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Pelican Island Audubon earns 2 state awards

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of November 16, 2023)

Pelican Island Audubon Society came home from Florida Audubon’s annual assembly in Tampa this year with the goods.

The group received two out of seven statewide awards –  one for Chapter of the Year and one for Excellence in Education – given at the assembly, fresh recognition of the 850-member local organization’s extraordinary efforts to hold the line against environmental deficit and degradation.

These are not feel-good, “participation” awards. The competition is intense and people with expertise in evaluating the importance and effectiveness of environmental efforts, including protecting birds and their habitats, make the picks.

The state organization has 45 independent chapters and approximately 100,000 members, according to Florida Audubon communications director Erika Zambell.

“The chapters are about equally divided between large chapters with over 500 members and small chapters with fewer than 500 members,” said Richard Baker, Ph.D., longtime president of Pelican Island Audubon. “Two Best Chapter awards are given each year – one for best large chapter and one for best small chapter.”

By those numbers, if the awards were evenly distributed in a pro-forma manner to give everyone some love, the Pelican Island society would be due a best chapter award once every 22 or 23 years. In fact, it has won the best large chapter award five times in the past 20 years.

“Pelican Island Audubon Society (PIAS) was selected as the Large Chapter of the Year [in 2023] based on the quality, diversity, and sustainability of their many programs . . . their commitment to education and engagement with non-traditional communities, and their focus on combating climate change through their ‘Trees For Life’ program,” the assembly announced.

PIAS received it’s 2023 Best Education Award for its “Audubon Advocate programs with four Title 1 elementary schools and its summer camp program.”

“We are in our ninth year with the Audubon Advocate program and have graduated more than 800 fifth graders,” Baker told Vero Beach 32963 last week. “Hiking, bird watching and bird identification, learning to use binoculars, photography, nature journaling, and self-portraits of themselves in nature are all part of the program.

“The campers went to the Sebastian inlet seining for fish and aquatic animals, guided by the park scientists. They held starfish for the first time and went on pontoon rides on the Indian River Lagoon to explore the unique estuary. The campers work with an art teacher who teaches sketching techniques and bird drawing,” as well as other scientists and teachers.

At one of the schools they support – Pelican Island Elementary School – PIAS purchased 18 parcels of scrub habitat with scrub jays, gopher tortoises and other animals around the school and provided more than 20 pairs of binoculars so children can observe wildlife near their classrooms.

“We also helped the teachers revamp the K-thru-5th grade curricula to support the school district’s designation of Pelican Island Elementary as an environmental science school,” Baker added.

This year’s awards in Tampa add to a long list of earlier awards collected by PIAS in recent years.  Under the heading of “think globally, act locally,” PIAS functions as a conservation, restoration and nature education dynamo in and around Indian River County while also being part of Audubon’s statewide efforts and an important cog in the national organization that has led many of the most important efforts to protect the natural world and the quality of human life for the past 120 years.

Locally, Pelican Island Audubon has a long list of impressive accomplishments. They include founding the Environmental Learning Center, playing a leading part in promoting and passing three county conservation land acquisition bond issues worth a total of $125 million, launching a program to plant 100,000 trees, and saving a large tract of wilderness along the lagoon that now is the Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area, where PIAS built its whimsical education headquarters with birdhouse-like structures, a traditional Old Florida breezeway, gardens, art rooms and museum-like displays.

Whether taking people on birding tours, kneeling in the dirt to plant a native tree or filing successful lawsuits to stop harmful polices or development, Pelican Island Audubon is Indian River Counties most active conservation organization.

The success of this under-sung organization owes much to Baker himself, a charismatic leader who continues in his 80s to fight a determined rear-guard action against human-caused environmental harm and the separation of people – especially children – from the beauty and healing impact of the natural world.

A longtime University of Florida professor and distinguished research scientist before his retirement, Baker received Audubon Florida’s statewide leadership award in 2018. In 2011, he was selected from tens of thousands of Audubon volunteers nationwide to receive the Charles H. Callison National Volunteer Award from the National Audubon Society for “working tirelessly as an advocate for conservation in his community.”

Baker, who has a direct, sometimes abrupt manner but is also quick with a smile, “is steadfast, resilient and epitomizes the standards we look for in volunteer leadership,” according to Eric Draper, who was executive director of Florida Audubon when Baker won the national award. “He really stood out in the whole country. This is the highest award for an Audubon leader.”