Crying Whale

Environmental groups sent out a worldwide call to save the gray whale from a Mexican salt plant. They got millions of dollars and thousands of new members. But scientists found no threat to the whales.

With ESSA thus busied, the environmentalists ramped up their efforts to create mass opposition to the saltworks in the public and press.

Membership vice president Linda Lopez at NRDC launched a direct mail campaign in September of 1996 to 2.9 million Americans in the environmental and animal rights communities. In the world of direct mail, the response was fantastic. Some 42,000 people sent NRDC money, and 120,000 signed petitions to Mitsubishi opposing the saltworks. NRDC membership exploded, growing from 175,000 to 350,000.

"We worked with a consulting team, and this one creative consultant did the genius work," says Lopez. "He told us our mail should say, 'There is this whale nursery down in Baja, and we have to preserve paradise for this species.' It so perfectly captured the imagination of people, those whales traveling 5,000 miles, this whole mythic thing of them going to this quiet lagoon. I could cry even now, as I talk about it, and that's how our members felt."

Actor Pierce Brosnan stands on a mobile billboard promoting the International Fund for Animal Welfare campaign.
courtsey of IFAW/S. Cook
Actor Pierce Brosnan stands on a mobile billboard promoting the International Fund for Animal Welfare campaign.
NRDC consultant Mark Spalding.
Don Lewis
NRDC consultant Mark Spalding.

Details


In this issue, four New Times writers examine the truth behind a controversial proposed salt plant near the calving lagoons of Baja and how a misguided campaign to save the whales benefited two of the world's largest environmental groups. While government and academic whale researchers struggled to raise the few hundred thousand dollars needed to investigate central problems with the grays' Arctic food supply, green groups raised and spent $15 million to fight the salt plant, even though a panel of leading whale experts found the plant would not harm the whales.

The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.

In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal.

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In what is believed to be the most successful direct mail campaign ever conducted by environmentalists, Lopez and the team struck gold.

In 1997, 8.6 million letters went to the public, while 857,000 pieces of mail went to members. They got back checks averaging $15 each and raised $2.3 million that year -- not including sizable individual bequests inspired by the fight and $1,000 donations from the group's Council of 1000. NRDC membership rolls shot up again, from 350,000 to 458,000. Directed by NRDC to sign petitions to blast Mitsubishi, 300,000 people demanded that the stunned company stop the project.

In 1997 and following years, the nonprofit NRDC board agreed to revolve the new membership funds right back into the direct mail campaign.

"NRDC -- it's not well-known or the greatest name in the world, because it was chosen by a bunch of lawyers," says Lopez. "But we had a huge name in Bobby Kennedy, who is an attorney for our board. When we put his cover letter into our package, and he is totally into the idea of leaving a pristine area pristine, it made people feel totally confident in us."

Joel Reynolds, who even detractors at ESSA concede is a brilliant strategist, meanwhile was orchestrating an incredibly detailed political drive behind the scenes.

"For example," says Reynolds, "when Bobby Kennedy went down and spent time diving with the abalone fishermen of Punta Abreojos . . . that was to provide political cover to the fishermen who were going to side with us and say no to local jobs. On environmental battles, you have to have the locals, or you don't win."

American environmentalists were not above playing serious hardball with locals who didn't get with the program. Raul Lopez, a fisherman who co-manages Kuyima, one of three $120-a-night and up "fish camps" for whale watchers, found the claim absurd that the whales might be hurt. Pointing to the thriving whales near the salt plant in Guerrero Negro, Lopez refused to back the environmentalists' plan to toughen Mexican law to make the salt flats protected from all development. He believed such a blanket law could hurt the area's economic future, and his own fishing.

"I was pressured to agree to a completely protected zone, and I refused, so they wrote letters that Kuyima was no good because we are not in the whale war," says Lopez. "They would not deal with us to our faces, so we did not trust or respect them. The environmental groups behaved the worst in this fight, because we did not follow them like sheep. Ba-aaah!"

But on the local political scene, Mitsubishi and ESSA were nevertheless hopelessly outfoxed. They were mired in a growing debate over science issues that the environmental groups were only too happy to fuel.

In a widely accepted practice that Mexico copied directly from U.S. standards, ESSA was expected to finance the research for the environmental assessment. The company surprised its critics by gathering a topnotch team of North American gray whale experts from places like Scripps Institute, University of California at Santa Cruz, University of California at San Diego and the University of Mexico at La Paz.

Roger Payne, who from his country home in Vermont was trying to draft world-renowned scientists to oppose the salt plant, grew furious that ESSA was trying to look like a responsible organization. Payne and Spalding began lashing out at the respected scientists who had agreed to conduct the salt plant/gray whale research.

"These scientists were taking money from a major corporation, globally huge, so I don't think you should have much respect for them," Payne snaps even today. "If you want to confuse things, you do exactly what Mitsubishi did, and pull in some scientists who are good, but are paid. And that is a disgrace to those scientists. Nobody in our case was paid or offered to be paid, and it never came up."

But in fact, New Times has learned that Payne himself was being paid -- by NRDC, according to Reynolds -- and his job was to lobby top scientists and Nobel laureates to join the ad, written largely by Payne, that opposed the salt plant. Payne, who did not disclose publicly that he was on hire, was hardly an outside observer.

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