Part One: Mass Audubon 101
Mass Audubon is on a mission to protect the nature of Massachusetts for people and wildlife. As part of that, they run 104 wildlife sanctuaries around the state. Sixty of those are open to the public, and that includes the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan.
"It’s extraordinary," said David O’Neill, president of Mass Audubon. "I mean, this sanctuary's nested in the middle of one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Boston. And you can hear the birds chirping, you can see nature. But just over the hill, you're going to see this densely populated community.”
This work in cities is critical to their mission.
“Our work in urban spaces sits at the intersection of three really important things,” O’Neill explained. "One, it's about climate. We can address our climate issues by providing more green spaces in urban areas. Two, it's about biodiversity. Parks like this are really incredibly important for biodiversity. You hear the birds, you hear the orchard oriole in the background. And three, it's about community health and human health."
O’Neill said Mass Audubon is the largest land owner of any organization in the state with more than 40,000 acres. Preserving that is key to their mission. But it doesn’t stop there.
"We have an advocacy and policy team that's on Beacon Hill and in local communities, really lobbying for environmental policies," O’Neill said. "And then we have this brilliant education program that literally engages hundreds of thousands of kids and adults each year, teaching them about nature, getting them exposed to nature, and then hopefully having them take action to protect nature."
Mass Audubon Sanctuaries Open to the Public
To learn more about the Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries, click here.
Part Two: Educating Kids (of all ages) about nature
The Boston Nature Center in Mattapan is Boston’s first carbon-neutral green building. It is home to a nature preschool for sixty children and a summer camp for one thousand. All with a sliding fee scale to increase access to all.
“There are so many health benefits and social-emotional benefits to nature play,” said Erin Kelly, Boston Nature Center Education manager. On any given day you’ll find kids who "dig in the dirt, climb on the stumps, build dams in the stream, create little play areas, act out animal activities. It's just a place for them to be children."
And it’s a place for the community too.
"When you think about your childhood, that there's there is a special place that you played, maybe with your brothers and sisters or your neighborhood friends. And this is a place where children can do that safely and parents and family members can kind of relax," Kelly added.
Boston Nature Center is a place for older kids well. From camp, youngsters might head into the Willow Tree Youth Leader program, where teenagers work during the school year and then can continue in the summer all the way through high school into college.
"They do community science. So they go out and measure tree buds for us thinking about climate change and how that's impacting our trees. They lead public programs. They go out into the community and do events so that we can be at festivals all across the city," Kelly explained.
And the Boston Nature Center educates the teachers too.
"We have a deep partnership with the Boston Public Schools where our teacher naturalists are at with teachers in the school, helping them integrate science into their curriculum because teachers are asking us how do we talk to students about climate change," Kelly said "How do we talk to them about the trees in their neighborhood and what they need to protect? So we go out there, we help teachers take kids out. We support that interest. We support the wanting to take kids outside, especially with the pandemic that has happened and using their schoolyards, their neighborhoods as outdoor classrooms and then bringing them here. “
The ultimate goal: to create a new generation of people dedicated to preserving and appreciating nature.
Part Three: The Impact of Climate Change
Mass Audubon may be best known for its network of nature trails in 60 sanctuaries open to the public across the state. But how is climate change affecting their 40,000 acres?
All of our sanctuaries go through a climate resilience analysis,” said Mass Audubon President David O’Neill. "And that is, what are the effects of climate change on these properties? And then what steps can we take to mitigate and adapt to those changes?"
O’Neill describes impacts that are widespread.
"You know, we have a lot of coastal properties in there. That's where you really see it with your own eyes. You've seen houses falling into the ocean, into the bays. Our properties have experienced a lot of erosion, higher flooding rates, more severe storms, really eroding those important natural buffers. But even inland, what you're seeing is more invasive species taking over. You're seeing more flooding events along the Connecticut River where we have sanctuaries. You're seeing birds that are moving at different times because of climate change. They're moving where the food is. And that change we have documented in scientific reports."
O’Neill fears 40-60% of Massachusetts birds could be vulnerable to climate change. He said US Fish and Wildlife Service just listed 24 species as extinct.
"You know, we have a biodiversity crisis. So to the extent that we can create more nature in the Commonwealth across the globe, we're sequestering carbon, we're addressing that need, we're addressing the need for biodiversity because habitat loss is a is one of the leading causes of the loss of biodiversity."
Part Four: Environmental Justice
Mass Audubon is focused on making nature available to all of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
"I think as an organization...it’s our moral obligation," said Mass Audubon President David O’Neill. "It's an imperative for the environment that we address the issues of environmental justice by working to create more green space, more trails, more access to nature in communities that have historically not had that."
The Boston Nature Center in the heart of Mattapan, is one place where people have that opportunity.
"Access to nature is really, really important," O’Neill said. "We saw this during COVID, right? People got outside more than ever. We had double, triple the number of people walking on our trails during COVID. Some state parks were experiencing 300% increases in the use of their park systems, but sadly, nature isn't available for everyone. In poorer communities where there's a nature deficit, there just isn't green space, there aren't trails, there aren't parks ."
O’Neill said our poorest communities are often the places where we cite our most polluting industries. And there is one more obstacle.
"These neighborhoods often lack tree canopy. And as a result of that, they have a heat island effect. That means the temperatures in those neighborhoods are much greater than they are in other neighborhoods. So there's just this inequality that exists. There's a nature deficit."
As President of Mass Audubon, O’Neill is committed to fighting that.
"Nature brings us together. It does not separate us, and it can also be an antidote for a lot of problems we're dealing with today."
Part Five: What You Can Do
Right now, Mass Audubon is in the middle of an ambitious campaign to raise $1 billion for nature and climate.
"The idea is simply to galvanize the voices of people who care about nature, to advocate for more resources to be spent on sanctuaries, on solutions that solve for our climate problems, to address the inequalities that exist in our poorest communities," said Mass Audubon President David O’Neill.
So how can you make a difference?
"It may be simply going out and planting native plants in your backyard or on your balcony. That alone has a benefit to nature and to climate change," said O’Neill. "You may simply just go to our website and sign up as a climate champion and once in a while send in an email to your legislator which only takes a couple of minutes."
He said if you have the time, come out, volunteer, and engage with the community around these issues.
If that’s too much, O’Neill said, "just turn down the thermostat, and, wait to turn on the air conditioner."
He said converting your home energy supply with solar is becoming more affordable. You can create natural habitats around your home. If you can join Mass Audubon, do it! And one more thing:
"They say that getting outside for 15 minutes a day can lower your blood pressure, can take stress away. I think that became pretty clear during COVID that people were getting outside for those reasons. So just take a few minutes. Smell the roses. Go out and check out the wildflowers. Take a look at the birds. It's an extraordinary system that we have here in the commonwealth. The nature of Massachusetts is impressive.”