Conservation Economics

Cashing in on conservation

08-01-2001 // Howard Youth

"Get over here. It´s back," whispers a khaki-clad man into his walkie-talkie. His dispatch sends two forty-something Pennsylvania men into a race-walk across the trailer loop at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in southern Texas. They join me and seven other birders peering through our binoculars at a female blue bunting, the only member of her species known to be camped out in the United States.

"Yes," whispers one of the Pennsylvania birders, his teeth and fist clenched. I´m excited too. The chocolate-brown bird is my 1,400th "life"—as in the first-time-seen-in-my-life—bird. I am a birder in paradise.

Mexico sits only a few wing strokes away from this park, across the Rio Grande. So amateur naturalists like me flock to this and south Texas´ other subtropical forests to spot blue buntings, malachite butterflies and other typically Mexican species. Along the way, we drop some serious cash: on rental cars, lodging, meals, souvenir T-shirts, wildlife photos and guidebooks.

I and the 63 million other wildlife watchers in the United States have become a significant economic force, according to a 1996 federal report (the most recent data available). We spent a total of $29 billion in one year—twice the gross domestic product of Honduras—on our pursuit of rare birds, mammals, wildflowers and other plants and animals. In the past, animals were seen as valuable mostly if they had been shot or captured for zoos or the pet trade. Today, wildlife living in wild places is worth just as much—or more— alive and free.

The boom in wildlife watching is not all happening in south Texas, of course. Consider some of these examples:

  • At least 80,000 whale watchers have spent an estimated $3 million annually in recent years on boat tours to see killer whales off Washington state´s San Juan Islands.
  • In Wyoming, resident and visiting wildlife watchers spent more than $234 million looking at wild creatures in 1996.
  • At New Mexico´s Carlsbad Caverns National Park, more than 76,000 summer tourists—about three times the population of the nearby town of Carlsbad—turned out in 1999 to watch bats at one of the park´s caves.

The ranks of wildlife watchers are growing, too. According to a recent study, birding is North America´s fastest-growing outdoor pastime, with the number of participants rising 155 percent from 1982 to 1995. But these days, birds aren´t the only creatures popular among watchers. The North American Butterfly Association (NABA), for example, was formed only seven years ago and now has 3,500 members and 25 chapters across North America.

Wildlife watching is now such a big business that it regularly grabs the attention of chambers of commerce and tourism promotion boards. For example, more than 200 annual nature-oriented festivals—such as North Carolina´s Wings Over Water birding festival and Dragonfly Days in Weslaco, Texas—now take place throughout the United States and Canada.

"I think wildlife watching has taken on a life of its own," says Vern Vincent of the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. Last year, Vincent and his colleagues surveyed south Texans to get feedback on the World Birding Center, a facility now being built near Bentsen park. Sixty-eight percent of the locals said they´d be willing to pay to get in, compared to only 56 percent who said they would pay to watch the Dallas Cowboys practice at a training facility planned nearby.

What does it mean when rare birds can draw more fans than pro football players? It can mean trouble for the wildlife: Uncontrolled tourism can trammel the fauna and flora the watchers come to see. But steps are now taken at many popular spots to look out for wildlife´s best interests. For example, at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, not far from Bentsen, staff now limit visitors´ car use to protect the privacy of furtive creatures such as ocelots.

Wildlife watching´s most poignant cultural impact is in showing a tangible benefit of wild creatures and their habitats. The real value of wildlife goes far beyond its economic impact, of course. There is no way anyone can attach a price tag to the feeling I get as I watch the blue bunting at Bentsen park. But for those who haven´t experienced this thrill or who don´t believe, as I do, that conservation is simply the right thing to do, the bottom line is this: Conservation makes cents—and dollars.

Former Marylander Howard Youth now does his wildlife watching in Spain.

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