Kristin McMurran
January 14, 1980 12:00 PM

For enthusiastic “birders” like James Schlesinger, Elliott Richardson and nature artist Roger Tory Peterson, January marks the start of another annual tally of sightings—and a chance to add to the total life list of birds seen and identified. But Russell Peterson, president of the National Audubon Society, takes a more relaxed approach. There are 8,600 bird species in the world, and Peterson, 63, a onetime environmental adviser to Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller, has seen about 1,000 since his son Peter asked him to visit a bird sanctuary 25 years ago.

“I would go 10 miles to see a species,” Peterson generally allows, “but I’m not about to rent a Learjet just to add another bird to my list. I can’t afford it.” Still, he is currently on the lookout for a whooping crane. His favorite birds are predators—the bald eagle (“such a powerful flyer”) and the even more rare peregrine falcon (“watching it dive is spectacular”).

“Birds are important,” Peterson points out, “because they are an ecological litmus paper. Miners used to take canaries down into the mines with them, and when the birds toppled over the miners got the hell out because they knew the air was dangerous. The demise of bird species today is a signal to us that our life is being threatened—by the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.”

The society that Peterson took over as president last April is named in honor of naturalist and painter John James Audubon (1785-1851). It was started 75 years ago when a group of conservationists banded together to stop the slaughter of egrets and herons for their plumage. Today the Audubon has 400,000 members in 436 chapters nationwide, and with an annual $14.7 million budget maintains 73 sanctuaries, known as “Islands of Life,” covering 200,000 square miles. “At Audubon,” Peterson says, “we’re trying to be a voice of reason, to do our homework and check with many sources. It’s easy to go off half-cocked on complicated issues.”

The society is not strictly for the birds. “Audubon is about life, all life,” insists Peterson. To prove his point, he has in recent months waded waist-deep in a Florida swamp, heard humpbacked whales sing and alligators roar (“They sound like lions”)—and nearly frozen when his canoe capsized in Mono Lake in the California Sierra, where 800,000 grebes make their home.

Peterson’s first love was chemistry. One of nine children born in Portage, Wis., he dishwashed his way through the state university to a Ph.D. He met his wife, Lillian, in Portage, but their children (Glen, 41, Peter, 37, Kristin, 33, and Elin, 23) were born in Delaware, where Peterson worked 26 years for DuPont, eventually heading up research and development.

Active in citizens groups pushing for prison reform and better housing, he was tapped by the state’s Republican organization to run for governor. He won, and while in office (1969-73) he abolished the whipping post (still on the books as a form of punishment) and proved his ecological awareness by signing a zoning bill that prohibits heavy industry along a two-mile coastal strip the length of the state. (Oil companies were angry, and it led to his defeat in the next election.)

Today Peterson clearly means to extend the society’s role. “We’re involved in gut issues,” he says. He has increased the staff to study energy, toxic substances, water resources and world population. Peterson also served on the federal commission that investigated Three Mile Island and is an adamant foe of nuclear power. “We should do all we can to make the nuclear-fission era as short as possible.”

Not that Peterson has forgotten the smaller issues—like the plight of the tiny snail darter, whose threatened extinction held up the construction of Tennessee’s $116 million Tellico Dam. “A lot of people made fun of us,” he admits. “Well, the snail darter was another environmental litmus paper telling us, ‘Beware of what you’re doing.’ We must—if not for our own sake, then for our grandchildren’s.”

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