Fighting to save the Gulf – and beyond
For Dobbs Ferry resident David Yarnold, the new president of the National Audubon Society and former executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, there’s no such thing as a typical day at the office.
One day, he’s mingling with alligators and checking out cypress trees in South Carolina. Another, he finds himself roaming Tejon Ranch in California. And on still another, he’ll watch volunteers mark birds at a hawk-banding station in Veracruz, Mexico.
But it’s his recent Gulf of Mexico trips — and an incredibly popular YouTube video that followed — that will be the focus of his lecture tonight at the Beczak Environmental Education Center in Yonkers.
And, he says, it’s good to be home.
“How do you say no to somebody in your own back yard?” Yarnold says. “Of course I want to meet my neighbors. I want to understand what they love about the Hudson Valley, and I want to share what I’ve learned about Audubon.”
For “Gulf Oil Spill: Seven Months Out,” Yarnold will offer his first-person account of the oil disaster and explain how Audubon has helped to restore regional wetlands, barrier islands and deltas.
“The first trip turned my stomach,” says Yarnold, who officially took over as Audubon president Sept. 1, and returned to the Gulf Coast soon thereafter. “The second trip gave me hope.”
Yarnold was working for the Environmental Defense Fund when he visited the Gulf Coast for two days in June, but his findings would remain pertinent for the job he’d start a few months later. One of the nation’s top conservation agencies, Audubon has a mission to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, wildlife and their habitats.
Following that first trip, Yarnold blogged on The Huffington Post about the oil spill that began April 20.
“(Up) close, where every breath you take fills your mouth, nose, and lungs with the toxic mix of oil and industrial chemicals,” he wrote, “where the disturbing and unforgettable scenes of a precious and fragile ecosystem in crisis are just seared into your mind — all of it is just so bad, so repugnant, so wrong in the most profound way.”
Yarnold knows something about storytelling; he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor when he worked at the San Jose Mercury News. But one chance moment reminded him that the power of video — and music — could reach his audience in other ways.
A version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as performed by the cast of the hit Fox show “Glee,” enhances a montage of Audubon’s stirring oil-spill footage. Yarnold was inspired to juxtapose the two online when his teenage daughter, Nicole, played the song as the family viewed the footage in their Dobbs Ferry living room.
“The song, a slow, sweet, ukulele and guitar-driven version, couldn’t have added a deeper sense of tragic irony,” Yarnold wrote.
Peter Rice, a Fox chairman, gave EDF permission to use the song with the video. With a boost from gossip site PerezHilton.com, the video has been viewed more than 295,000 times since it was posted June 16.
“Now, for me, (the song) is a part of what kind of world we’re going to leave my kids,” he says. “It’s personal for me.”
Westchester County’s river towns attracted Yarnold and his family to the Lower Hudson Valley five years ago. An avid outdoorsman, he often jogs on nearby trails and kayaks on the Hudson River.
“What’s not to love (about) kayaking in the shadow of the Palisades, where Native Americans paddled with canoes?” he says. “How can you not love the history of it, and the light, and the feeling of freedom of moving on the water?”
At Beczak, Yarnold will also present findings of Audubon’s October report, “Oil and Birds: Too Close for Comfort.”
In September, Yarnold returned to the Gulf Coast with an Audubon team to explore the spill’s impact on birds. Although BP installed a cap to stop the leak on July 15, the cleanup is far from complete. That, combined with fall migration, means new populations of birds are heading toward the region.
And where there are birds, he says, there’s particular ecosystem sensitivity.
“Birds lead you to the richest veins of biodiversity in America,” he says.
“Talking to people down there, once the well was capped … people were unanimous in their support of rebuilding the wetlands,” he says. “They understand how precious that habitat is and how central it is to their way of life.”
He adds that restoration, particularly west of the Mississippi River, has been significant.
“This is absolutely fixable,” he says. “This not like some kind of engineering conundrum. It’s not a puzzle. This is not a mystery. We know how to fix this.”