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Audubon Focuses on Nature in Midst of City

November 02, 2003|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

The National Audubon Society, famous for its defense of endangered birds and wild places, is moving into the concrete jungle, seeking to ensure its own survival.

On Thursday, the Audubon Society will open an urban nature center in Ernest E. Debs Park northeast of downtown Los Angeles, an underused and somewhat forgotten refuge alongside the Pasadena Freeway that is still home to 136 bird species.

The educational center, the second urban Audubon facility in the country, represents a major philosophical shift for the conservation group, which is trying to reposition itself in response to the demographic changes that are altering the face of the nation.

Audubon plans to build 1,000 similar centers around the country by 2020, hoping to reach America's increasingly diverse and city-dwelling populace close to home, and instill a love of nature that will last a lifetime. In addition to new centers in New York and Los Angeles, plans are underway for facilities in Philadelphia, Seattle and Little Rock, Ark.

"Enjoying nature doesn't have to happen in some far-off place. Sometimes, it can happen in your local park," said National Audubon Society President John Flicker. "We're trying to develop programs that allow people to realize what they have close by. It's amazing what people can discover when they know what to look for."

For the National Audubon Society, a 98-year-old organization named for artist and naturalist John James Audubon, who was born in 1785, the new strategy is a matter of political expediency as much as public duty, Flicker openly admits. The group's 500,000 members are older, and whiter, than the nation as a whole.

Without strong support among Latino immigrants and other burgeoning populations in inner cities -- and the backing of the politicians who represent them -- Audubon could someday become as extinct as the carrier pigeon the bird lovers once championed.

"We can't succeed in protecting distant wild places if we do not have urban constituencies that care," Flicker said. "We want to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but we can't do that if we don't have people in places like Los Angeles who are calling their local congressman, telling him why this is important."

Already, the strategy is beginning to bear fruit for Audubon. It has developed a closer relationship with the politician who represents the Debs Park area in Washington, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), a former chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

"People drive down the Pasadena Freeway and don't even realize they have this stretch of unspoiled land right next to them," said Becerra, who helped secure federal funding for the Audubon center. "This type of center is indispensable for the urban core. If you don't have something like this, you never allow kids in a concrete setting to experience nature."

Becerra said the time for environmental groups to become more active in expanding the nature experiences of urban children is long overdue. He recalled asking a classroom of about 30 junior high students a decade ago how many had been to the beach recently. To his shock, he said, most said they had never seen the ocean up close, despite living less than an hour away.

"That's what we're talking about here -- reaching a whole generation of children," Becerra said. "It's in the interest of Audubon to do this, because they are going to need the support of the immigrant and minority communities in the very near future."

In Brooklyn's Prospect Park, where Audubon opened its first urban center last year in a 1905 boathouse, it has begun to connect with immigrants from the Caribbean who had felt separated from nature in New York City.

The black-throated blue warblers that stop by the park, which contains the only freshwater lake in Brooklyn, fly to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in winter. The center, in the middle of a metropolitan area of 2.5 million people, is expecting 4,000 to 5,000 visitors for a Halloween crow counting event this weekend, more than many rural bird sanctuaries get all year.

"It's a sea change for Audubon," said the Brooklyn center's director, Glenn Phillips. "Audubon has been helping kids learn about nature for years, but the centers have been in areas that were already major destinations for birders. This is a different approach: nature in your backyard, for people who may not have been aware of it. What we are finding is that people value nature, once they learn about it. They take a lot of pride in the birds of Brooklyn."

The Debs Park center is the result of a decade's worth of work by the National Audubon Society to establish a foothold in Los Angeles.

Though Audubon has long had active chapters in the city, the national society had no formal presence until it opened an office in 1990 near the Ballona Wetlands, where it still buses urban children to visit the ocean and learn about coastal marshes.

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