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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.

Wednesday, Nov 21 2001
Big-name sophisticates like Jean-Michel Cousteau and Robert Kennedy Jr. rejoiced when it was announced last year that a controversial salt plant proposed in Mexico had been stopped. As news reports crackled across Japan, North America, and Europe, environmentalists celebrated the unprecedented victory that saved the gray whale.

The globe-encircling crusade had aimed to stop the Mexican government -- in partnership with corporate giant Mitsubishi -- from building a sprawling facility to evaporate salt from the sea off Baja's Pacific coast. The campaign hit a nerve unlike any environmental battle before it, inspiring 1 million people to bury Mitsubishi in protest mail, and even sweeping through America's grade schools, where children protested with crayon drawings and pleas to "stop killing Namu."

Movie stars Pierce Brosnan and Glenn Close issued dramatic appeals for compassion toward the gray whale, warning that the proposed salt evaporation plant threatened the pristine lagoon that the once-endangered leviathan uses to give birth. The United Nations sent an international team to investigate. The California Coastal Commission decried the project. And 34 renowned scientists, nine of them Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, put their names on full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, and La Reforma condemning the saltworks.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sent out 30.4 million mailers -- unprecedented for a single environmental battle -- and collected $7 million in donations from anxious Americans who had been convinced the whales were in danger. Because NRDC heavily promoted itself as protector of the gray whale to attract new members, its size skyrocketed from 175,000 members in 1996 to more than 450,000 this year. New membership fees directly attributable to the gray whale campaign added a $20 million windfall to NRDC's coffers since 1996.

Americans opened their checkbooks because of disturbing mass mailers such as a Feb. 11, 1997, letter from the NRDC's president (then executive director), John Adams, which promised to "focus worldwide attention on this new threat to gray whales." The fund-raising letter included a form citizens could sign and forward to corporate giant Mitsubishi, promising a boycott and warning that "North Americans will stand united against this reckless endangerment of our continent's most spectacular wildlife."

With plenty of money at the ready, the environmentalists spent freely. NRDC's partner in battle, the cash-rich International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), did no fund-raising but spent $3.5 million on lobbying and media campaigns focused heavily on environment-conscious California. It hired crack Democratic consultants who traveled the breadth of the state, persuading 46 California municipalities and 14 pension funds to boycott Mitsubishi.

IFAW bought a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, lauding the pension money managers who had agreed to boycott Mitsubishi. Beneath an enormous photograph of a gray whale, IFAW stated, "When these money managers make a killing in the stock market, it's not at the expense of an entire species."

In addition to IFAW's $3.5 million lobbying effort that implied that the species was at risk, NRDC spent $12 million on the saltworks war. Much of that $12 million went to a mass public protest campaign and to continued expansion of the group's red-hot membership drive. Together, NRDC and IFAW spent a combined $15.5 million and mobilized nearly 2 million people globally to protest, write, donate, or otherwise act to stop the salt plant.

When former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo abruptly canceled the joint public-private project in March 2000, the conventional wisdom was that David had stopped Goliath.

Although Mitsubishi was one of the world's largest corporations, it had been defeated by environmentalists. There would be no salt harvesting on the heat-baked El Vizcaino Desert salt flat in Baja, a desert whose toes dip into Laguna San Ignacio, the Pacific nursery where up to 300 gray whales migrate from Alaska and Siberia to give birth each January.

"It was the biggest single environmental battle ever in North America, the mother of battles and an incredible journey," says Jacob Scherr, a top NRDC lawyer involved.

The victory at the warm blue lagoon fringed with dense mangrove thickets and alive with dolphins and seabirds catapulted the relatively obscure NRDC and IFAW to the forefront of global environmental warfare.

So, too, was the barnacled gray whale, known fondly to biologists simply as "The Gray," suddenly vaulted up the list of the world's charismatic species.

Word spread about the spiritual connection humans experience at the lagoon, where sofa-size whale infants poke their curious, gigantic, rubbery noses right inside whale-watching skiffs, lingering there to be petted and kissed by delighted tourists.

Clearly, most people thought the idea hammered home in the U.S. in glossy mailers, public service announcements, theater previews, bumper stickers, and newspaper ads was to save whales.

Press coverage underscored the message by focusing almost exclusively on the proposed plant's effect on gray whales. When Zedillo stopped the plant, media headlines trumpeted a new era of global environmentalism that had saved a marine mammal only recently removed from the endangered species list.

"A decision Mexico never expected to make," said the New York Times. "Changed the shape of environmental policies in Mexico," declared the Boston Globe. "Handing a stunning victory to environmentalists," wrote the Washington Post. "The most significant victory of their generation," summed up Cox News Service.

Yet the real victory was a triumph of public relations over public policy.

In a yearlong investigation on both sides of the border involving extensive interviews, on-site inspections, and review of published and unpublished scientific studies and documents, New Times has found no scientific basis to suggest the salt plant proposed at Laguna San Ignacio represented even a mild threat to the baby grays or the adult whales.

"We who study the gray whale suspected there would not be much," says biologist Jorge Urban, Mexico's leading gray whale authority. "First, whales already co-exist with salt plants. Second, we know the gray whale is quite adaptable because its population has recovered even though it spends much of its life traveling through a world of industry and humans, from Alaska to Baja and back. I participated in the EIA [environmental impact assessment], and my confidence is high that there would be no ill effects."

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Michael Lacey

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