The J Girls
By Isabelle T. Walker
As published in El Tecolote April-May 2013
When it comes to birthdays and anniversaries, 50 is indisputably big. And so this year, as Santa Barbara Audubon Society (SBAS) marks its 50th anniversary, we can pause to tally our accomplishments and look back with pride as they are many and varied. Put together, they are a chronicle of Santa Barbara’s evolving environment and changing views on conservation. Since 1963, when the old Museum of Natural History’s Bird Study Group became a National Audubon Society Chapter, our members have been advocating fiercely for birds and bird habitat, while simultaneously delighting in their complexity and beauty by organizing and leading bi-weekly free bird walks, monthly field trips, and education programs.
Our chapter was there when the brand new zoo tried to saw off a portion of the Andree Clark Bird Refuge for an exotic bird exhibit, and worked diligently to ensure the entire property would be dedicated to the purpose its owner had intended––a refuge for wild birds. In 1964, our second president, Rich Miller testified at a U.S. Congressional hearing on the proposed Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964––encouraging its passage. (It did pass and paved the way for the creation of The San Rafael Wilderness four years later, the nation’s first.) We were there on January 28th, 1969, when Union Oil’s Platform A blew out, spilling between 80 and 100 thousand barrels of crude oil into the sea, covering shorebirds and other wildlife. SBAS members responded with grassroots activism, and many also hand carried blackened Grebes, Cormorants and other birds off the beach and to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where volunteers did their best to save them.
Though the chapter was founded in the summer of 1963, for 30 years it had had been quietly gestating in an upstairs lab room at the Museum, and on weekly field trips into the hills and valleys around Santa Barbara. It was in that room, and on those museum-sponsored sojourns where Santa Barbara’s most devoted bird lovers gathered to learn from ornithologists like Ralph Hoffmann (the Museum’s director who founded the group in the 1930s), Egmott Rett, and Waldo Abbott, Hoffman’s successors. Known as the Bird Study Group, it had roughly 80 members but only 25 attended regularly. The Bird Group might have continued on as it was, content in the peaceful joys of learning and birding, had it not been for two adventuresome young mothers relocating to Santa Barbara from the San Fernando Valley. Joy Parkinson and Jan Hamber, known as the J Girls, met in the mid-50s, when they were neighbors in a Van Nuys apartment complex. Both had toddler-aged sons and an affinity for the natural world. They began taking trips into nature with their kids. The birds intrigued Hamber, already a California Audubon Society member. Parkinson loved plants. But one day, when the two were sitting outside together, Hamber raised her seed-filled open palm and a bird flew onto it and nibbled.
“No plant in the world would ever do that,” Parkinson remembers thinking. “That was it. I was lost.”
Parkinson moved to Santa Barbara with her family in 1958. They lived in Summerland; Hamber and her family were regular visitors. A year later, the Hamber family moved to the area as well, and the J girls joined the Bird Study Group. The study group was affiliated with National Audubon Society for purposes of the Christmas Bird Count. But as the 50s gave way to the 60s, and the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted more people to the threats facing the natural world, Hamber and Parkinson began talking up the idea of a Santa Barbara Audubon Society chapter.
By 1962 enough interest had been stirred up that a poll was taken of the [Bird Study] Group and a large majority elected to form the Santa Barbara Audubon Society. A steering committee was formed to draw up a constitution, recruit members, (a minimum of 35 new members was necessary to form a new branch); to elect a board of directors, and in June 1963, the Santa Barbara Audubon received its [official] charter from The National Audubon Society.
The fledgling chapter encompassed a vast area at first, from Santa Barbara County’s northwestern edge south to Camarillo and inland to Ojai, Santa Paula, and Fillmore. The size of Delaware. As other Audubon chapters gradually established themselves, ours shrank down to essentially the the South County region.
The first SBAS Board president was Nelson Metcalf, and the inaugural Board included Waldo Abbott, Irma Cooke, Margaret Millar, Janet Hamber, Ruth Holbrook and others. Parkinson chaired the Membership Committee; Hamber edited El Tecolote and ran a Rare Bird Alert (basically a phone chain). By September 1963, SBAS’ account had a balance of $182.00 and no office space. Irma Cooke was known as Cookie, because she brought cookies and hot cocoa on the field trips led by Abbott. Margaret Millar was Conservation Chair and alerted members when important review boards and Council hearings were planned.
In the winter of our first year, the chapter began speaking up for the Andree Clark Bird Refuge, attending City Council meetings and doing research, ultimately preventing the zoo from taking a portion of the property. A letter-writing campaign was launched to prevent the building of the Sierra Madre Ridge Road which would have opened the San Rafael Wilderness, the Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary, and other condor sensitive areas to streams of cars and recreational traffic. Santa Barbara Audubon Society partnered with the Trails Advisory Committee and The Sierra Club to stop the road from being built until its effect on the Condor could be studied. The road was delayed until further study was done, and never did get built. The chapter had a committee to organize a campaign supporting the passage of The Wilderness Preservation Act of 1965. And, according to old editions of El Tecolote in 1964, there were 36 Rare Bird Alert calls, including a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Louisiana Heron, an Eastern Kingbird, and a Buff-breasted Sandpiper.
Other battles were waged too: against a proposed subdivision around Lake Los Carneros, a proposal by Pacific Bridge Company to turn Goleta Slough into an industrial park. (That idea collapsed when a UCSB professor and activist got into a boat and rowed up the slough, proving it was a navigable waterway and under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers.)
Parkinson was chapter president on January 28th, 1969, when Platform A blew out off our coastline.
I didn’t’ sleep, the phone rang so often . . . somebody called me and my husband jumped down her throat and it was one of the Board members. Scared her to death. He said ‘My wife’s ready to flip. She doesn’t get any rest. People start calling at 5 in the morning they call till midnight.’ People trying to sell me things to save the birds.
Fred Hartley, the gruff, outspoken president of Union Oil even called Parkinson as the disaster was unfolding.
He apologized. After he finished calling, the phone rang again and it was his personal secretary. She said, ‘Did he talk to you?’ I said ‘Yes, he did.’ ‘He was trying to apologize and it’s hard for him.’ I said, ‘Well it’s very hard for me with what’s going on.’ She said, ‘I understand but he really feels terrible.’
In the May 1969 edition of El Tecolote, Parkinson wrote that SBAS members had performed “yeoman service” in response to the spill. They wrote letters, circulated petitions, rescued birds, paraded with picket signs, and more. The chapter protested the use of detergents to break up the oil, demanded the cessation of all oil operations in the channel, and submitted testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution. SBAS also raised funds for Santa Barbara’s Citizen Committee for the Environmental Defense Fund to fly Victor J. Yannacone Jr., a New York Environmental Defense Fund attorney, to town to discuss legal recourses. “Later, of course, Santa Barbara founded its own Environmental Defense Center,” Parkinson wrote in a short history of the chapter. “I’d like to think that maybe SBAS had a small part in inspiring its creation.”