First, let’s book a little history.
Avitourism (birding tourism) is a Texas original, like “Don’t Mess With Texas,” Aggie jokes, and jake-leg politicians. Texas didn’t invent birding (although the ABA began here in 1968), but avitourism is as Texan as Willie Nelson and all-hat-and-no-cattle cowboys. Give us credit for something other than our embarrassments.
In 1993 Paul Kerlinger, Dick Payne, and I published an article in Birding titled “High Island: A Case Study in Avitourism.” I fabricated the word ‘avitourism.” I thought that birding tourism sounded too plain, too pedestrian, too unscientific. I wanted to be taken seriously, and I needed a puffed-up word that sounded serious as well. Avitourism seemed just inflated enough.
Earlier that spring I had presented a paper on the ecotourism opportunities in Galveston. The two publications attracted the attention of Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW). Then-director Andy Sansom invited me to join a task force being appointed by Governor Ann Richards to develop a nature tourism strategy for the state.
Our planning efforts were getting underway in late 1993 when Watchable Wildlife met in Corpus Christi. Late in the conference (lubricated by a few timely glasses of wine) Madge Lindsay and I began to consider implementable recommendations that could be woven into the state strategy. Madge mentioned her contact with the new ISTEA enhancement program, I mentioned my idea of a birding trail, and two years later (1995) we joined Roger Tory Peterson in Rockport to dedicate the first section of the world’s first birding trail – the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Around the same time Kerlinger and I published “Birds and Bucks” in Birding as well.
Birders and conservationists didn’t talk much about the economic impact of birding in those days. Our article in Birding joined a handful of previous attempts to quantify the contributions made by birders to local economies. But our efforts to organize a state nature tourism strategy catalyzed (at least for us) the idea that birding, as a recreation, might serve economic as well as conservation interests.
The Great Texas Birding Trail led to the Great Texas Wildlife Trails which led to the World Birding Center (WBC) which led to communities throughout the state investing in lands and facilities for birders. I worked on many of these. At times we took two steps forward then one back, but all of us progressed. The communities invested, Texas Parks and Wildlife and other federal and state agencies invested, and birders, attracted to the new facilities, invested as well.
Nowhere is this progress more clearly seen than in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Valley) of South Texas. I began birding in the Valley in the late 1960s. Both Santa Ana NWR and Bensten SP were relatively undeveloped for birding then, with tiny visitor centers (in Santa Ana’s case, Wayne Shifflett’s home) inside the flood levies.
Estero Llano Grande State Park, Frontera Audubon Society’s sanctuary in Weslaco, the Valley Nature Center, the Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR, Quinta Mazatlan, TNC’s Chihuahua Woods Preserve, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, the Hugh Ramsey Nature Park in Harlingen, Resaca de las Palmas State Park, the South Padre Island (SPI) Convention Center woodlands and boardwalk, and the SPI Birding and Nature Center did not exist. Audubon kept the Sabal Palm Sanctuary closed for much of the time.
Agriculture still dominated the Valley, with limited food and lodging for birders (the La Quinta Inn and Luby’s Cafeteria in McAllen would become famous for that reason) and even less habitat for birds. Birds once common in the Valley such as white-collared seedeater, Aplomado falcon, and gray-crowned yellowthroat were gone. Many of the specialties (green jay, Altamira oriole, plain chachalaca, brown-crested flycatcher) were seen only in the few parks and refuges.
The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail (Trail) changed all of this. I know of few places in the world where birding has been better nurtured, developed, and embraced by the local communities. No, the Trail didn’t do this alone. But the Trail did provide a platform for future action, and a context for community involvement. Without the investment and commitment by Valley communities, nothing would have been accomplished at the scale of what you see today.
Consider the investment in the World Birding Centers alone. Texas Parks and Wildlife, with funding provided by the legislature (and promoted by local elected officials) developed Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley SP, Estero Llano Grande SP, and Resaca de las Palmas SP. State funding, bolstered by local community matches, sponsored the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, McAllen’s Quinta Mazatlan, Harlingen’s Arroyo Colorado (Hugh Ramsey Park), Hidalgo Pumphouse, and the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. The USFWS made the WBC in Roma possible. The WBC is now comprised of nine separate birding destinations, and all of the planned enhancements are finished.
Without funding from federal and state agencies, as well as the investments of the local taxpayers, none of this would have been possible. Is it worth it? Did the taxpayers get a reasonable return on their investment?
Birders would answer an emphatic yes. But what about nonbirders? What about the conservatives in Congress who would now like to end most of this type of funding? No doubt the projects have benefited the birds, but where is the money? Show me the money!
I will. Kerlinger, Payne, and I estimated that in the early 1990s the refuges in the Valley contributed around $60 million to the local economies in direct expenditures. We later included indirect and induced impacts (a multiplier) and we estimated an overall impact of around $125 million annually. Local communities used that number for years, and, at times, we were questioned as to how birders could possibly contribute so much to the local economy. To be blunt, we were grilled.
Now another estimate has been proffered, this one by researchers at Texas A&M. According to them, nature tourists (birders, bird people, butterfly people, dragonfly people, and the like) now contribute over $300 million to the local economy each year.
According to this report,
Estimated total annual expenditures by intentionals (based on off-peak visitation) for 2011 were $300,090,886. This direct economic contribution from RGV nature tourism led to a total county-level economic output of $344.4 million and 4,407 full and part-time jobs annually. This total contribution includes a $179.4 million contribution to gross regional product and a $110.1 million contribution to labor income across the region. Local taxes generated from direct nature tourist expenditures for 2011 were $2,595,600 for sales tax and $7,262,700 for hotel tax.
The unemployment rate in the U.S. is mired at 9%. The unemployment rate in Starr County is 16.8%, Hidalgo is 12.8%, and Cameron is 12.5%. Nature tourism is a job creator in South Texas, and conservation is a side benefit. Why would government, if concerned about job creation, threaten the funding that made such jobs possible?
Let me be clear. Federal and state funding does not directly support these nature tourism jobs. Governmental funding enables the private sector to create the jobs, much like airports and highways do. The highway department funds the construction of roads, and the private sector uses these roads to move people to work and products to customers. The FAA does not ship goods; the FAA funds the airports that enable the private sector to ship freight and travel to jobs and prospects.
Public santuaries, refuges, and parks are destinations, not providers. Birders travel to Santa Ana NWR to see green jays and chachalacas, but they stay in local hotels such as the Alamo Inn and eat in local restaurants. Private resorts (Club Med, cruise ships, Disney) have no incentive to spread dollars outside of their properties. They work to fence in every cent. Public lands capture little economic return within the park or refuge boundaries (and get blamed for losing money). Travel expenditures are distributed throughout the region, helping local communities benefit from the visitation.
Conservatives in Congress (and in the state legislatures) ignore these facts. Show them the money, and they still will slice. The enhancement funding that made the Trail possible is under attack, and the federal scenic byway program has been gutted. No environmental law is safe. Park, refuge, and resource protection funding is being led to slaughter. Why?
Ideology. Conservatives are happy to cut funding and jobs if it appeases the ideologues. Forget proving that environmental protections actually create jobs. Forget proving that land conservation actually creates jobs and elevates property values (and tax bases). Forget proving that parks and refuges create nature tourism jobs in areas that are otherwise without economic opportunities. All that matters is their creed.
For years I quoted Francis Cairncross from her book Costing the Earth. She said that “in a world where money talks, the environment must have value to give it a voice.” I thought that we had progressed past that point where we needed to label every resource with a dollar value. I stopped quoting her years ago.
No longer. She is right, and I am wrong. I assumed that conservation had finally become integrated into the fabric of American life. I bought into the greening of America. Not the ideologues. The conservatives (mostly Republicans, but not exclusively) would like to return us to the pre-Nixon days before the EPA, NEPA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. Conservatives from his own party hated TR when he first employed the Antiquities Act to preserve public lands, and, true to form and ideology, they have stayed on the right (wing) path ever since.
Birding has proven its point. The lands protected for birds generate jobs and taxes. These same lands attract wildlife viewers, hunters, hikers, bikers, campers, anglers, and the like, and they too spend money to recreate. The government invests a little, and communities and small businesses benefit a lot.
I have and will argue that public land is among the most tangible expressions of the American democracy. Within a public park or refuge all are equal. Within public land there is no 99% vs 1%. Within public land there is equality. This fact alone should be sufficient to protect public land from exploitation. It’s not.
Birders have the proof; now we must deliver the message. Forget the ideologues; they will not change. Americans suffering in this economy, however, might find our story interesting. Make it simple: land plus recreation equals jobs plus tax revenues. If you need additional information, I have posted links on my webpage. Now let’s sell it.