Alexander R. Brash ’77 is president of the Connecticut Audubon Society, the state’s leading independent conservation organization, founded in 1898. Since 2013, Brash has led the Society’s efforts to conserve Connecticut’s birds and their habitats by focusing on education, conservation, and advocacy. He notes, “Each Connecticut Audubon Society center serves as a pillar in its community. Through engagement with kids and families, it provides experiential education and builds a conservation ethic among our citizens.”
Brash, originally a “New York City kid,” remembers first taking great interest in birds around age 10, but says that his interest truly caught fire at Hotchkiss: “With Ted Davis’ prep biology course, bird photography with Russ Hansen, and hikes with Blair Torrey, my interest in birds and the natural world blossomed in Lakeville.”
After receiving his B.S. with honors from Connecticut College and an M.F.S. from Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Brash held positions at the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy and worked with the U.S. Forest Service before joining New York City’s Parks Department. As director of management planning and later as chief of the Urban Park Service, Brash allocated the agency’s $350-million budget and led a group of 500-plus uniformed employees, while directing special events and the agency’s environmental agenda. “That was one of the most fascinating positions I have held, but it was a big job. I couldn’t take a day off between St. Patrick’s Day and the New York Marathon. The responsibilities included everything from responding to the riots in Tompkins Square Park and being involved in major NYC crime scenes and at Ground Zero to serving as the point person for a Papal visit.”
In 2004, when the 96-year-old National Parks Conservation Association opened its first office in New York, Brash was named senior regional director. There, he was charged with building awareness of national park issues and developing public and congressional support for the federal funding critical to the preservation and care of our national parks. He built an impressive array of programs and co-chaired both the NY/NJ Harbor Coalition and a national conference, “Designing the Parks.” Brash launched a nationwide alliance focused on urban national parks, worked to add a major national park in Maine’s North Woods, and directed several major advocacy campaigns for new parks. He served as executive producer of Feel Free, the Central Park premier of Ken Burns’ documentary on national parks, and worked closely with Congress on the legislation and restoration of the tri-state region’s parks after Hurricane Sandy.
In August 2013, Brash was named president of the Connecticut Audubon Society, overseeing a staff of 30, four nature centers, two museums, and 19 sanctuaries encompassing 2,600 acres. He is charged with continuing and expanding Audubon’s delivery of first-rate educational programs, its conservation-focused advocacy campaigns, and with the sustainable management of its preserves. Brash sees progress, but notes the size of the task: “Our two biggest challenges are getting society and our elected leaders to understand the intrinsic and economic value of wild spaces in our increasingly urbanized world and engaging both the younger generations and our urban populations. We have all come to see the enormous impact of today’s endlessly inter-connected world, but many of us also realize that today’s youth are largely disconnected from the outdoors. The unique beauty of our natural resources competes with the blazing attractions on a computer screen. Our goal at the Connecticut Audubon Society is to use the charismatic nature of birds to engage and grow the next generation of conservationists. Since kids are naturally attracted to the colors, sights, and sounds of birds, birds are a great tool to get them excited about nature.”
Brash says, “Connecticut has been at the forefront of conservation, and efforts here to clean up the land and water have resulted in many success stories. The Bald Eagle is one example. Re-introduced in Massachusetts some years ago, eagles have successfully reproduced and expanded their range into Connecticut. Our forests, ospreys, wild turkeys, and other species have also rebounded. I believe that birds are one of our greatest bio-indicators. Given their visibility, they are readily monitored, and with their inherent biodiversity, they inevitably cover our multi-faceted environment. With roughly 300 species of birds in Connecticut, insectivores will reveal aerial contamination, fish-eaters will identify water pollutants, and other species will illuminate other impacts. Along these lines, one of our major goals has been to grow and build citizen scientists. Indeed, a favorite part of my job is to see inner-city Bridgeport grade-school students come to one of our centers, witness their delight upon seeing a beautiful salamander on a spring morning, and then later in the day see them help rebuild an osprey platform.”
In reflection, Brash says, “As a Buckley School boy from New York City, I was absolutely taken with the beauty of the woods, streams, and meadows around Hotchkiss. Being there taught me that the charismatic nature of birds can engage others in conservation. I learned a lot more than academics, too: I came to appreciate good friends. I learned that ‘if it is to be, it is up to me,’ and finally that, in the end, the most prominent thing you will leave behind is your reputation. Today, at the Connecticut Audubon Society, I feel lucky to be able to work with several Hotchkiss alumni as consultants and Society board members and to follow the lead of Hotchkiss’ Dan Lufkin ’49, regarded by many as the father of Earth Day, who served as Connecticut’s first commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. I also appreciate that it was my Hotchkiss experience that forged the self-knowledge and confidence that have allowed me to run the state’s leading conservation organization. My time in Lakeville awoke my passion for nature, my great interest in the outdoors, and propelled me to pursue a career in conservation, and I am endlessly grateful that I have never had a day of work that I did not find rewarding. I have been able to set in motion some great things, witness some unbelievable things, and save some small slice of this earth, our heaven.”