Friday, September 3, 2010

Audubon's special report takes aim at the wrong target

Oiled Great Egret
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
Ted Williams, who writes the “Incite” column in Audubon, has finally managed to incite me, this time not in his column but in the September–October issue's “Special Report: The BP Oil Disaster.”

Mr. Williams has had a long and respected career as a conservationist, and also a long history as a curmudgeon, his columns often written in an angry Lewis Black style. Just recently he wrote one of the best pieces ever put together about “trap, neuter, release” feral cat colonies. And he usually sees the big picture in an insightful as well as “inciteful” way. He wrote in his December, 2004, column (quoted here):
I envy young environmentalists of the 21st century, but I feel bad for them, too. They don’t know what it feels like to win big against seemingly impossible odds. When I started out, America and the world were environmentally lawless. There was no Endangered Species Act, no Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, no Clean Water Act, no Clean Air Act, no National Environmental Policy Act, no National Forest Management Act. In 1970 I remember standing on the steps of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife field headquarters and arguing with a colleague, Joe, about the banning of DDT. “It will never happen,” he told me. When DDT was banned two years later, he said, “It won’t make any difference.”
Ted Williams may both envy and feel bad for young environmentalists, but he’s not above attacking one for looking critically at Audubon’s response to the BP oil spill. Mr. Williams writes, “Until I got to coastal Louisiana in mid-June, covering BP’s oil gusher was an assignment I’d have loved to pass up.” Two months after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, like most of the American public, he still wasn’t galvanized to get personally involved, not until his job required him to do so. And when he did get there, he took BP and the government’s word about a great deal, focusing his ire on this:
What I found is another toxic gusher, one of misinformation spewing from politicians puffing and preening for voters, alleged experts with questionable credentials vying for the limelight, and talking heads reporting or concocting news depending on availability.
Certainly there was a lot of misinformation floating about for Mr. Williams to focus on, but rather than clearing it up, his article actually repeats scientifically discredited information as fact. He writes, comparing this to the Exxon Valdez spill:
Deepwater Horizon oil is different. It is highly volatile, and nearly half evaporates immediately. In the intense heat, bacteria consume other fractions. Also, the leak is almost 50 miles at sea, giving dispersion and natural breakdown processes more time to kick in.
His deadline was apparently before a great many studies confirmed that most of the oil still remains in the water, and he apparently never considered that water temperatures at the depth of the blown-out oil well are quite cold.

He also says, “Finally, much has been learned about boom laying and skimming, and operations are massive and intense.”

Massive and intense they may be, but neither massive nor intense enough—I personally saw many islands, several with important nesting colonies, onto which heavily oiled boom had washed ashore weeks before, yet nothing had or was being done. I was there the last week of July and first week of August, weeks after the first tropical storms washed them there. Mr. Williams doesn’t say how long he was in the Gulf, nor whether he visited any places except with spokespeople for major players in the cleanup, so it’s hard to be sure he was even aware of how badly the booms were maintained.

Audubon was contracted by BP to take charge of coordinating volunteers for assisting with wildlife issues [NOTE: I've been asked to clarify that Audubon was not contracted by BP. But BP and US F&W were using Audubon to coordinate volunteers, as Williams noted:

Audubon is seeking volunteers experienced in handling seabirds and asking them to sign up with response leaders. But at this writing there aren’t so many oiled birds that state and federal recovery personnel can’t handle the job. Therefore, qualified volunteers are being told to stand by in case they’re needed. The very last thing Gulf Coast birds need are well-meaning amateurs crashing through nesting habitat.]

Immediately after the spill, thousands of people volunteered, calling by phone or filling out their information on various websites, and thousands of people got back form responses telling them to wait. Even one of my friends, an authority on bird rehabilitation who has been part of many oil spill responses in the past, a woman who led the Bald Eagle recovery program after the Exxon Valdez, was turned away. Audubon was criticized widely for not galvanizing these volunteers. Mr. Williams defends this:
It’s hard to do nothing when the world is yammering at you to do something—anything, even the wrong thing. This was a lesson I relearned on the humid, 100-degree morning of June 15 when I visited bay islands with Reid and his Audubon colleagues Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for Audubon’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative, and Karen Westphal, Atchafalaya River Basin program manager.
The saddest scene we encountered—up close, from Wolkart’s 24-foot Ranger Bay boat—was the royal tern colony on Queen Bess Island. Ringing the oil-stained mangroves was red hard boom and, just inside, white sorbent boom. Such barricades offer partial protection at best. Only about 10 of some 300 adults had been oiled, but virtually all the estimated 150 chicks were covered. “If we do nothing, they could die,” said Driscoll. “They’re at risk of overheating and sunburn, hypothermia if they get wet. But if we evacuate them, they won’t be taught to fend for themselves, and they’ll probably die, too. The thought is that now that they’re close to molting they’ll drop their oiled feathers and a few will make it. I don’t know if that’s a good theory, but we’re in a situation where there’s no good decision. The best decision is not to have an oil spill.”
There were MANY islands with the same problems Mr. Williams saw here. Putting aside issues of compassion for suffering birds, and simply considering how many unknowns are indeed involved in these situations, why wasn’t there intervention on at least one or two of these islands to learn, based on actual data, which approach is wiser? That is what science is about.

There were many different ways that volunteers could have been used without compromising cleanup or responsible, legal wildlife rehab protocols. For example, teams could have been sent out on prescribed routes to check, at a safe distance, the boom around vulnerable islands to alert cleanup response teams where boom needed to be replaced in a timely manner. When I was in the Gulf at the end of July, over three months after the BP explosion, a large crew was working at one still-unoiled island, putting in vertical structures to better hold the boom in place—the kind of task that requires hard work but would be well within the abilities of volunteers (after all, many of the people that I saw doing this were prisoners on work-release programs). This was, unfortunately, a task that should have been done in the first place, months earlier. Sadly, the boom around virtually every other island had been laid without this low-tech insurance to keep it from washing ashore in storms, which just happened to be when the oil washed up with it.

Mr. Williams minimized the effects of the spill:
Due to the nature of the oil and the monumental cleanup effort, visible damage was not as bad as the public imagines or the media have depicted. Occasionally we smelled oil, but although goop and tar had washed up elsewhere, we saw only light sheens.
He was either there before the tropical storms arrived or he closed his eyes to a lot of visible damage. By late July, I saw personally that there were plenty of oiled islands out there. I agree that at least by then there wasn’t much to smell in most areas, but after standing on one oiled beach for 20 minutes or so, I felt woozy and faint, even without smelling a thing. By his own account, Mr. Williams was not exposed to any oiled beaches.

Mr. Williams wrote specifically about Drew Wheelan:
In an interview with CNN’s Gary Tuchman, the American Birding Association’s Drew Wheelan declared: “I cannot see any reason why they would not want as many people here as possible.” And in a later CNN broadcast he and Anderson Cooper spoke of “experts” who supposedly possess the power to pluck birds from the firmament, a feat impossible for any human save Harry Potter.
(I’ll interject here that one of these experts they turned away may not be Harry Potter, but is, as I noted, a licensed and active rehabber with decades of oil spill experience. And I find it hard to believe that Mr. Williams has never in his long career witnessed a bird banding operation--banders as well as some rehabbers do in fact have the skills and equipment to catch flying birds. It wouldn't have taken much investigating for him to learn what the St. Petersburg Times reported just this week: Bird Rescue Experts Kept on Sidelines after Gulf Oil Spill. )
Cooper, goosing Wheelan along: “Right now they don’t have the expertise to go after birds that are in flight, which people can do who are experts. . . . Basically, you’re saying they’re just going after the birds who are completely covered in oil and unable to move, and these are the birds that are likeliest basically to die. . . . So birds that maybe have less oil on them and can fly, they’re not going after those birds because it’s too much effort and too difficult.”
Wheelan: “Yeah, they just don’t have any expertise in that area. . . . There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be 50 people down in Grand Isle . . . going out at dawn, trying to capture these birds.”
Cooper: “It seems there are a lot of volunteers and a lot of bird experts who would love to be down here and love to be helping.”
Wheelan: “Absolutely. . . . I know the Audubon Society has over 17,000 people that have signed up to volunteer on this effort, and so far they’ve not received a single phone call. . . . They just don’t want to allow any help.” (Wheelan issued a retraction on his blog after Audubon explained to him that the best way volunteers can help is to wait patiently until they’re contacted.)
Drew Wheelan wrote on Facebook on September 2:
I did not retract anything I wrote about the Audubon Society and their volunteers. They had many opportunities that could have helped down here that they let slip through their fingers. The blame is really on Incident Command for not identifying areas of need and allowing qualified people to help...
USFWS and LDWF have stated time and again that they will not disturb the colony to rescue a few birds as a reason for not saving any of those Royal Terns, hundreds of which died, BTW, And in the next sentence [Ted Williams] commends Mike Carloss for doing exactly that, rescuing a Gull on Queen Bess on the very same day. That bird was filmed by CNN as it was captured and was horribly mis-treated by Carloss and eventually died. Audubon has had every opportunity to work as stewards to protect beach nesting colonies in Louisiana, and I was specifically told by Melanie Driscoll to lay off the issue, as she had it covered. They did nothing, Colonies from the Chandeleur Islands to the Timbaliers have all been impacted negatively by clean up response, and LDWF and Audubon never did a thing to help. In fact in their most recent Gulf Spill news letter they praised their own efforts to work as stewards to protect a Least tern Colony that I found and brought to the attention of the world, and they did NOTHING to help protect, except for about 8 hours during the Leanne Rimes concert, and when they praised themselves for that herculean effort they never mentioned the thousands of dollars spent by BTNEP to protect the colony, nor the man hours put in, nor the logistical support given to them, housing and transportation all by BTNEP. Not one word. Clean up effort: I am working on my calculations, but I can account for hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil left on Louisiana's shores never once attempted to be cleaned by BP and still remains there, even here on Grand Isle.
To research this article, Mr. Williams not only did not visit many oiled places in the Gulf—he didn’t even try to contact Drew, not for information about his experiences and what he witnessed over the long, hot months since the explosion, nor to ask for a response to his charges. Mr. Williams focused on one TV interview and then misrepresented Drew’s blog response after the National Audubon Society took him to task.
Since May, Drew has been working tirelessly in Grand Isle virtually every day except when he developed pneumonia. He’s operating on a shoestring, even mostly sleeping in his truck. This young environmentalist is doing what Ted Williams once did so well—speaking truth to power. Not one word that Drew Wheelan has written or spoken been in service of any agenda except to present the truth about what is happening to birds as a result of the oil spill. He has seen a lot of things that were being done badly, and a lot of things that badly needed being done, and has written about them with charmingly unfiltered forthrightness.

It’s ironic that forty years after his own environmental activism set him on a life course of speaking out, Ted Williams set as his target not the corporation that caused the biggest oil spill in peacetime or maritime history, nor the weak federal agencies that endlessly repeated BP’s lies and exaggerations, from the amount of oil gushing in the first place to the amount of oil that had magically disappeared. No, Mr. Williams set his aim on the one young environmentalist of the 21st century who most exemplifies the standards Mr. Williams usually stands for. I hope that Mr. Williams' injudicious trashing doesn't harm Drew's chances to learn “what it feels like to win big against seemingly impossible odds.”


  1. I share in the frustration everyone feels about this spill, but the more fingerpointing that goes on between conservationists divided by resentments, the more focus shifts away from the real culprit, BP, the laxity of offshore drilling regulations, and our own crippling addiction to fossil fuels. Melanie Driscoll's summation was right: "the best thing you can do is not have an oil spill."
    But since the oil began flowing, there's been recrimination about who is or is not acting negligently. I respect Drew Wheelan's commitment to write about this disaster, but he has mainly served as a voice of outrage rather than as a source of information, and I refuse to believe (after talking to them) that USFWS and LDWF biologists are either incapable or uncaring. These are people who have dedicated their careers to protecting the land they live on. They have carefully explained the pros and cons that they, as stewards of the coast, must weigh before attempting a rescue, only to have their efforts dismissed out of hand by people looking on from the wings.
    It's easy to say that rehabbers "know how to catch birds" and quite another thing to have them do it from a barren stretch of oiled sand with a thousand invisible nests underfoot, or from within the oiled tangles of a mangrove rookery.
    I just don't think it's proper or productive to heap criticism on these people, who are simply trying to stem damage somebody else caused. If you look at the comments in the newspaper article you link to, you can see who the real casualties of this criticism are: the Obama administration, government biologists, and environmentalists. With the debate shifted to who is screwing up the rescue efforts, BP largely gets a pass. Meanwhile, we're making enemies of our allies.

  2. I agree that it's counter-productive for groups to be fighting against one another. But I wonder why Audubon felt it necessary to have their biggest gun aim not at the lies BP was promoting and their cosmically irresponsible corporate policies that led to the spill, but directly at one young man doing his best out there? Seems utterly unfair to give that article a pass when it was attacking one very good young man.

    I know people who worked on bird rescue after the Exxon Valdez. They are, to a person, in agreement that catching wild birds in the field is challenging, but can be done if you have skills and experience. I also know a lot of people who band wild birds--it's a challenge, but hardly requires Harry Potter magic.

  3. Thank you Laura for writing this and in such depth!

  4. Thanks for a great article. I let my NAS membership lapse years ago because I saw an organization that was more devoted to fundraising and marketing its brand than conservation. To help birds, people should donate their time or money to the smaller, local organizations that actually get things done, consequences be damned!

  5. I still support Audubon. The bigger an organization, the more entrenched in bureaucracy, and the more essential maintaining funding and working partnerships becomes, but it's still true that they are also very effective at the things they do right. Audubon is going to be listened to by government officials way more than I am as an individual.

    But when they overstep their expertise, as they did here, they do need to be called on it.

  6. I think it's also important to remember one essential fact--the ONLY birds that show up in ANY of the official figures of birds oiled during this disaster are ones that are actually collected--if they're just left there, they did not figure at all in the numbers of oiled wildlife that BP is legally liable for.