For the Birds

Dobbs Ferry resident David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, left a highly successful journalism career to reinvent himself as an environmental executive.

J. J. Beans Café is a snug, aromatic place on Cedar Street in Dobbs Ferry that serves fresh-baked goodies and a luscious nonfat pumpkin spiced latte. Owned by a Dobbs native, the cafe’s cup sleeves contain recycled paper, its counters are wiped with non-toxic cleaners, and any leftover food at the end of the day is not thrown out but delivered to the local police and fire departments. It is David Yarnold’s favorite coffee house.

“I love giving the rivertowns my business,” the 58-year-old eco-executive says from the other side of a tiny table. He and his family moved here from Northern California six years ago, when he left a long and stellar career at the San Jose Mercury News to take the No. 2 job at the Manhattan-based Environmental Defense Fund, one of the nation’s most successful nonprofit groups. A relocation firm suggested they consider living in a rivertown, and he and his wife, Fran Smith, a freelance writer, chose Dobbs Ferry. “It wasn’t just a giant sprawling suburb,” he says. “It had a lot of character. And I could get a train parking pass.”

Last September, Yarnold left the EDF to become president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, the venerable nonprofit group that works to protect birds and their natural habitats. The Audubon Society’s sleek, super-green office space in downtown Manhattan—also home to its iconic magazine—is mission control for a broad network of 23 state offices and 463 local chapters. They come in as many varieties as the goldfinch, from urban education centers to wilderness sanctuaries to small birding clubs. Each is a 501c3 organization, and many, like New Jersey Audubon, aren’t affiliated with the national office at all. (Never trademarked, the Audubon name is up for grabs.) And, unlike migrating geese, these birds don’t always fly in the same direction.

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Audubon needed a visionary leader who could unite the organization, from its grassroots to its national policy level. And if he happened to be a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer who could also blog, speak, and, yes, tweet, about all things Audubon, then all the better. “We understand instinctively that birds are indicators of environmental health,” Yarnold wrote on last year, in an impassioned plea to the U.S. Senate to fund the clean-up of the Gulf Coast. “Their fate is linked to the air, water, and landscapes that sustain us all. If they are in trouble, so are we.”

Al Caccese, head of New York State Audubon, calls Yarnold “one of the best speakers I’ve ever seen. He is a terrific communicator, and that’s exactly what we need.”

This self-described “compulsive change agent” is also a longtime outdoor enthusiast who traces his passion for the environment to a high-school backpacking trip to Yosemite National Park. “I walked into Tuolumne Meadows and thought, ‘This may be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen on Earth,’” he says. Ironically, birding expertise was not part of his skill set, so, when he joined Audubon, he spent most of his first month traveling around North America, visiting chapters from Los Angeles to Florida to Mexico. It was a crash course in Birding 101. “As a journalist, I’m not afraid to ask dumb questions. People love to share what they know. What I hope is that Audubon as an organization will learn to collaborate the way Audubon people do as birders.”

Suddenly, a flock of high school girls descends on J.J. Beans, chattering noisily. The place gets busy. Yarnold has a little time before heading off to see his own high-schooler, 14-year-old Nicole, who acts with the Broadway Training Center of Westchester, perform at the Irvington Town Hall Theater. (Adam, 35, is his son from his first marriage.) “We’ll be seeing four straight performances of The Drowsy Chaperone,” he says, but it’s clear he doesn’t mind: father and daughter have a serious mutual admiration society. “Nicole thinks I have a job that’s doing something for the world she’s going to inherit, and I feel good about that.”

Yarnold is an amiable guy with warm brown eyes, a ready smile, and a jeans-with-blazer style. A polished, articulate speaker, he has the kind of deep, sonorous voice one might hear narrating a sports car commercial. He stays fit and sane by kayaking the Hudson and running 20 miles a week on the Croton Aqueduct. He used to be able to go out for a run and tune everything out. “But once you become an Auduboner, it’s impossible to be oblivious to birds. Now I see them everywhere.”

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He’s got Audubon’s birding app on his smart phone, and at home he keeps a copy of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and a pair of binoculars within easy reach, just in case. “I’d just come back from Mexico on a Saturday night. On Sunday, my wife, said, ‘There’s a woodpecker banging on the shingles on the back of our house. Will you please do something about it?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ She went shopping, and I went outside. When she got home, she said, ‘What did you do?’ And I said, ‘I ID’d it! It’s a downy woodpecker!’”

Born in Los Angeles, Yarnold is the oldest child of a sales manager for Paper Mate Pens. “My dad was really good and was always being transferred to new regions to fix them. I changed schools every year when I was a kid.”

In the late 1960s, his family settled in the quiet Bay Area suburb of San Mateo, but Yarnold liked to make waves. “A total anti-war hippie,” he was expelled briefly after leading a student walk-out to protest the Vietnam conflict, and he regularly participated in protests at San Jose State. In 1976, he graduated from the university with a degree in photojournalism, and, in 1980, after working at a small paper in Washington state, landed the photo editor job at the San Jose Mercury News. Nine years later, he had climbed to assistant managing editor of the afternoon edition.

On October 17, 1989, he was watching his beloved San Francisco Giants play in the World Series when the ground began to roll. “I got myself in a doorway and hung on for dear life,” he says. “Then I grabbed my camera and took some pictures and interviewed people and went to the paper. I don’t think I went home for thirty-six hours.” The paper’s coverage of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which killed 63 people, won the Pulitzer Prize for general news reporting.

Ten years later, Yarnold was the paper’s executive editor. This time, San Jose was the epicenter of the dotcom boom. Under his guidance, the Mercury News became Silicon Valley’s paper of record. Several of his reporters, seduced by promises of easy money, began to quit the paper to join the very tech companies they’d been covering. “I had reporters who left to sell things on the Internet, like paint, dog food, and nails,” Yarnold says, shaking his head. After a brief stint directing Knight-Ridder New Media initiative (the Mercury News became the first newspaper to go online), he returned in 2003 to run its editorial pages. That same year, a headhunter contacted him about a CEO job at a major Silicon Valley foundation, “and that started my juices flowing,” he says. “I produced my first resume in twenty-five years. It was horrible.”

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Yarnold fielded a few offers, including a deanship, but nothing felt right. So he continued plugging away at the paper. In 2004, he launched an investigation into corruption in the San Jose city government. “It was a good, old-fashioned newspaper crusade that reformed the ethics and lobbying laws of the tenth largest city in America,” he recalls. It made him a finalist for a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Within days, he told a stunned newsroom that he was leaving to join the Environmental Defense Fund.

Of the major environmental groups in the U.S. (an eclectic list that includes Audubon, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, and Greenpeace), the EDF is a rarity in that it takes a market-based entrepreneurial approach to environmental solutions, particularly climate change, by partnering with large corporations like Wal-Mart to reduce their carbon emissions and waste production. As the No. 2 to powerhouse green executive Fred Krupp, Yarnold ran the day-to-day operations. “You could always tell the reporter in him,” says Liza Henshaw, EDF’s COO. “He provided a real shot in the arm to our communications. He helped us be concise. He’d say, ‘Just gimme the headline!’ He knew how to get our work out there and make it accessible.”

In 2008, Krupp promoted Yarnold to executive director and president. Working to create environmental partnerships and open green markets, he helped to shape California’s progressive climate-change policy and establish carbon-emission standards in China. In 2009, he traveled to Copenhagen as part of the EDF delegation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

“David is not at all shy about being in the forefront of what he is involved in,” says James Benkard, senior counsel for Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and an EDF board member. “This is the sort of guy who should be in politics, the sort of person who, if it didn’t cost ten million dollars to become a senator and five million to become a congressman, ought to be helping to run this country. He’s got the energy, he’s got the brains, he’s got the personality. And never underestimate his sense of humor.”

Yarnold and Benkard became friends at EDF and, not long after Yarnold left for Audubon, Benkard attended an introductory cocktail party for him at the lavish East End Avenue apartment of Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff, a powerful environmental lawyer and chairman of Audubon’s New York board. The party was a who’s who of the conservation world; all of the attendees were eager to see what the new guy was made of. “He gets up to give a speech to about fifty people,” Benkard recalls, “and I had some worries because what did David know about birds? Well, let me tell you, within ten minutes, he had those people laughing and clapping their hands and practically waving their wings! He was wonderful—because he went out and learned what to say to get them excited about birds.”

The idea for what Yarnold calls “the high-water mark of my time at EDF” didn’t come to him in China or California or Copenhagen. It was hatched in his family room in Dobbs Ferry.

Last June, Yarnold visited the scene of the BP oil disaster. As usual, he brought his camera. For two days, he and a small EDF team surveyed the damage. “We flew over the Deepwater Horizon in a seaplane, and it was like looking down on the gates of hell,” he says. “I could feel the heat rising, smell the oil and dispersants, hear a loud hissing as boats sprayed foam and water onto the fire. And the flames shooting up—it was a hellish picture, one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen.” They spent the next day on a boat. And Yarnold took photographs: of dead pelicans, of shuttered shrimp shacks, of marsh grasses in a sludgy stranglehold. By the end of the day, he was coated with a hydrocarbon residue so noxious that he had to throw his jeans away.

He returned home with a raw throat, burning eyes, and a heart full of fury at what he’d seen. He started to show his wife and daughter his photos and video footage from the trip. Nicole was on iTunes, listening to music from Glee, her favorite TV show. Out of the blue, she put on the cast’s cover of “Over the Rainbow,” the soulful, ukelele-driven version popularized by the late Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Yarnold had always loved the original Judy Garland song. Its message of a better world, juxtaposed with the heartbreaking images on the TV of a desecrated landscape, was powerfully affecting. And then he got the idea. “I said, ‘We have to make a video of this. We have to make this viral. This moment that’s happening right now, in our family room, has to be something everyone can experience.’”

It so happened that Rupert Murdoch’s daughter-in-law, Kathryn Murdoch, is an EDF trustee. She made a call to Peter Rice at Fox Entertainment, who gave the EDF permission to use the song. “We turned the video around inside of a week,” he says. “It was almost newspaper-time.” They posted the poignant two-minute video on YouTube, and, helped by a link on the popular gossip site, the video got 250,000 hits in a week. (It now stands at more than 300,000.) The credits at the end read, “To Nicole for the inspiration.”

“That video was a reflection of my compulsive need to share my thinking with the world,” Yarnold says. “Isn’t that what you do as a journalist? I was able to take what I’d seen, to share it with others, to bring my family into it, to engage the public and to say, ‘Even in the midst of this, there’s reason to be hopeful.’ It was a way to get that message out.”

Freelance writer Dana White enjoys identifying the birds that visit her backyard in Ossining. She is working on a novel set in 19th-century Sing-Sing.

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