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September 8, 2013

YOUR GREEN VALLEY: Learning the economics of conservation

When Indiana first became a state in 1816, there were more than 200 million acres of wetlands in the United States. These areas were considered useless for farming. As a result, Congress passed the Swamp Land Act of 1850, which encouraged settlers to dredge, drain and tile water-logged areas and convert them into farm land. In Indiana, more than a million acres of wetlands were drained.

This resulted in the decline of several wetland species like the Great Egret. Unbeknownst to our ancestors, birds can pump millions of dollars into our local economy, so long as we provide them a place to live.

The Wabash Valley has two excellent wetlands: Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area in Greene County and the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area in Vigo County.

Both are in the process of being restored back to their natural state. They are fantastic places to go bird watching. The economic potential to capture the tourists who come from thousands of miles away for the chance to see a rare bird is great.

In 2013 alone, there were more than a handful of times when an electronic rare bird alert went out on the North American Rare Bird Alert list or the Birdseye smart phone application. Goose Pond filled up with an unexpected hundred or so out-of-town visitors.

New non-native birds are always being spotted down at Goose Pond. When marketed properly, these birds can bring tens of millions of dollars to the Wabash Valley. For proof ask our neighbors to the east in Oak Harbor, Ohio (about 35 minutes outside of Toledo) at the Magee Marsh Wildlife area.

The habitat along the lakeshore has mostly been developed and the birds are hesitant to cross Lake Erie in one swoop when they are migrating. They stop and rest in the Magee March, an area wildlife agencies have done a great job in preserving and maintaining. Many of the birds often found in tree tops are on ground level waiting to take the next step in their journey.

The Black Swamp Bird Observatory is the first building visitors go when they enter Magee Marsh. Executive director of the observatory, Kim Kaufman, says a comprehensive conservation business plan that incorporates tourism concepts was formed after receiving feedback from visitors and birders.

In 2008 the concept of a birding festival was introduced; it became a reality in 2009 and was fully fledged by 2010.

“The Biggest Week in American Birding” is one result of providing more meaningful interaction with birders by providing them better services. After making business connections and creating a marketing plan, visitors flocked to town and the numbers spoke for themselves. In 2010, they brought in $10 million; in 2011 an additional $10 million; and in 2012 a whopping $35 million. To see the marketing efforts first-hand, attend the 2014 festival May 6-15.

“The bottom line for us is, this is a conservation plan. Tourism is an important element of it. But the bottom line for the BSBO team is that there is no better way to raise awareness of the importance of habitat conservation than to collect this economic impact data. We want birders to come here and have a great time, but we want it to mean something for the area,” Kaufman said.

How to create ecotourism

Creating ecotourism starts with providing quality services to birders. Give them a reason to come to you.

The BSBO created a lot of high-quality birding maps for the wildlife areas. There are great maps out here, but none specifically geared toward birders. It then started to publish bird sightings in a variety of different ways.

A lot of the tracking data came from its research team at its banding station. Once the birders started visiting the Magee Marsh, the best way to connect the birders with businesses was to put them to work.

They did this by handing them a stack of “birders calling cards.” Birders were then asked that everywhere they would stop, from gas stations to hotels, to hand the clerk one of the cards.

The cards said that the birders were sent by BSBO, and they were in town because of the birds and great habitat in the area. The little cards helped identify the sudden bump in business and tie it back to the work of the BSBO. The Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas uses the card method during its birding festival as well.

“I had a restaurant owner come up to me. He had a stack of cards two inches thick. He said if you ever need a testimonial for your birding festival, you come to me, because this is proof of what you did for my business,” McAllen, Texas, Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Vice President Nancy Millar said.

The next thing the BSBO did was create the Birds and Business alliance. Through the alliance they developed an active line of communication and network with business owners. They were able to share with them what birders wanted when they were visiting and explain how to provide services to this audience.

“The birds do a lot of the heavy lifting for us; sometimes it is as simple as connecting those dots and you would be amazed at how quickly the business community gets on board and how birders will embrace services. Then the birders start to share those experiences and show the map of where they visited, then more people come to visit,” Kaufman said.  

 The Rio Grande Birding Festival has been going on for 20 years. After 10 years, a marketing co-op was formed where organizations put money into a pot and started promoting the area as a birding destination. They called on birding magazines, tour operators and journalists in other countries to promote what nature had provided. In the Rio Grande Valley, bird/nature watching brings in $463 million a year and sustains 6,600 jobs.

“The birds are not what bring birders and millions of dollars; it is the habitat. If we are not proper stewards of the habitat, the birds go away, the birders go away and the dollars go away,” Kaufman said.

To learn more about this topic, attend this month’s Art and River Chatter event on at 5:15 p.m. Sept. 26 at Logan’s Rib-Eye in Terre Haute.

Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a proud volunteer with TREES Inc. and Our Green Valley. She also sits on the Wabash Valley Goodwill Industries Board of Directors. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at JaneSantucci@yourgreenvalley.com.

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