiling Deal: Staving off Disaster With Disaster by Peter Goodman

The Goons of August by Robert Kuttner

America the Sclerotic by Michael Spence

I am writing this article with the stench of the budget deal still hanging in the air. I cannot say that the smell is altogether displeasing, but I expected more from this President and the Democrats. I fear that between now and the finalizing of a budget even more of our programs will be carved up. The environment is easy meat.

Robert Kuttner writes (see the link above) that "progressives need to build a mass movement of their own. The pocketbook frustrations that animated the Tea Party will not be remedied by the Republican program. There needs to be a left alternative. And the Democratic Party base needs to make it clear that Obama cannot take their support for granted, and that deals such as this one will lead activists to work to elect House and Senate progressives." 

Kuttner is admittedly writing about the progressive movement, but I will argue that his suggestions are appropriate for conservationists as well. Conservation, to be influential, to be meaningful, must be dynamic, even edgy. The opposition never rests, so how can we? Conservation (particularly bird conservation) has become calcified, loathe to adapt and fearful of risk. Bird conservationists have been lulled into a false sense of security, sure that as long as they are careful about their nonprofit status and stick to the tried-and-true all will be well. Lead a monthly field trip, show your latest birding trip slides at the membership meeting, run a couple of Breeding Bird Surveys, shove the results into eBird, gather a few birding friends and participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count; all of this has worked in the past, so why not now?


Whooping cranes, Aransas NWR, 28 Dec 2010 (500)


It's better to burn out than it is to rust…Neil Young 

We only have a brief interlude, maybe a few months, to attract the public to our cause. Public pressure just might influence the "super congress," the chosen 12 who will make the decisions about who and what to cut. This morning, halfway through my first cup of the day, I remind myself that we will only find out if we try. Currently there are rusted hulks blocking the highway that once were fire-breathing, nitro-sucking environmental groups. Let's push them aside and see if we can't once again get up to speed.