Baja, California, Gray Whales, and 11 Million BioGems Messages

Visiting a gray whale nursery in Laguna San Ignacio, Baja, California last week reminded me of one of the fundamental truths about environmental advocacy: it is great to win victories, but then you have to secure them for the long-term.

I loved traveling to the lagoon and watching 300 whales spout, jump, and plunge around me. It was restorative to watch such carefree playfulness. But it was also inspiring because I knew that these whales retained their pristine nursery thanks to NRDC, our Mexican and international partners, and our members and activists.

Back in 2000, we blocked the Mitsubishi Corporation from building the world's largest salt factory on the banks of the lagoon. That was a groundbreaking victory in one of the largest environmental campaigns in history. But it was only the beginning. We knew that without permanent protection for the lands around the lagoon and sustainable economic alternatives for the local communities, the salt works and other industrial and commercial projects would remain a threat. So we made an enduring commitment to the lagoon.

Last week, in between boat rides to see the whales, our group visited a nearby school where NRDC had helped install solar panels so the children would have electricity. We got to meet a class of fifth graders, and even though I don't speak much Spanish, I could tell from their giggles and eager smiles they were happy to have guests. They proudly showed us the computer equipment that NRDC members helped purchase for the school.

 The work in the school is part of a larger plan to foster sustainable economic growth in the region. Since 2005, NRDC and our Mexican and international partners have secured permanent protection for almost 250,000 acres of lands around the lagoon through a combination of conservation easements and government safeguards. A portion of the funds to purchase the easements goes into a trust fund for community projects. Raul Lopez, the director of the Ejido Luis Echeverria, told us about an oyster farm (with orders from as far away as Hong Kong, China) that got support from the fund, as well as a chicken farmer who was able to grow his business from 1,000 chickens to 2,000.

The fight to protect San Ignacio from the salt works was the beginning of NRDC's BioGems Initiative to save wild places and wildlife  throughout the Americas with the help of online activists. Since then, more than 400,000 BioGems Defenders have sent 11 million messages to lawmakers, government ministers, and executives on behalf of pristine landscapes.

But we don't just call on BioGems Defenders for the big battles; we ask for their help for the long haul. Five years after our victory over the Mitsubishi salt works, we called on their help and successfully beat back a plan to construct a marina near the mouth of the lagoon with a pier that would have stretched nearly a mile into the ocean, directly in the path of migrating whales. And since then, our members have generously supported our efforts to secure conservation easements around the lagoon.

After three decades as an environmental advocate, I have learned that you can't just slap the label of wilderness on a place and call it saved. Stewardship is constant and requires ongoing vigilance.

That's what we are trying to maintain in Laguna San Ignacio. The fishermen living around the lagoon want both to protect the whales and the land and to provide for their families.

We are working with our partners to help them do that in an economically and environmentally sustainable way. Not just today, but into the future as well.