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Bird groups hatch a rivalry

Emergence of a second Audubon office creates territorial tension

There are now officially two Audubon Society organizations in Portland, and the director of one Audubon used to run the other.

Confused? You're not alone. But it's a situation that Portland's bird enthusiasts know all too well.

The National Audubon Society has been wrestling with its largest and richest chapter, the Audubon Society of Portland, for years. Now the national group has embarked on exactly the plan the local chapter feared: It is opening a new state office, in Portland.

The director for the new state office, known as Audubon Oregon, is David

Eshbaugh, who served as executive director of Portland Audubon for six years. Eshbaugh hopes to have a local office set up by the end of the fiscal year, June 30, along with a skeleton staff and the makings of a board of directors.

Eshbaugh also is working to repair relations with his Audubon colleagues. While he officially left on good terms, questions remain: How did the new Oregon state office come into being? How did Eshbaugh leave the helm of one Audubon to take over the other? How can two Audubons in one city compete for dwindling donations in tough economic times?

A controversial grant from a New York City-based foundation run by Eshbaugh's family has added to the tension. The Elizabeth Wakeman Henderson Charitable Foundation, for which Eshbaugh's father, Hardy, serves as board president, gave $15,000 to the national Audubon for a state office in Oregon last year, in spite of fierce opposition from Portland conservationists.

Eshbaugh, who is a trustee for the foundation, confirmed that the grant was for creating the office he's now running. But he said the donation was not his idea: 'I did not participate in that decision in any way, shape or form.'

The $15,000 was part of $200,000 put up by the national Audubon to set up a state office in Portland.

According to Eshbaugh, the Henderson Foundation focuses on conservation efforts in the United States and abroad and has donated a 'significant' amount of money to the National Audubon Society in the past, including other targeted grants to help establish state offices in Alaska and Ohio.

Hardy Eshbaugh is board president of the Henderson Foundation and also sits on the national Audubon's board. Other members of the Eshbaugh family also are involved in the foundation. The foundation's 990 tax form for 2001 shows a $55,000 donation to the National Audubon Society. Three of the six officers listed, including David, are Eshbaughs.

With 100 acres of protected hiking trails and forestland, 10,000 members and a $1.5 million budget, Portland Audubon is one of the city's most effective environmental groups. It also is the wealthiest of the national Audubon's 500-plus chapters.

All Audubon chapters historically have been independent entities loosely affiliated for the common goal of preserving bird habitat, but no chapter is as influential in its local work as Portland is. Each year Portland Audubon's wildlife care center rehabilitates thousands of birds and animals, and its naturalist classes reach 25,000 kids. More than 1,000 people volunteer for the chapter each year.

But during the same year Ñ 2002 Ñ that Audubon Portland celebrated its 100th anniversary, it got into a row with its parent organization. National Audubon has about 600,000 members and wants to increase that number exponentially, partly by setting up new offices in all 50 states. It's done so in 26 states; Oregon is the 27th.

The original plan was to merge the two Audubons, setting up the state office at Portland Audubon's headquarters on Northwest Cornell Road. The discussions deteriorated, David Eshbaugh said, 'because of money and control.'

Essentially, the move would have cost Audubon Portland its independence. The national Audubon Society would have taken over the chapter's assets, fund-raising base and membership lists. Other Audubon chapters have been taken over for different state offices, but none of them has been as large and well financed as Portland's.

Audubon Portland rejected the offer last May, thus maintaining its designation as an independent nonprofit, with its own members, volunteers and board of directors.

But the national Audubon decided to come to Portland anyway.

Grant spurs executive session

Eshbaugh certainly doesn't give the appearance of a leader under fire. A tall, energetic man, he speaks matter-of-factly about how he switched jobs, and passionately about his vision for Audubon Oregon.

Eshbaugh, 43, was born in Martinsville, Ind., and raised in southwest Ohio, near Cincinnati. Some of his strongest memories from childhood involve counting white pelicans off the coast of Florida and traveling to New Mexico to watch the sky come alive with snow geese.

Eshbaugh graduated from Miami University in Ohio and earned a master's degree in anthropology at Arizona State University in Tempe before devoting his career to conservation.

Eshbaugh's critics do not question his love of birds or his commitment. But they do question how he switched sides, and how he got the job.

After Audubon Portland's board formally rejected the merger last May, the national Audubon group said it would hold off on its plan to open an Oregon office. But then in December, Portland Audubon board President James Rapp got word that Audubon Oregon was coming and the position of executive director was being advertised.

A short time later, Rapp learned that Eshbaugh was applying for the top job at Audubon Oregon, which was being funded partly through a grant from a foundation linked to Eshbaugh's family.

On Jan. 16, the Portland board held an executive session to discuss the matter. The next day, Eshbaugh announced his resignation. He took over at Audubon Oregon on Feb. 19.

Rapp won't discuss the details of the closed executive session. He emphasized that Eshbaugh resigned 'to pursue employment opportunities elsewhere' and that he left on good terms.

Bigger funding pie sought

Eshbaugh said he will work to distinguish the national Audubon's state office from the chapter that's been in Portland for 100 years. At the same time, he said, the only location that made sense for Audubon Oregon.

'If you want to have the most success in Oregon, you need to put the office where you've got the center of power, the center of money, the center of influence,' he said. 'And that's Portland.'

The goal is to use Portland money to strengthen Audubon's influence beyond Portland, Eshbaugh said. 'Portland Audubon does a fantastic job of reaching 25,000 kids a year,' he said. 'But there are 565,000 school kids in Oregon. How do we get to the other 540,000 kids?'

Eshbaugh said he wants to work toward a long-term solution to the water wars of the Klamath Basin in Southern Oregon, set up new wildlife education centers throughout Oregon and protect and enhance important areas for breeding and migrating birds.

All these things will require funding, however, and philanthropic money has been flowing slowly. More conservation groups are dropping programs than opening new offices. Even the well-heeled Nature Conservancy recently laid off 50 staff members nationally.

Eshbaugh said he hopes to match the $200,000 the national group is putting toward establishing the new office with aggressive fund raising in Portland.

Portland Audubon supporters fear that this money may come out of the pockets of people who might otherwise fund the local chapter.

'We need to make sure we don't march into a foundation with a proposal one day and then have National Audubon come into the same foundation two days later with the same idea, asking for the same money,' Rapp said.

As an independent nonprofit, Portland Audubon is responsible for raising its own funds. The chapter's $1.5 million-a-year budget comes from environmental foundations such as the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation and individual donors. National Audubon gets money from similar sources, on a much larger scale.

Eshbaugh said his goal is not to make the slices of the funding pie smaller but to make the overall pie bigger by finding new individual donors.

Some of Portland Audubon's supporters and staffers said the arrival of a second Audubon will only make them stronger.

'We've got a hundred-year record of being an effective grass-roots organization,' said Bob Sallinger, who runs the Portland Audubon Wildlife Care Center. 'That gives me confidence, regardless of who comes in or what happens. We are part of the fabric of the community, and that won't change.'

Mike Houck, an urban naturalist who has been active with Portland Audubon for 33 years, vowed: 'We'll be around for another 100 years. We're going to let our actions speak for us.'

Eshbaugh said he is anxious to move past the tension and make things work for both groups. 'There will always be tensions,' he said. 'You've got two different groups looking through this thing through two different ends of the binoculars. But I think the tension can actually be productive. Trust comes with time. It could take decades.'