What I Learned on Capitol Hill

Audubon campus chapter leader Michael Kerrigan recalls what it was like to meet with legislators and advocate on behalf of birds.
Three people sit at a wooden desk. Michael, right, is speaking with his hand upraised while two other people look on.

It was around 9:30 on a Tuesday morning near the McPherson Square Metro Station in Washington, D.C., not far from the Hotel Washington where I’d be staying that night. “Are you up for a meeting at 11 am?” asked Greg Taylor, the Audubon campaigns projects manager, as he was filling me in about an upcoming meeting educating lawmakers about seabirds. I paused, feeling unready but determined, then accepted the invitation.

I had just arrived in D.C. and was still wearing my travel clothes, so I made my way quickly to my hotel and hastily changed into more professional attire in a vacant restroom stall—it was still too early to check into my room. It took a bit, but I eventually recalled, from my uniformed high-school days, how to tie a Windsor knot in my blue and gold necktie adorned with my state’s emblematic palmetto tree and crescent. As a final touch, I added to my suit lapel a magnetic pin that featured a regal-looking Great Egret, the familiar National Audubon Society logo.

Once I got to the Hart Senate Office Building where today’s meeting would be held, I met three policy staffers for Audubon Delta waiting outside. One was Director of Policy Brent Newman, a Tennessee native but longtime resident of New Orleans. Our plan for the morning was to meet with the staff of Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) for a single purpose: to “save the seabirds.” From the outset, I admit that I expected environmentally focused legislation like the Sustaining America’s Fisheries for the Future Act to be an incredibly tough sell to a Republican politician in the Deep South. I was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and I know all too well the regional political climate that often disregards environmental concerns in service to economic growth.

For this meeting, being largely unfamiliar with specifics of how seabird-beneficial legislation applies in Louisiana, I spent the time observing and learning from the Audubon Delta folks. I was particularly interested in adopting their methods for my own upcoming meeting with my representative: Congresswoman Nancy Mace (R-SC). During the meeting with Senator Cassidy’s staff, the Audubon Delta staffers carried themselves well, and they discussed topics like the overfishing of menhaden—a forage fish species vital for the diet of seabirds—and the effects of building wind turbines in the path of bird migration routes over Louisiana’s share of the Gulf of Mexico.

Later, during happy hour at PJ Clarke’s—an understandably alcohol-free one for my 20-year-old self—I again connected with Brent. As I sipped on my ginger ale and Brent a spritz, I noted his impressive recall of a vast array of political issues in Louisiana to inform his advocacy during the meeting. We both bonded over our shared frustration with the slow pace of change in Southern states run by “good-ol’ boys” as we call them. One story Brent told, however, particularly stuck with me. To pass the Solar Access Act of 2019 in Arkansas that repealed a ban on third-party leasing for commercial and residential solar panel installation, Brent presented the idea as “keeping big government out of the private sphere” and “a patriotic right to generate one’s own energy.” While this may not be an argument you'd hear in more liberal communities, it reflected the values of predominantly conservative Arkansans. After hearing his story, I realized an important lesson: for environmental advocacy to be successful, it needs to resonate with all voters, as legislation must have bipartisan appeal to become law in a two-party system.

The next day, after multiple phone calls and emails—and with the help of Jesse Walls, senior director of government affairs for Audubon and a registered lobbyist—I finally secured a meeting with Congresswoman Mace’s office. During the meeting, I employed what I learned from Brent by highlighting the example of Crab Bank, a nesting site for seabird species like Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers which was restored last year with sand dredged from the Port of Charleston. This example showed how conservation efforts and economic development need not be opposed, and in fact can work together. This is especially true in South Carolina, where tourism makes up a majority of our state’s GDP. Furthermore, recreational hunting and fishing are crucial sources of revenue for preserving ecosystems seabirds rely on, and those ecosystems also make sure there are plenty of fish to sustain the hunting and fishing industries that support South Carolina. By linking conservation to tourism, to the economy, and to cherished outdoor activities, it gives most people a personal stake in sustaining these ecosystems. I walked away from the meeting encouraged, as I felt my representative and I were largely in agreement about the importance of preserving the marine ecosystems of SC District 1, such as the salt marshes which I and many seabird species call home.

I have a couple takeaways from my experience with this year’s Seabird Fly-In, both of which concern young people like myself. First, an alarming number of people in my generation have lost faith in the American political system, including some of my friends. I hope my experience speaking directly to the offices of two Congresspeople can reignite hope in young people that they can be catalysts for change, and most importantly to get out and vote! Second: Conservation needs all skillsets. You do not need to be a biologist in the field to help birds. Look at me, an international studies major and amateur birder who recently started an Audubon on Campus chapter at his university. Networking with Audubon staff at the Seabird Fly-in has inspired me to pursue a career in conservation, perhaps even as a policy analyst with Audubon South Carolina! It also revealed the possibility of earning a Master’s in environmental policy. Because of this, and the connections I made while in Washington, D.C., I highly recommend other student chapter members in the Audubon on Campus Program consider next year’s Seabird Fly-in, in-person or virtually. It’s truly a transformative experience!