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.
It did not take long for Audubon staffers to realize that their educational programs were more desperately needed on the east side of town.
In 1998, Melanie Ingalls opened an Audubon office at a storefront in the Highland Park neighborhood east of the Los Angeles River.
For six years, she talked to whomever walked in the door and answered questions from people who had largely never heard of the Audubon Society before she arrived. A man once walked in with a large snake dangling around his neck.
Unable to speak Spanish, she sometimes struggled to communicate with the neighborhood's new arrivals. So she painted a message at the entrance to the building explaining Audubon's mission en espanol. Soon afterward, a Latino youngster walked into her office and asked her, in English, "What does that mean?"
"My motto became, 'Everything I think I know is wrong,' " said Ingalls, senior program director for Audubon California. "Nobody was going to have the patience for the formal Audubon explanation about a painter from 200 years ago who liked birds. I just had to get to the essence of the thing, that we are people who value nature."
Ingalls began looking for a more appropriate site for a nature center. With the help of local activists, such as Elsa Lopez of the group Mothers of East L.A., she settled on city-owned Debs Park, a hilly, unkempt, 300-acre site near the Arroyo Seco, as an ideal locale for programs. The park contains a large stand of Southern California black walnut trees, which are becoming increasingly rare, and several declining species of birds, including the Nuttall's woodpecker.
Ingalls and Lopez were stunned when their first "bug night," a family event to trap and identify salamanders and other local critters, attracted 150 people. Many older immigrants, who had been exposed to wildlife in their native small towns in Mexico and Central America, were saddened that their children were indifferent to nature and hoped to rekindle their interest in their grandchildren.
Political support began to grow after former Councilman Mike Hernandez offered help, although Hernandez later committed a faux pax by telling the Audubon board that as a youngster he once killed birds with a slingshot in the park.
Sponsors, including Toyota Motor Corp. of America and the James Irvine Foundation, provided financial assistance. The city agreed to lease Audubon about 17 acres at the park, and the center eventually became a reality.
"We want to turn Audubon into a household name around here," said Lopez, who was hired as the center's director, part of a plan by Audubon to hire local activists to run the new facilities. "It may be only one person at a time, but it's happening."
In addition to providing educational programs for the 50,000 schoolchildren who live within a two-mile radius of the park, and their families, the 5,000-square-foot center is a showcase of conservation-minded design. Its steel rebar is made entirely of melted-down guns that were turned in to the city. Its cabinets are made of organic wheat straw and sunflower seeds. It captures rainwater to irrigate plants. It runs exclusively on solar power, and all of its wastewater is treated on site. It is not even connected to the power grid or sewer system.
At a training session for volunteers on a recent Saturday, Ignacio Cavillo, 45, marveled at the opportunity Audubon was providing local children. It was an opportunity he did not have when he grew up nearby.
"I didn't have anyone to take me by the hand and show me this stuff when I was a kid," Cavillo said. "The kids who come here, I want them to grow up and be for the environment like Robert Redford."