He was the face and voice of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, where he served as director for 13 years and opened the new center, but Mark LaSalle has been dismissed by the National Audubon Society with no prior notice.
"They let me go two weeks ago," LaSalle confirmed on Friday.
He said in a statement to the Sun Herald, "The National Audubon Society has ended my employment as of June 6, 2018. I sincerely wish for the continued success of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, its staff, advisory committee and its many partners. I also encourage the center’s supporters to continue their investment in one of the most important conservation and nature-based facilities in the region and country: a world class example of both and a valuable asset for Mississippi’s One Coast concept."
LaSalle, who holds a Ph.D., said the National Audubon Society did offer him a severance package, which he has signed.
"I was there when Audubon hired Mark, and he and I worked hand-in-hand," said Steven Renfroe, both while he was an executive at Chevron Refinery in Pascagoula and since his retirement. Renfroe said he and others in the community are "very disappointed" that LaSalle is no longer there and there's been a shift in leadership of the center.
The community is just learning about LaSalle's dismissal, said Billy Knight Sr., who met LaSalle when he was serving on the Moss Point School Board and LaSalle was doing programs with the students. They both are members of the local Rotary Club.
"We at Rotary are very concerned about the way it happened," Knight said of LaSalle's termination, and was asked to write a letter on behalf of Rotary to David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society in New York.
"We are very proud of Dr. Mark LaSalle, the successes and accomplishments of our Audubon Center for the many educational programs available to the citizens, especially our children since its opening in 2015," Knight said in the letter. He listed several of LaSalle's accomplishments, and included how visitation has doubled in the 2 1/2 years since the center has opened and how it has become a gathering place where students and visitors learn about and connect with nature.
Knight said the Rotary also is concerned about a possible new direction they have heard may be coming for the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, and asked for a meeting with a national representative.
Chevron, Ingalls Shipbuilding, Mississippi Power and many others in the community have invested in Audubon, he said. If the national Audubon board is concerned about money, Knight said, he doesn't know how anyone can do better than LaSalle did by getting grants to build the new center and donations to operate it.
“People give to people. They don't give to causes,” he said.
Audubon released a statement Friday afternoon from Douglas J. Meffert, vice president of Gulf Coast and Mississippi Flyway.
“The National Audubon Society is committed to the growth and success of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Center, MS. We believe whole-heartedly in the Center’s potential and understand that it is an important place for both people and birds in the surrounding community.
"Mike Muraco, the interim director, brings years of experience leading Audubon’s work in Mississippi and we are confident that the Pascagoula River Audubon Center is in good hands.”