After 15 years as president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, John Flicker is going home to roost at least for a little while. He's flying the coop...(Okay, no more avian puns, we promise.) But we are excited to announce that Flicker has been named the 2010 Steward Award winner through the Heart of Green.
Flicker says he will be taking a much-needed break, but will stay involved with Audubon, as well as other conservation efforts. Audubon is conducting a search for a new leader, and is being led by interim president Frank Gill, PhD, who is a former chief scientist of the group and serves on the board. Flicker had led Audubon through a period of strong growth, both in terms of monies raised and programs conducted, including setting up more than 2,400 Important Bird Areas, launching new local Audubon centers (especially in under-served urban areas, for a total of 40), and expanding various educational and conservation initiatives, both at the national level and through the nearly 50 local chapters.
In addition to mobilizing tens of thousands of citizen scientists to collect invaluable data on birds across the country, Audubon publishes authoritative reports on the state of avifauna, which help guide policy and resource management decisions. Under Flicker's leadership, Audubon has widely adopted green building principles, has spoken out against climate change, and has worked with numerous other organizations and companies in high-profile partnerships.
Flicker is a native of Minnesota and holds degrees from the University of Minnesota and William Mitchell College of Law. Before working at Audubon, he spent 21 years at The Nature Conservancy, holding various leadership positions.
Brian Clark Howard: I want to congratulate you for winning a Heart of Green Award from The Daily Green, which recognizes people who have brought critical environmental messages to a mainstream audience, and who have made a concrete difference for a cleaner, better world.
John Flicker: Thank you. It's great to be honored.
As the longtime leader of the National Audubon Society, how have you helped drive engagement of the public?
We launched a network of Audubon centers all around the country because young people weren't getting outdoors anymore. They are spending so much time with all their electronic gadgets, games, TV and so on, and parents don't have time to go outdoors with their kids anymore. Plus, many parents don't feel that it's safe to go outdoors. But if we want to build the next generation of conservation leaders, we need to connect people with nature. Then they will get motivated to take action about it, by plugging into The Daily Green for example. Respect for nature frequently starts at a young age.
So we launched the initiative to help people connect with the outdoors, and get motivated to do the right things. We focused on urban areas, where people have the least access to nature, and we work a lot with inner-city kids. It's been tremendously exciting to go into communities that need help badly, and provide something the whole community can use. We all need access to some piece of nature, and in many communities the only space left is a brownfield or abandoned lot. So we partner with local agencies to restore these places, create parks and open space, and turn what was the worst place into destinations that people want to go to. We have addressed some important environmental justice issues along the way.
I know one of your goals has been fostering of citizen science, which is something we're excited about here at The Daily Green. How do you get people to participate?
Citizen science is great because we can have people do productive science work as volunteers, and people love doing that. It started with our Christmas Counts 110 years ago, which is the longest continuous environmental study in the world. We have been able to track bird populations up and down. We tracked the decline of plume birds at the turn of the century, then saw that they came back after game laws were passed. We documented the decline of eagles and many birds in the middle of the century from DDT and other toxins, then saw their recovery. And now we're tracking major changes of birds as a result of climate change.
We need lots of data, so we need lots of people to help us. There's no way we could hire enough scientists to fan out over the whole country. But volunteer citizens can do that, and love doing that, so they can do what they love, which is to be out watching birds. We have 70,000 volunteers that help with the Christmas Counts. We are also designating bird areas, which are critical stopover spots for migratory birds, sort of like convenience stores on interstates. People in those communities monitor what's happening at each of those sites, and help us determine if those places need protection.
We also have the Great Backyard Bird Count, in February, in which we ask people to count the birds in their backyards. It's birdfeeder kinds of things, designed to get more kids and families involved, as well as to get another count. People can take 15 minutes, parents do it with their kids a lot, and it provides good data and teaches kids how to do it. You can report all your data on the Internet. All the counts are reported back on interactive maps, so you can see how your findings fit in with all the rest of the data. Tens of thousands of people participated.
How serious of a threat is climate change to birds, and what can we learn from them about it?
Birds are indicators of the health of our environment. We issued a report on the effects of climate change last year, based on our citizen data. We found that many birds have moved 300 to 400 miles farther north, directly as a result of climate change. They also moved inland, where climate is cooler, and to higher elevations. Usually this relates to their food source. Other half of the birds monitored have moved in a significant way.
But do some people in your organization argue that you shouldn't get involved with climate change, because it's a "political issue"?
Birds don't debate climate change, they just react. People who are out on the ground, whether they are a gardener, fisher, hunter or birder, they don't question it, they see it. They see plants growing where they didn't before, and they see wildlife habitat changing.
So what do you tell your members to do about climate change?
We're publishing a joint report with Ken Salazar's Department of the Interior on climate change, and we're urging people to get involved, to support legislation, to support better science.
Your group is sometimes seen as something that can transcend political lines, in part because we hear stats on the huge numbers of birders. How do you engage more people to pitch in?
Birding is probably the fasting growing outdoor activity right now, surpassing golf and many other things. It's easy to do, you don't need a lot of equipment, you don't need teams, and you can do it anywhere. There is always something new to see. It makes the outdoors more interesting and fun. It makes you more sensitive and attuned to nature, because birds are sensitive, and react to things. That's why Rachel Carson wrote about Silent Spring: if we didn't get rid of DDT we'd have no birds left to sing.
What do you think is your biggest accomplishment at Audubon?
Getting so many more people engaged with caring about nature, and with our chapter network and our centers. We expanded all of them, and got so many people engaged.
What was your biggest challenge?
Getting more people engaged and active, particularly with climate change. This is the big one; if we don't solve this, kind of nothing else matters. Time is running out.
Are there other threats people aren't aware of?
Well, our second biggest challenge is maintaining habitat. That's the crunch of development, which is also fragmenting habitat. We need to be more organized in how we plan, so we can concentrate development in areas that don't damage habitat. We're always just one step ahead of the bulldozer in preserving these places.
I know you worked on this issue closely, and before coming to Audubon you spent several years serving with The Nature Conservancy.
Yes, and that's another wonderful organization doing God's work.
Speaking of organizations, I know Audubon is a network of local chapters, but it is still often seen as a large organization, and there does seem to be some tension in the environmental movement between "big mainstream groups" and "grassroots groups." Was this an issue for you?
We need both. The big thing I tried to do is decentralize Audubon, so we're closer to the ground. I put emphasis on local chapters, that was the whole push with the new centers, so we're not reaching out to communities, we're in communities. We deliver services locally, which makes sense because things are so different from one community to the next.
Since "Audubon" wasn't a trademarked name, there are various groups around the world that use it for conservation, such as unaffiliated local chapters using the name and Audubon International, which isn't related to the National Audubon Society and is perhaps best known for certifying green golf courses. Was that ever a problem?
Nah. The more the better: anyone who uses a good name for conservation is good by me.
What about your own name, people sometimes get a kick out of the fact that you have the same name as a bird, the flicker [a type of woodpecker]. Has that helped you, and have you met others with names related to their work?
[Laughs] Yes that's true. I didn't pick it that way, but probably I would have if I needed to. The funny thing is, the current chair of Audubon also shares a name with a bird: Holt Thrasher. Carol Browner used to be the chair, but she recently had to step down to work in the Obama administration. So for a while we had two bird people leading the organization. The columnist Herb Crane in California used to write about people with names that related to what they do, and he once did a column on me. I was honored by that.
If you have one tip for people to go green, what would it be?
Get out into nature and develop a real passion for it, and then follow your passion.
Do you keep a life list [of birds that you have seen]?
I don't, I consciously don't because I go birding to enjoy it, not to be competitive. I like seeing birds because I like them. I can enjoy watching a cardinal or a bluejay as much as some new exotic species I've never seen before, because birds are beautiful. I want it to be fun. And I like to get more everyday casual birders involved. You don't have to have fancy equipment to enjoy birds. You can do it with your backyard feeder and watch American goldfinches, which are amazing.
What is your favorite place to bird in New York City?
Were you surprised at the amount of attention that one bird [Pale Male] received, in the media and by the public?
Yes. I was quite involved with all that, and it was quite an adventure. It really showed how a single bird can transform how people look at the world. How much people cared about the fate of that bird, and what it symbolized about our city was so moving. People have so little nature left in our cities that we need to fight for it. It might be one nest on one window ledge, but at some point we have to say: enough.
I think that's an important message of the recent Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, and Paul Watson's work with whales, as seen on The Whale Wars.
So what can you tell us of your future plans?
I want to keep staying involved with conservation, keep getting people engaged, and keep protecting habitat.
See more from the 2010 Heart of Green Awards
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.