A Fortune In Nature?

May 2000

[The following essay, written 17 years ago, was part of a series exploring the changing needs of American small towns.  It was meant to illustrate that wild lands - often Federally-administered - can be significant economic and cultural assets to a local community. Often, taking advantage of such assets does not have to conflict with traditional uses and values of an area. Many similar studies have been done in the past 25 years, all showing much the same results.]    

 When I first began to get interested in the plight of single-economy communities, I read the results of a study of bird-watching near Leamington, Ontario, Canada:

"Economic values of bird watching at Point Pelee National Park, Canada," by G. H. Hvenegaard, J. R. Butler and D. K. Krystoflak, published in the 1989 Wildlife Society Bulletin Volume 17, pages 526-531.

Leamington is near Point Pelee on Lake Erie, a spot famous among bird-watchers as a place to watch the northward spring migration of songbirds. What was extremely interesting to me was that the study concluded that Leamington and other nearby communities were benefiting from the bird-watching to the tune of over $2 million each year. Two million dollars is a pretty good figure for any small community, but it becomes even more impressive when one knows that:
(1) the birding season lasts only three weeks;
(2) the season is in May, before the normal family vacation time;
(3) almost all the birders are from out of the local area, so the $2 million is really "new" money for the region;
(4) - and I think this is extremely pertinent - at the time of the study, the local people and businesses had done almost nothing to encourage, welcome or accomodate the visiting bird-watchers. In other words, the two million was almost all PURE PROFIT.

As shown in this study and a number of others, birders and others attracted to an area by its wildlife come prepared to spend money. They usually come from a distance, so they buy gasoline. They usually stay in motels and eat in restaurants, rather than camping or coming in self-contained recreational vehicles. If the wildlife-watching is good, they often spend several days in an area. Because wildlife watching is better when there aren't crowds of people around, and because many wildlife spectacles occur in the spring, fall and winter months, wildlife watchers are often a source of income at otherwise "slow" periods of the year. Also,because wildlife watchers are often well-salaried, they are apt to spend money on other items, if they are available. The Point Pelee study concluded that the income from those three weeks in May would have been much higher than $2 million if local businesses had been ready for the birders' arrival, with tee shirts, sweatshirts, nature and history books, postcards, film, and local souvenirs.

Not every town has a Point Pelee next door to them, but many have their own spectacles or potential attractions: migration stopovers almost as good as Point Pelee, hawk-watching sites, moose congregation areas, loons, local wildlife refuges with colonies of nesting birds, butterfly migrations, etc. Many of them are clearly "marketable." The American Birding Association's Year 2001 Directory of Birding Festivals includes details of over 200 special wildlife events that communities have planned for this year, to take advantage of this economic resource. Some of these events are in their tenth or fifteenth consecutive year, indicating that they are perceived as being good for their local area. Many of them have branched out from mere wildlife watching to include craft fairs, concerts, renowned speakers, special fund-raising breakfasts and dinners, and guided tours.

Very few studies have been done to quantify how lucrative wildlife festivals really are, and clearly some of the better-planned ones are far more significant economically than are some of the smaller, more spontaneous ones. Nevertheless, the Point Pelee study suggests that communities with attractive natural values should look into capitalizing on the environment. Some of the appeals of nature tourism for small communities are:

· It doesn't have to change the character of an area, because you are "selling" what you already have, not developing some new attraction that may be out of character with small town living.

· It requires planning, but doesn't require lots of upfront funding and new infrastructure. It is often a matter of just providing publicity, and a few more goods and services.

· It often occurs at times of year when local business would normally be slow, when motels, restaurants, groceries, etc. can realize new business without interfering with old business.

· Most of the revenue generated really stays with local businesses.

· Local residents often find that the things planned for the wildlife tourists are fun, entertaining and educational, as well as economically satisfying.

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