Even in the Face of Incredible Threats from Global Climate Change, These Four Women with the National Audubon Society Personify Hope For a Healthy Planet and a Sustainable Future.

Article: Maranda Pleasant

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” That challenge to a generation came from Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, the seminal book that sounded the alarm in the early 1960s about the lethal effects of pesticides on animals of all kinds. Carson’s writing inspired generations of environmental activists, scientists, educators, and legislators who over the last half century have worked to scrub pollutants from the air, halt the extinctions of wildlife, and clean up the water flowing through our faucets and streams.

Still, many of the biggest environmental challenges lie ahead, and some of the people on the front lines of those battles will be women following in Carson’s footsteps. Working for the National Audubon Society, these four women are wading in the swamps to study water birds, fighting in the courts for protections for wild places, harnessing technology to map critical habitats, and inspiring the next generation with education programs that let kids plant a tree for the first time or hold a bird in their hands and set it free.

Even in the face of incredible threats such as global climate change, these women personify hope for a healthy planet and a sustainable future.

Since 1905, the National Audubon Society has been saving birds and their habitats throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground conservation. Audubon’s state programs, nature centers, chapters, and partners reach millions of people each year to inform, inspire, and unite diverse communities in conservation action. Audubon is a nonprofit conservation organization. To learn more or donate, visit audubon.org and @audubonsociety.

National Audubon Society Women Pioneers


Iliana PeñaIliana Peña
Director of Conservation
Audubon, Texas

Texas native Iliana Peña, director of conservation for Audubon Texas, lives by the words of her college professor, who told her that wildlife conservation is impossible without knowing how to communicate.
“If you can’t talk to someone and connect with them about the land and wildlife, you miss a key first step on the road to conservation,” she says. It is a principle she returns to constantly when working with landowners, farmers, and ranchers to use land sustainably and keep it bird friendly. As a girl, Peña had “Don’t Hurt the Dolphins” posters taped to the walls of her bedroom, and she remains steadfast in her ambitions to protect wildlife. When, as an adult, she learned about the severe erosion, lack of fresh water, and pollution facing the six-hundred-mile coastline of Texas, which provides an essential stopover site for about 98 percent of North America’s migratory bird species, she joined Audubon’s coastal conservation program that monitors a system of island sanctuaries. “I have a two-year-old daughter now,” she says. “Watching her become aware of the nature around her makes me want to work harder, to ensure that all the diversity that makes up nature is there for her to learn and experience long after I’m gone.”

Photo: Blake Gordon


Beth BardwellBeth Bardwell
Director of Conservation
Audubon, New Mexico

Beth Bardwell was seven years into her law career before she seriously picked up a pair of binoculars. Soon afterward, she quit her job and went back to school to pursue a degree in biology. Today, she is Audubon New Mexico’s director of conservation and a key player in negotiating water rights in the nation’s driest region. “Climate change is changing the water cycle in profound ways,” Bardwell says. That’s especially true in the western United States, where she works with farmers and landowners to reallocate water back to critical forests and wetlands, preserving the bird habitats that inspired her to join the environmental movement in the first place. It’s not just about the birds, though. “Fresh water is essential to all life,” Bardwell says. If we are to remain a thriving culture and keep our natural ecosystems intact, we have got to take the challenges of climate change personal. “Our lifestyles have to change,” she says, “and we’ve got to start it.”
Photo: Michael Lundgren


Melanie A. SmithMelanie A. Smith
Director of Conservation Science
Audubon Alaska

“Nature is my spiritual center and I care about it without even knowing why,” says Melanie Smith, Audubon Alaska’s director of conservation science. Raised in Michigan by a family of farmers who loved birding, Smith is a conservationist to the core, living off the grid in Anchorage in a solar-powered cabin that runs on only sixty watts of power with no running water. She leads Audubon’s Arctic, Tongass, and Important Bird Area programs in Alaska, using spatial GIS mapping to identify key habitats and build conservation plans to protect the state’s wildlife. “It’s important to me to be in a place where landscapes are whole, where species have not gone extinct, and where things are healthy and functioning,” she says. “Knowing that I’m involved and trying hard to contribute to making things better is what keeps me going.”

Photo: Nathan Walker


Melanie DriscollMelanie Driscoll
Director of Bird Conservation
Gulf Coast Conservation
Mississippi Flyway
National Audubon Society

Five years ago, when the Deepwater Horizon rig spewed toxic oil into the Gulf of Mexico for eighty-seven days, killing eleven workers and thousands of marine animals, Melanie Driscoll found herself confronted with the heartbreaking sight of oil-covered pelicans and shorebirds. In her job as director of bird conservation for Audubon’s Gulf Coast and Mississippi Flyway regions, she works at the state and federal level to ensure that this kind of disaster never happens again. In July, BP agreed to pay $18.7 billion to help restore environmental and economic communities affected by the spill. Although the road to recovery is just beginning, nature’s resilience continues to motivate Driscoll’s work. “In my career I’ve been in some pretty difficult places and seen some really difficult things,” she says. “During the Deepwater Horizon spill, I watched royal tern parents, coated with oil, trying to raise their young. That determination to do what must be done, and to go on and continue to create life, even in the face of tremendous odds, is inspiring.”

Photo: Erika Larsen/Redux Pictures

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