Volunteer Army

When the Gulf oil spill threatened birds and beaches, tens of thousands of citizens signed up to lend a hand. Five months later, they’re still working hard.

On a blazing September day, Hopedale, Louisiana, teems with activity. Boats buy live bait and gas up in the marina. A white egret circles the boathouse, waiting for a handout or the stray forgotten fish. On an adjacent dirt-gravel road, trucks rumble and crawl into a fenced-off compound, heading to one of dozens of tents and trailers organized into a temporary base for Gulf oil cleanup efforts.

Dockside, Sherri Lo Proto reads in the shade. After three-plus hours of silence, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife driver shows up to give her a 20-minute warning: The searchers are bringing in birds—dead and alive. When a fishing boat arrives with an oiled, injured white ibis and three dead laughing gulls, Lo Proto is ready, pad in hand. She records what’s come in, then helps the driver lift the kennel-like crate onto his air-conditioned truck.

In real life, the 56-year-old Lo Proto teaches first grade in Covington, Louisiana, but this day she’s a transport liaison, one of 34,500 volunteers the National Audubon Society has registered since April and one of 2,000 or so actually on the ground. Her work for Audubon includes hours of sitting around, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “I wanted to not just talk the talk; I wanted to walk the walk. I wanted to do something,” she says. “Life’s fragile. You have to help the balance sometimes.”

True to Lo Proto’s words, volunteers wake up at any hour of the day to offer time, manpower, cars—anything to aid the oil-fouled animals and landscape. After the disaster, volunteers across the Gulf Coast, from Fort Worth, Texas, to Jacksonville, Florida, fed and monitored released pelicans, and transported non-oiled injured birds to rehab centers. They tied thousands of tiny knots to create noose mats, wire-and-mesh tools that gently capture shorebirds. They’re still manning a call center three days a week. Some are counting birds and looking for oil on shore, while others are acting as beach stewards or attending training and workshops. Then there are the volunteers rebuilding habitat.

This network has cemented a unique partnership between Audubon and state and federal wildlife officials. Biologist Brac Salyers of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries monitored pelicans for six weeks at a release site in Cameron, along the state’s western coast. At least one Audubon participant accompanied his team most days, counting banded birds in masses of pelicans 1,500-strong. “You’ve got sometimes as many as 200 birds that you’re trying to scan through” at once, Salyers says. “It’s very easy to not see a band or to overlook one. Having an extra set of eyes is just helpful.”

Volunteers will also generate a year’s worth of bird survey information about the Gulf Coast region—novel and crucial data for Audubon, says Tom Bancroft, the organization’s chief scientist. “We don’t have the staff capacity within Audubon to go to all these places on a regular basis,” he says. “The only way to get to them is through the volunteers. We want to engage them in the monitoring to understand what’s happening, but we’ll be developing conservation plans, so we want the volunteers to also engage in implementation.”

The sheer number of people taking action bodes well for the long term, says Sean Saville, director of Audubon’s overall volunteer response. “About 90 percent who registered were not members of Audubon,” he says. “We were one of the only ones who called them back. We heard that time and time again.”

Most are simply grateful to lend a hand. Five months after the spill, some still tear up at the thought of it. “The first month around here, there wasn’t anybody who wasn’t crying,” says artist Nancy Garrett, a volunteer from Biloxi, Mississippi, who is painting a mural at the Moss Point call center. “I kept having this horrible thought of having to tell my grandchildren, ‘Once upon a time the beaches were beautiful,’ and then having to say we’re responsible for what’s happening.”

To date, the full ramifications remain a question mark. An August report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that 75 percent of the oil had “either evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered from the wellhead, or dispersed.” However, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researchers reported that a 1.2-mile-wide, 650-foot-high plume caused by the spill “had and will persist for some time.” And University of Georgia scientists concluded that almost 80 percent of the released oil hadn’t been recovered and “remains a threat to the ecosystem.” In late September a team of Audubon scientists spent a week along the Gulf testing the beaches and just below the sand’s surface for oil hydrocarbons and residue from dispersants.

Until more is known (and likely, after that), volunteers like Sherri Lo Proto will continue counting birds, patrolling shorelines, or  sitting on docks, awaiting instruction. “Luckily some people are still here for the long haul,” she says. “Just because you don’t see something or it’s not headline news doesn’t mean it’s not there.”