Lines of defense

August 20, 2012

Right after completing his undergraduate degree in biological sciences at UC Davis, Fresno-born Mike Lynes went to work out in the field. But after working as a scientist for several years, he realized that his skills and interests lay in the area of law. So he went back to school to study law at UC Hastings in San Francisco. After earning his degree there, Lynes worked for a couple of years in a law office before being hired as the Conservation Director and General Counsel for Environmental Matters at Golden Gate Audubon. Bay Nature spoke with Mike about his background, his work, and his plans.

BN: How did you come to the Bay Area?

ML: I moved here after college to work for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, which is now called PRBO Conservation Science: I started worked there in 1995. Then in 2000 I went to law school at UC Hastings, and then stayed in the area to pursue my career.

BN: Why did you decide to go into environmental law?

ML: I felt I personally could do more to protect habitat through law than field science – it allows me to work more directly on policy and habitat protection.

BN: How do you do that through your work at Golden Gate Audubon?

ML: The conservation programs, which I direct, focus on four main areas: direct advocacy, such as —expressing concerns about projects that might impact wildlife; habitat restoration; general outreach and education; and wildlife monitoring.

Our goal is to achieve a balance between human beings and the wildlife in the Bay Area. In order to do that we have to set aside habitats and take care of our parks. That’s a real challenge because people have a lot of other priorities.

BN: What are some of the challenges you face in this work?

ML: One of the challenges for our chapter is that we operate in an intensely urban environment. The opportunities for conservation are different than they might be in more rural areas. The folks that live in the Bay Area are very conscientious and want to protect the environment, but we all live our day-to-day lives. So engaging people to care about and work on these issues is very difficult. Wildlife and natural history are part of what make the Bay Area special. Part of my job is to represent a group of people who care about the environment.

BN: What are some recent successes?

ML: Our biggest success in the past few years was in 2010 when we entered into a settlement with NextEra, an operator of wind turbines at Altamont Pass. NextEra agreed to remove old turbines that were killing birds, and replace them with newer turbines that should kill fewer birds. Let’s see how it goes.

More recently, at the old Alameda Naval Air Station, we’ve helped to work out a compromise with the Navy, Veterans Administration, The City of Alameda, and the East Bay Regional Park District to protect nesting California least terns. That’s a big deal— bringing four or five agencies together. It seemed like the whole issue was headed for litigation, but it turned into something I’m really enthusiastic about.

BN: Golden Gate Audubon is one of the groups that demanded a study on the potential impact of the Americas Cup races on seabirds on San Francisco Bay. Can you talk about why this study is so important?

ML: The America’s Cup event raised flags for us because the environmental impact report stated that over 1,800 spectator boats carrying passengers would be on the open water during the races, and these impacts would be on top of all of the other human activities on and around the Bay, which have reduced approximately 40% of the open water habitat (through infill) and 90% of its wetlands. In spite of these earlier impacts, the Bay remains the most important estuary for birds along the Pacific Flyway

Golden Gate Audubon has raised concerns about the need for more information about the impact of disturbance on these birds in the open waters of the Bay. The purpose of the proposed study is to fill in our knowledge gaps with information about birds specific to the central San Francisco Bay, where the races will be held.

We know that disturbance can affect the health of rafting sea birds, their ability to survive. They can be flushed by activity within 100 to 500 meters, and some species show increasing sensitivity to disturbance over time. This study is the first of its kind to study rafting birds in the central Bay; it will study the distribution and the effects of disturbance on the birds at that time of year. It will help – not just in the management of the current race but for future races and events, such as oil spills in the Bay. That’s why we’re so excited about it – it will help future planning and conservation efforts.

BN: And what about concerns relating to the cost of the study?

ML: I know that $150,000 is a lot of money. However, according to the City’s forecasts, the America’s Cup events will generate $1.4 billion in economic activity in the city, and generate tens of millions in taxes for the City. The $150,000 for the study is approximately one hundredth of one percent of that amount. We don’t think it’s unreasonable for such a relatively small percentage to be invested in a study that has broad support from the scientists who study birds on the Bay.

Also, it’s important to note that Golden Gate Audubon was part of a coalition of community groups, including the Sierra Club and San Francisco Tomorrow (a city planning group), that reached a settlement with the city of San Francisco. The settlement includes provisions to reduce impacts to historic resources, protect the interests of other waterfront user groups (such as the Dolphin Club), and reduce the burden of the event on taxpayers. The bird study is only one part of the settlement.

BN: What is one of your favorite places to go in the Bay Area?

ML: I have a lot of affection for the wildlife in Marin. I used to live out at PRBO’s Palomarin field station in Bolinas, and I don’t think there’s any place as beautiful as that on the West Coast. Even thinking about it now relaxes me.

» Golden Gate Audubon is the local Audubon Society chapter covering San Francisco, northern Alameda, and western Contra Costa counties. Learn more about its work here.

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