Painting: John James Audubon, 1832
One of the great ironies of John James Audubon's love affair with nature was that in order to produce his dramatic, lifelike illustrations of birds he first killed them with a shotgun and mounted their corpses on wires. It is likely that by stimulating interest in bird-watching, Audubon's paintings helped bring about current laws protecting endangered species, saving many more birds than Audubon himself killed, but the contrast is poignant.
There is a similar irony at work in a campaign being conducted by the society that named itself after the artist, on behalf of the American kestrel, a small falcon sometimes known as the sparrow hawk. With a $35,000 grant from Toyota, the New York Audubon Society and the New York State Department of Transportation are installing nest boxes for the kestrels along highways throughout the state. Pat Bradley, North Country bureau chief for the public radio station WAMC, filed a report complete with the sounds of nest boxes being constructed and cars driving along a highway - but sadly, one that failed to look past the press releases.
Bradley interviewed Laura McCarthy, Grassroots Coordinator for the Albany chapter of the Audubon Society, who says that the primary problem is the kestrel's loss of habitat, and in fact the kestrel was chosen as a poster child for the entire grassland ecosystem. What is causing this loss of grassland? "Development, commercial and residential," says McCarthy. In a word, sprawl.
And sprawl is a huge problem, particularly in New York's rural and suburban areas. In an excellent post, Joe the Planner observes that the area occupied by the Buffalo metro area has tripled since 1950 (emphasis in the original): "Buffalo's metro population has essentially remained unchanged for the last 60 years. With all the talk about population loss, it seems that many people don't realize this. Buffalo hasn't shrunk; it's just spread-out. This makes the effects of sprawl quite obvious because there's been no significant statistical muddying caused by changes in population."
Buffalo Assemblymember Sam Hoyt, sponsor of the State Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act, told Streetsblog, "There doesn’t seem to be any recognition that we keep building infrastructure where it doesn’t exist while, particularly in upstate cities, you have a vast network of existing infrastructure that is abandoned or unused that could be used for some development and save the taxpayers a whole lot of money."
The infrastructure is not just expensive, but it enables, invites and facilitates sprawl. Streetsblog's Noah Kazis tried to get Hoyt to acknowledge this, but it's not clear if Hoyt was avoiding the issue or if he just didn't get it. And who is the primary builder of sprawl-enabling infrastructure? None other than the New York State DOT.
In Pat Bradley's story, the DOT comes off as people who care. "Part of our job is to foster the environment," State DOT Region 1 Public Information Officer Peter Van Keuren told Bradley. On paper, that's correct; the DOT's mission is "a safe, efficient, balanced and environmentally sound transportation system."
Photo: Together Green, 2010
In practice, this is hogwash. Anyone who reads Mobilizing the Region knows that while there is significant variation from region to region within the agency, overall the State DOT never misses an opportunity to build a new one or widen an old one. Here in the city, they lost a fight to widen the Major Deegan, but are in the process of expanding the Brooklyn Bridge and are pushing to widen the BQE in Brooklyn Heights and over the Kosciuszko. Enabling sprawl for only $1.5 billion of your tax dollars.
The State DOT doesn't give a shit about the kestrel or any other part of the grasslands ecosystem. If they did, they'd be pushing Governor Paterson to appoint a permanent DOT chief who would pay more than lip service to smart growth, and focus on revitalizing existing communities. That's a battleship-turning maneuver worthy of Michael Bloomberg and Janette Sadik-Khan, but at some point it will have to be done.
As I'm sure you figured out, Toyota doesn't give a shit about the sparrow hawks either. If they did, instead of spending $35,000 on a few nesting boxes they'd be putting some of their $4 million annual lobbying budget behind Sam Hoyt's smart growth bill. Of course, smart growth means less driving, which means less driving in Toyotas, so don't hold your breath.
To be fair to the Audubon Society, they've been active in the smart growth movement. And bringing attention to the kestrels and the grasslands is very important. But Toyota and the State DOT have gotten a ton of good press from this. By contributing to the greenwashing of these two villains of sprawl without even exacting some concessions, they may have set back the kestrels' cause instead of advancing it.