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Audubon groups at odds over names, objectives

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 7, 2000


Businessman Stephen Cejner was trying to reassure all the people who were mad at him. Sure, his company wants to build an 18-hole golf course amid the dunes and scrub of the North Peninsula State Recreation Area near Daytona Beach.

But he insisted this would be the most environmentally sensitive golf course possible. After all, he said, his company would be "working with Audubon to make it a signature golf course."

No, not that Audubon, not the venerable conservation organization of dedicated birdwatchers. That Audubon Society opposes Cejner's plans to develop half of the beachfront land the state bought to preserve it from development.

Cejner was referring to Audubon International, a New York-based organization more concerned with birdies than birdwatching. Supported in part by $100,000 a year from the U.S. Golf Association, Audubon International collects hefty fees from developers for stamping the Audubon name on golf courses around the country.

To Audubon Society officials, Audubon International is like an evil twin who constantly causes trouble. They say developers frequently promise a golf course project is going to be "Audubon-certified," while Audubon Society members are unaware of or opposed to the project.

"When Audubon International certifies a golf course, it clearly creates a lot of confusion in the mind of the general public," said Charles Lee, senior vice president of Audubon of Florida. "There are cases where the developers go in and get some upfront connection to Audubon International and they wave that around in the government hearings."

It happened last month in Tampa. Environmental activists were questioning the plans for Grand Hampton, a new 1,600-home golf community planned in New Tampa that would plop down houses, apartments, businesses and an 18-hole golf course next door to the Cypress Creek Preserve, a watershed that feeds into the Hillsborough River, the city's main source of drinking water.

So the developers' attorney, Joel Tew of Clearwater, promised that the project would meet Audubon standards. That surprised the board of the Tampa Audubon Society. They sent their president, Gerard Craddick, to the next council meeting to explain to city officials that the Audubon Society had not, and would not, endorse Grand Hampton.

"I attempted to make it clear that there was a distinction" between the Audubon Society and Audubon International, Craddick said.

Council members said they were surprised to hear there was more than one Audubon. Tew told a reporter his client, Toll Brothers, had no idea there was a difference between the two organizations.

In the end, though, the council voted to approve the rezoning for the project -- so long as the golf course signed up for Audubon International certification. Watching the vote, Craddick said he felt like asking the council, "Hello, were you listening?"

The most extreme example of this identity crisis is TwinEagles in Collier County. TwinEagles paid $9,500 to join Audubon International's honor roll, even though the Collier Audubon Society is suing to block the development.

"This Audubon signature certification is being used to justify and allay concerns about environmental misdeeds connected with golf course building," said Brad Cornell of the Collier Audubon Society. "TwinEagles fits the definition for why we don't want to certify golf courses that are displacing natural resources. . . . It's misleading and disingenuous."

Ron Dodson founded Audubon International, which has an annual budget of $2.5-million. He says this confusion happens all over the country. He insists that he dislikes it too, but what can you do?

"Every time we know of where a developer has gone before a government agency and said they were going to be affiliated with Audubon and we have not been involved, it has blown up in their face," he said.

Dodson said he's never heard of the Grand Hampton project in Tampa or Cejner's plans for the state recreation area. As for TwinEagles, it has not completed its certification as an Audubon signature course because of drainage problems, he said.

But he said all three of those projects may yet wind up winning Audubon certification if their owners are willing to play by his rules. If developers are going to build golf courses anyway, he said, why not make sure they don't wipe out every bit of wildlife habitat? Why not help them avoid overloading the course with pesticides and fertilizers?

"A golf course is not a wildlife refuge but they have some attributes similar to a wildlife refuge," Dodson said. Making them environmentally friendly "accomplishes more than standing on the sidelines yelling and screaming about everything proposed."

As far as Dodson is concerned, his organization is just as much a part of the Audubon family as the better-known society, although he concedes, "We're like that weird uncle up in the attic that nobody wants to talk about at the reunion."

* * *

Dodson, 52, was in Florida last week touring potential golf course developments in Bartow, Ocala and Bonita Springs. He makes $79,500 a year stamping the Audubon name on golf course projects from coast to coast and ticking off the Audubon Society. But there was a time when the Audubon Society's magazine hailed him as one of the top 10 environmentalists in the country.

He went to college on a golf scholarship (his handicap now is between 12 and 15) and wound up teaching in Kentucky. But Dodson said, "All I ever wanted to do my whole adult life was go to work for the National Audubon Society."

In 1982 his dream came true. He was hired by the National Audubon Society to be a regional vice president in Albany, N.Y. But the job wasn't what he thought it would be: "I spent most of my time out begging for money."

Then, in 1987, the organization had a $3.5-million budget shortfall. Dodson was downsized.

"It was a traumatic thing for myself, my wife and my three kids when I lost my job," he said. Although Dodson said he harbors no ill will toward his former employer, he also said that when the Audubon president who fired him later lost his job too, "we had a party that day in my office."

Dodson invested his savings in creating his own Audubon job by reviving the Audubon Society of the State of New York. He launched a program in which people paid to register their back yards, businesses and golf courses as Audubon wildlife sanctuaries.

The National Audubon Society cried foul, filing a lawsuit to block Dodson from using any name connected to the 19th-century ornithologist John James Audubon because it would confuse people.

John Bianchi, a spokesman for the National Audubon Society, said the lawsuit was settled and organization officials do not discuss it. That's because there was no settlement, Dodson said -- the Audubon Society lost.

In a 1991 ruling, a New York judge wrote that the Audubon Society does not hold the exclusive right to the name Audubon and had failed to prove there was any confusion over which Audubon was which. She suggested the people complaining about Dodson would "do well to take a lesson from nature" because "where the more varied the species, the greater the chance for succeeding in issues of survival."

* * *

Meanwhile Dodson, thanks to the financial backing of the U.S. Golf Association, had created Audubon International to spread his reach beyond New York. More than 2,500 golf courses around the country have paid $100 to register as Audubon sanctuaries.

Then he began working with golf course developers to design environmentally friendly golf courses that would then be certified as members of the Audubon International "signature" program. They would have to meet certain standards designed to protect the environment, draw up a management plan and agree to site inspections to check the work.

The base rate for the signature program is $9,500 per course, with a $500 a year membership fee. The price goes up depending on how involved Audubon's experts get in the work. For a 2,600-acre project on the site of an old bomb factory in Nevada, Dodson said, he's charging the developer $400,000.

The first Audubon signature course was Collier's Reserve in Naples, Fla., and since it was approved, 14 others nationwide have been joined the list. More than 100 others have applied, but more than 30 have dropped out of the running. Only one signature course has ever been kicked out of the program, Dodson said, the Charter Club at Summerfield in Stuart.

Dodson concedes that golf courses do not belong on some environmentally sensitive sites. A few years ago a Hilton Head, S.C., developer tried to enlist Dodson's organization in planning a golf course on some environmentally sensitive land, and Dodson turned him down flat.

The developer built it anyway, Dodson said, adding, "I'm not sure I did any good in that instance."

Dodson and Audubon Society officials have met to try to figure out a way to eliminate the confusion and perhaps even work together. So far, nothing has changed. Despite their nearly identical names, said Bianchi of the National Audubon Society, "there's very little common ground."

- Times staff writer Michael Sandler and researchers Cathy Wos, Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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