March 26, 2006 – Mario Francis doesn't see some things the way many others do – birds in the sky and the trees around us, for instance.
Francis has dedicated his adult life to these interests. The birds and trees aren't important, of course, without people, especially children, to see them, to learn from them, and to learn to care for them, he said. Francis is a natural teacher, and the environment is his stage.
Founder and director of the St. Thomas Audubon Society, Francis is passionate about all wildlife.
He tells of his first bird sighting:
He was marking timber in woods of Ohio while pursuing a landscape management degree at Ohio State University, when, he says, "I saw something blue, a bright florescent blue, flying through the woods. I ran to catch up with it, and when I did, I marveled at its beauty. I had never seen anything like that. It was an indigo bunting."
Once thus enthralled, Francis began attending local Audubon Society meetings and going on bird counts.
"When I got back to St. Thomas, I hooked up with the Audubon Society, but it was only on St. John then. And it was mostly people from the states who came down for the winter," he says. "Eventually, I became a board member. But, after five years of trekking to St. John, I decided to start a St. Thomas club, where we could go bird-watching all year around."
Francis says the club initially was an offspring of another of his projects, for which he is perhaps most known, the Junior Gardening and Ecology Academy, which he began shortly after returning to the island.
"It seemed a natural outgrowth," Francis says. "I started the gardening academy in 1991, and then I expanded it to include ecology. I was determined to get the kids involved in birds too."
It was a natural step along the way to introduce the youngsters to the world of birds, Francis says. And he began in an area where most would never imagine avian populations – the island's housing projects. "You can see egrets, herons, sandpipers, flycatchers from Oswald Harris Court," Francis says.
A past president of Lockhart Elementary School Parent Teacher Association, Francis has a special affinity for the area. "I see kids with nothing to do, and I give them something to do," he says. "It's a challenge. I ask them what they are doing, and when they can't come up with anything useful, I tell them they can do something.
"I had one boy I was told was a natural hell-raiser, a rebel," Francis says, "I worked with him, gave him my time. He needed attention. He got involved in spotting the birds, and in the garden projects, and he changed. He is in college now."
He says the youngsters meet for the bird-watch at 6 a.m. at the Sugar Estate Post Office, noting, "It's very important to teach them discipline, determination and organization." Though started as a junior club, parents got interested and it now includes adults, Francis says. Its numbers include about 20 members under 18, and another group of about 25 to 30 adults.
Francis has brought to our interview a loose-leaf binder, close to five inches thick. It is stuffed with all manner of papers, documenting years of activity: awards the gardening academy has won; newspaper accounts of his accomplishments in conservation; bird-watching statistics; but, mostly, photo after photo of his students, holding binoculars studying birds, planting seeds, swimming at Magens Bay.
Francis beams as he talks about the youngsters, many of whom are now in college. "One is studying architecture, another a medical student," he says.
A well-known community figure in fights for preservation of the island's natural resources, Francis is not afraid to speak his mind. "I fought for the Magens Bay watershed when it was threatened by developers, and we stopped the developers. I would go sit outside Governor Farrelly's office until he would see me."
The Nature Conservancy, along with the Virgin Islands government, purchased 228 acres of land around and above Magens Bay in 2002 for use as a nature preserve and wildlife refuge. "The more people who experience the trails through the watershed, the more environmentally conscious they become," Francis says, "which ultimately benefits all of us. What a wonderful outdoor classroom for kids."
Another "outdoor classroom" Francis successfully fought to preserve is the Red Hook Salt Pond, which was in danger of being destroyed for a government project. "I had to go to the Legislature when I saw this proposal coming up, that was in 1995. I was very nervous, but I had a mission. I had to put something together quick to educate the Senate and the public about the value of the salt pond. It is significant," Francis says, "It's a natural buffer between land and sea."
The salt pond is a regular stop on bird-watches. "You can see pelicans there now," he says, "and egrets and herons. It's a natural place to teach about wildlife."
The trees the birds perch in are another of his passions for all things green and natural. "I'm called a 'tree hugger,'" he says, displaying a photo of himself with five or six youngsters, arms entwined, hugging a large mahogany tree.
He has been trying to get legislation – the "Tree Conservation Act"- passed for two years. He has testified on the bill, but he says it has yet to see the light of day. The bill would provide guidelines for removal, replacement and pruning of trees, and would give the Department of Planning and Natural Resources responsibility for monitoring the care of trees in all phases of construction.
Francis says, "Every week, I ask Senator James (chairman of the Committee on Economic Development, Planning and Environmental Protection), and I can't get a simple committee report of the last hearing."
"Trees are older than any man," Francis says. "You can't take a tree for granted. Its beauty provides shade, it provides us with food, it helps us conserve energy, it's an important natural resource."
Among Francis' numberless accomplishments, one singular feat stands out. He has discovered a function for the Nadir Bridge, locally known as "the bridge to nowhere." "Yes," he says, utterly serious. "You can see the least grebe, the white egret, scaly-naped pigeons. Every so often, we see a turtle in the pond below."
His enthusiasm is staggering. He almost never stops for a breath, so intense is his interest in teaching the island residents about the island's natural bounty. And at 51, he is not slowing down. If anything, in fact, he's speeding up.
From his documents, Francis pulls an attractive brochure titled "Birds of Magens Bay." "I went to the authority board last week with an idea," he says. "Magens is more than a beach. It's overwhelming. There are 35 different species of bird there. I want to create a billboard listing all the different birds, the trees, the wildlife. The board accepted the idea and said they wanted 250 brochures. Now they say they want to do 10,000."
Francis also works with his father in an immigration consulting business, "but come summer, I say 'bye dad,'" he says, because this is when the club has outdoor activities planned for Tortola in June, St. Croix in July, and Dominica in August.
Though he would welcome support, Francis supports the club mostly out of his own pocket. "We have bake sales, things like that, but the kids are busy with exams now, and I don't want to crowd them."
But Francis did say there were items the club would accept donations of. "I would like to share with your readers a few items the Audubon Club could use. We need binoculars, (7×33, 8×40 and 10×50), a digital camera, a spotting scope, books and a tripod."
Francis encourages anyone to join the club.
There are seven watches coming up in the next few months. Dues are $25 annually
Along the way, Francis and his wife, Renelda, have raised two girls, Simra and Ebony, and three boys, Abdu, Ahjahra and Akiija.
Included in his myriad accomplishments are serving as the chairman of the V.I. Urban and Community Forestry Council, a six-year term as president of the Environmental Association of St. Thomas (EAST), a co-founder of Reef Rangers, on the board of St. Thomas Swimming Association, and a teacher of agricultural science with the V.I. Department of Education.
Among other honors, he has been recipient of the Community Foundation of the V.I. 2004 Bronze Award, the Award of Excellence in Youth and Community Outreach 2005, and the Outstanding Educator Award, AFT Feddy Award, in 1994.
When asked if he could be any type of bird, Francis thought it over and said he would like to be a red-tailed hawk or a peregrine falcon. "For one thing," he says, "for their outstanding vision. They can see a rat running through the trees from 200 feet in the sky. I marvel at things like that, how keen they are."
A 1972 graduate of Charlotte Amalie High School, Francis holds degrees from Ohio State University, the University of the Virgin Islands and Hocking College and has earned degrees in agricultural science, agronomy, agriculture economics and forestry management, along with certification in environmental science.
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