Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend the Audubon California Chapter Assembly for two days of workshops about the Endangered Species Act, environmental issues, conservation efforts, and other Audubon-related topics. When I filled out the application, I checked the double-room option. And since I didn’t know anyone else that was going to be able to attend, I also checked the “I need a roommate” box. I was fortunate enough to room with Mike Daulton, Director of Conservation Policy for the National Audubon Society. Though schedules were quite busy during the assembly, we were able to find ourselves in the room at the same time for some good conversation. Mike agreed to do an email interview for Beakspeak. I knew he was a busy person, so I tried to keep the questions fairly simple.
Jason Stuck: How long have you been Director of Conservation Policy for the National Audubon Society?
Mike Daulton: I have been with Audubon for seven years, starting as policy director of the Wildlife Refuge Campaign in 1999. I have been Director of Conservation Policy in Audubon’s public policy office in Washington, DC for the past year.
JS: How did you get involved in conservation?
MD: My family is very interested in nature. My mother loves bird watching and my father was raised in rural Minnesota in the hunting and fishing tradition. Growing up, I spent a lot of time on lakes with my father in the mountains outside of San Diego. My grandparents had a small farm outside of the city and I would go there as a kid. I think my time there helped connect me to the land. My aunt is a marine biologist who specializes in killer whales. She was one of my biggest professional role models.
I’ve always attributed some of my interest in nature to growing up in San Diego. I love the beaches, the mountains, and the desert, and the city itself has so much natural beauty. If a city can be a gorgeous natural setting, then San Diego is the case in point.
My family had a lot of conversations around the dinner table about bread-and-butter issues like the environment and education. I think it gave me a very fundamental feeling about what the right side and the wrong side are on public issues. Government and politics should be about helping out the American family and doing what’s right for the public interest, and protecting the environment is one of the most fundamental, far-reaching ways to do that. I believe that deeply.
Professionally, I studied Ecology with minors in Political Science and Economics and then went on to graduate work in Public Policy with a concentration in environmental policy. I’ve wanted to be involved in environmental policy since I was 17 years old.
JS: What are some major conservation challenges we’ve faced in the past?
MD: I think if there is a way I would generalize about it, I would say that in the past, we had to deal with outright exploitation of wildlife from things like over-hunting, unfettered pollution, and ravaging of the land in the process of becoming a civilized, modern, developed country. Basically, destruction and exploitation of our natural resources with no controls at all.
Some of that activity has helped us become a powerful nation and the greatest country in the world. So, for example, we’ve channeled rivers to move our goods on barges, we’ve controlled floods to protect our communities, and we’ve turned swamps into productive farmland. We’ve fed natural resources into our economy at an incredible rate to fan the flames of our explosive growth. All of that has had benefits, but it also has had its costs. We created public problems that became the impetus for our fundamental environmental laws.
JS: What are the major conservation challenges we face today?
MD: Right now our environment is under assault by a Congress that is being led by representatives who do not value environmental protection, and by a president and Administration who have short-sighted views. Our environmental protections are quite simply under siege.
It is just an extraordinarily sour political context in Washington, DC right now. Partisan rancor is at an all time high, and special interests seem to have more control in the Halls of Congress and in the Administration than ever before.
Just [weeks ago], the oil and gas industry pushed a major lobbying effort to open up our coastlines to dirty and dangerous offshore oil and gas drilling, and the House and Senate both voted to do just that.
We have been pushing to try to find allies on Capitol Hill to help us speak out against the Administration’s plans to begin oil drilling in extraordinarily sensitive bird and wildlife habitat in the massive wetlands complex around Teshekpuk Lake in Alaska’s Western Arctic. We are struggling to find ways to make the Administration listen, when their plans seem to be pre-determined and set in stone. They plan to do the bidding of the oil and gas industry and put this sensitive habitat up for leasing, regardless of any public outcry.
We have seen repeated attempts to try to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite its status as a wildlife sanctuary and its extraordinary value for wildlife like caribou, polar bears, and migratory birds. Members of Congress like Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens along with President Bush have been relentless in calls for opening up this natural treasure to oil drilling.
I recently took a trip out to Jackson Hole, Wyoming in July to have a first-hand look at the incredible explosion of natural gas drilling in sensitive habitats throughout the Interior West. The Bureau of Land Management is writing permits for gas drilling out there faster than they can print the paper, despite the long-term immense value these natural areas have for future generations.
This is a very challenging time to try to protect our environment and to try to change the tone in Washington, DC on environmental issues. But it is a challenge we must meet with the full force of our best efforts.
JS: What are the fundamental differences between today’s issues and issues of past? Could you provide some examples?
MD: I think modern environmental fights have become tremendously complex. Anti-environmental bills tend to have pro-environment labels. A bill that promotes logging in old growth forests is dubbed the Healthy Forests Act and a bill that allows more air pollution is called Clear Skies. Pombo’s bad ESA bill was named the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act. He actually has been arguing that his bill would promote recovery of endangered species, which is absurd. The incredibly cynical politics of today’s environmental attacks makes them difficult for the average person to ferret out and interpret. Being a member of a conservation group can help, because professionals are on watch—reading the bills, monitoring the committees and the House and Senate floor, and translating it all into what actions are needed and when.
I think in general the way the media covers these issues has left something to be desired. For example, I think there is a responsibility on the part of the media to understand enough about the bill to not let anti-environmental interests get away with a cheap label like Healthy Forests for a bad forests bill. The quest for balance in reporting has led to a lot of stories lately that describe the action by a Republican member of congress or the Administration with a cynical description of the action (we are so proud to introduce “the Healthy Forests Act”), and then basically say “the environmentalists criticized it, and industry applauded.” That is not capturing the assault that the bill represents, and not adequately educating the public about what is at stake.
Our opponents have become very aggressive in their effort to portray environmental values as outside the mainstream. They say we are “radical environmentalists” who “just say no to everything.” Representative Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat from Hawaii, on the House floor just [recently], called us the “environmental Taliban.”
So, we have to fight against the fact that anti-environmental claims and anti-environmental views have become too common and too acceptable with some members of Congress and in the Administration. That is not so new, necessarily, but it is part of the modern fight for the environment, and part of the challenge we face.
JS: Have the methods of fighting for the environment changed?
MD: Every major conservation group relies heavily on email alerts to communicate with their members, so that is one reason why it is so important to get on those lists so you can be alerted and take action.
The environmental community has become very sophisticated in its political approach to targeting the right members of Congress with the right message at the right time in the right way. I think the campaign the community mounted on behalf of the Arctic Refuge this past December, for example, was highly sophisticated and effective. I think really with any major conservation group, if you are alerted to take action, you can rest assured that a great deal of thought went in to making sure that when you spend some of your free time to send a letter or make a phone call, that it will have an impact.
But ultimately, it still all boils down to the same old adage that all politics is local. Politicians have the control over environmental decisions, and every citizen has the right and the ability to generate pressure on those politicians to do the right thing. It is an extraordinarily important civic duty to do so. Audubon is a great organization to involve yourself with if you want to help.
JS: How have National Audubon and the state and local chapters impacted conservation efforts?
MD: There are so many ways that Audubon is making a difference for conservation. From the perspective of National Audubon, the organization has an active and strong public policy division that is taking the fight to the Halls of Congress and keeping the public informed about the threats to bird and wildlife habitat and the environment. We are fighting to protect the Endangered Species Act, save the Arctic Refuge, and restore the Everglades. We are trying to make sure our fundamental conservation programs get adequate funding. We are working to save our most precious public places from threats like oil and gas development. Our science division is engaging people in our wonderful longstanding citizen science programs like the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count. We are in the process of identifying the most Important Bird Areas all across the country, to help prioritize our efforts on behalf of birds and habitat. Our Audubon at Home program provides many ways to help the environment in your own backyard. The education program is engaging people in conservation through our Audubon Centers. I think one of the most exciting aspects of the Centers program is the prospect of reaching out to disadvantaged communities and trying to bring new people and new faces into the world of conservation.
Our state offices and local chapters are just doing so many great things. I work on a regular basis with the great folks in Audubon Alaska, Audubon North Carolina, Audubon Connecticut, Audubon of Florida, the list just goes on and on. Just to give you one example, I have been working with Audubon North Carolina to fight against a proposal to locate a Navy landing field just three miles from a National Wildlife Refuge that is important to hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. To build the landing field they would have to buy out generational family farms and evict farmers who don’t want to leave their land. Audubon is fighting side by side with the farmers and trying to do what is right, protecting the wildlife refuge and urging the Navy to find a better place to land their planes.
JS: What are some of the future goals of Audubon?
MD: I think the most important goal is to get more people involved in helping the environment and promoting conservation. The constituency for saving our natural resources has unlimited room for growth. Ultimately, this will translate into a variety of benefits for the environment depending on which activity people decide to take. If you become an activist, you can help defeat anti-environmental legislation and protect special places from looming threats. If you become a citizen scientist, you can help provide the baseline data needed to assess the health of ecosystems. In the public policy office, we want to recruit thousands of new activists and new voices for change, and in this political environment, we will need nothing less to win.
JS: What can people do to help protect the environment and wildlife to ensure that their children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy it?
MD: Join Audubon, or another major conservation group. Make a donation. Sign up for Audubon’s e-activist list or another such list and take action. Join a local Audubon chapter or other volunteer group and help change things on the ground. Research the material the Audubon at Home program has to offer and turn your backyard into healthy bird habitat. Take your kids to an Audubon center or other nature center and show them the importance of the natural world. Just taking one of these actions can make a world of difference for birds, wildlife, and their habitat.
A big “Thanks” to Mike Daulton for taking the time to do this interview, and for providing such detailed insight. I hope this will help us all become better custodians of the land.
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