View From Sapsucker Woods: The Sagebrush Sea

By John W. Fitzpatrick
From the Spring 2015 issue of Living Bird magazine.
April 15, 2015
This Sagebrush Sparrow and its close relative, Bell’s Sparrow, until recently were considered a single species under the name Sage Sparrow. Distinguishing them in the field is challenging, except by their songs. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.This Sagebrush Sparrow and its close relative, Bell’s Sparrow, until recently were considered a single species under the name Sage Sparrow. Distinguishing them in the field is challenging, except by their songs. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.
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A communications milestone is underway at the Cornell Lab, represented by the powerful article on page 18 of this issue, plus the airing on May 20, 2015, of The Sagebrush Sea on the PBS-TV series, Nature. Produced entirely by the Lab, The Sagebrush Sea is an hour-long documentary dispelling a widely held myth that the sagebrush country of the American West is just a vast, empty wasteland between the Rockies and the Pacific. The star of the show is the headline-grabbing Greater Sage-Grouse, currently stirring political battles over possible listing on the U. S. Endangered Species List. The surprising beauty of this documentary, however, lies in its portrayal of the myriad other characters filling “The Big Empty”—including the Sagebrush Sparrow, below. High-desert sagebrush symbolizes the heartland of western North America, and contrary to its reputation, this iconic habitat is teeming with life.

This milestone is far deeper and more profound than a single exquisite show. The efforts it represents date back to the 1930s, when Arthur Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg first drove a wagonload of equipment across the southern United States to record and popularize the sounds of vanishing birds. By the 1990s, the Cornell Lab’s Library of Natural Sounds regularly collaborated with NPR to convey the sounds of endangered species to millions of radio listeners. The addition of video, and our move into a world-class science building, metamorphosed the archive into the Macaulay Library and opened new opportunities to craft and distribute timely multimedia stories having conservation relevance. But we had a problem: although Living Bird was doing a great job of presenting conservation stories in print, we had no experience crafting effective media-driven stories, let alone trying to integrate print and multimedia to achieve emergent power in our story-telling. So we gambled, opened a national search, and in 2007 hired Emmy Award winner John Bowman to lead a new program called Multimedia Productions.

The challenge for John’s small but charismatic team was to produce a body of work that furthered the Lab’s mission and also gained respect and support from foundations and mission focused philanthropists. The team produced two landmark short films that played important roles in the conservation issues of their day. One describes the ecological dilemmas surrounding the controversial border wall between the United States and Mexico. The other—an aftermath of the Gulf oil spill—lays out the ecological and economic importance of restoring the Mississippi River Delta. Both pieces were widely used by partner organizations working on the front lines of these conservation issues but seriously in need of visually compelling stories, both to inform individuals and to inspire conservation action.

The Lab’s role as a center for conservation media began to take shape. Working together, Macaulay Library, Multimedia, and Communications staff produced a host of print and digital material on Birds of Paradise, an unprecedented online video resource of animal behavior. A gut-wrenching documentary about illegal bird-netting in China contributed to a major television exposé by China’s equivalent of 60 Minutes. Coordinated, visually stunning stories in multimedia and print have brought worldwide attention to the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and to vital biodiversity hotspots (e.g., Yukon Delta). Major, multi-year projects are currently underway that will provide conservation activists with the media and educational materials they need to inspire action and make a real difference on the ground (e.g., our engagement in the desperate efforts to preserve the Philippine Eagle, now among the world’s rarest large raptors). The Cornell Lab is establishing itself as an integrated center for conservation media, and our milestone public debut occurs on May 20th with the airing of The Sagebrush Sea on Nature. Please read the Living Bird article, watch the brilliant show, and tell us what you think.

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