I live in the Seattle area, a place known for its liberal politics and conservation-minded outlook. The stereotypical Seattleite drives her Prius to the grocery store and packs local, organic produce and ‘green’ cleaning supplies into the re-usable hemp bags she brought from home. Her friend is scrupulous about composting food scraps, riding his bike to and from work, and replacing all of the incandescent lights in his home with compact florescent bulbs. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud these efforts to reduce, re-use, and recycle. But what bothers me sometimes is the smug attitude that some Northwesterners have about their eco-friendly lifestyle, and the thought that if only the rest of the country were “more like us” we’d all be a lot better off. Well, Seattle, I have news for you: you could learn a lot about protecting and celebrating nature and wildlife from the great state of Texas.
While much of the Seattle ethos of conservation centers around reducing our environmental footprint, the Texas approach I’ve seen on display here this week is all about getting people excited about nature. They want people to experience the joy and wonder of the great outdoors, to educate them about the fascinating habitats and wildlife that surround them, and to help them forge deep connections with nature. And one of the logical outgrowths of loving nature is a desire to preserve and protect it, a motive that is woven into the Texas strategy. How do they manage to accomplish all of this? They’ve done it through an ambitious program of education and marketing, and by partnering with businesses and communities to demonstrate that conservation can be great for local economies, businesses, and families.
One of the first steps down this path was the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. People had been coming to the Texas coast to watch birds for decades, and at some point local birders got together with area business leaders and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to create an official ‘birding trail.’ The trail consists of a compilation of the most interesting bird watching locations along the coast. A description was written about each location, and beautiful full-color maps were printed showing how to get to each place. Physical signs were also placed at each location, to help birders find the place and to attract the attention of nature-loving passers-by.
The trail was a hit, and helped to cement Texas as one of the most popular spring birding destinations in the country. Over time the program has expanded to include the rest of Texas. There are now nine different birding or wildlife trail sections encompassing nearly 1000 different sites around the state. You can still order the gorgeous printed maps, but of course now the entire statewide Trail is available free online.
In the late 1990s, a new venture to promote birding and nature tourism in Texas was launched: the Texas Birding Classic. This event is basically a bird-watching competition. Teams compete to see who can see the highest number of species in either a 24-hour period, or in a several day extended event. There are many different categories for the competition – some for young people, some for folks who wanted to stick within a certain geographic area, and some for nuts who want to run the entire Gulf Coast seeing as many birds as humanly possible. The Classic is fun and promotes the wonders of Texas wildlife, but it is also a conservation fund-raiser. Teams collect donations for the event, and the winners in each category get to help decide which conservation project along the Texas coast gets a conservation grant. To date, almost $800,000 has been distributed to over 60 projects, including the new marsh habitat and boardwalk (which I love!) on South Padre Island.
The Texas Birding Classic has become so popular that this year it is expanding from a week to a month, and geographically from the Gulf Coast to statewide. You can find out more about it at the GTBC website.
At this point, Texans began to really see the great potential of birding in Texas. Businesses saw tourist dollars, communities saw potential infrastructure investments and tax benefits, and nature-lovers saw a new interest in conserving wildlife and protecting important habitat and resources (like water).
The Texas Coastal Management Program commissioned a study in 2004 on the impact of ecotourism in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The results were stunning. According to the report, as many as 50,000 people came to the Valley every year primarily for watching birds and butterflies, contributing as much as $170 million and “several thousand” jobs to the local economy. In an area of the state that suffers from high rates of poverty and unemployment, the influx of nature-tourism was a substantial boost to the local Rio Grande Valley economy.
In response to this report and other similar studies, RGV business leaders and elected officials got together with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to form what is ambitiously (and a little ridiculously) called the ‘World Birding Center.’ Despite its overly-grandiose name, the WBC is a really cool project. They aim to identify and/or create great places for birding in the Valley, and then publicize them to entice nature lovers to come on down and visit. How exactly do they do this? As an example, let’s take one of the WBC sites I visited a couple of days ago: Estero Llano Grande State Park, one of the first new properties developed in cooperation with the WBC.
The first thing they did was create some great new wetland habitat:
They built a cool new visitor center and gift shop. Inside you can buy snacks and educational gifts and books. They also have a huge whiteboard outside devoted to wildlife sightings:
(Check out the note on the lower right of the whiteboard in the picture above – I have photos of that Flammulated Owl!)
The WBC also added lots of interpretive signs detailing information about the plants and animals that live at Estero Llano.
They added a beautiful full color map and detailed information about the park:
And they created a spacious covered deck that looks out over one of the lakes. The space was designed so that it’s easy to look out, but harder for the ducks and water birds to see in – which means that many critters swim right by the viewers.
The bathrooms are modern, large, and clean. Cool bird-themed art done by local artists decorates the wall:
One of the things that I love about Estero Llano is that it doesn’t just cater to the hardcore birder or nature expert, or the upper middle-class ecotourist. There are binoculars to rent (at extremely reasonable rates) in the visitor’s center for people who don’t have them, and a telescope is set up on the deck for use by visitors. Docents and volunteers are on hand to answer questions and lead bird walks. Many visitors are casual nature lovers who are just out for a stroll and thrilled to see a heron or egret up close. Most of the newer signs are bilingual, reaching out to many of the local Valley residents whose first language is Spanish. But the very best thing about Estero Llano is that they have great birds! The biologists and naturalists who helped plan the park did a fantastic job creating excellent habitat. During my visit I saw a huge assortment of ducks and shorebirds, some of the valley’s specialty kingfisher species, a dozen night-herons, and the Pauraques I wrote about recently.
Estero Llano is a win-win-win-win. Wildlife is protected and habitat is improved, the community gets a great new space to enjoy, serious birders get to geek out on cool birds, and local businesses get increased revenue from tourist dollars. Estero Llano had dozens of visitors the day I was there, but since it is a relatively large place it didn’t feel crowded.
You can really see that at Estero Llano, the WBC is reaching its ambitious goals: “The mission of the WBC is to protect native habitat while increasing the understanding and appreciation of the birds and wildlife. Our project is a global model for conservation and ecotourism development.” You can read more at the WBC website.
All around the Valley, similar scenes are playing out. The Valley Nature Center in Weslaco is not affiliated with the WBC, but they are using some of the same strategies towards some of the same ends. They have a six-acre site that they are protecting and restoring with new trees and native vegetation. They have also set up several bird feeding stations and water drips to attract birds and other animals.
Their efforts are paying off in many ways. The improved habitat has attracted new wildlife (like the Clay-colored Thrush I wrote about), and the new wildlife has attracted new visitors. New visitors have helped attract funding for a brand new education and nature center building for the site.
And a new building means new construction jobs for the Valley, and another economic reason to value conservation – completing the virtuous circle.
This idea that conservation can have powerful economic benefits is catching on all over Texas. I noticed that the new Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce offices have a large Whooping Crane statue prominently displayed. And the Captain of the Skimmer, who makes a living guiding nature lovers to see the Whoopers at Aransas NWR, had on-board as his co-leader this time a biologist from the non-profit International Crane Foundation.
I also noticed on my trip to Texas a proliferation of “birding festivals” – events that bring tourists to town for organized field trips, seminars, speakers, etc. I think there are something like 20 birding and nature festivals scheduled in Texas this year, from Featherfest in Galveston to Eagle Fest in Emory.
In fact, I ran into a couple of tour groups from the Laredo festival two days ago.
All of this is not to say that the Texas approach to conservation and ecotourism is perfect, or that it is a “magic solution” to any problem. I think it is fair to say that it is a work in progress. But I do think it’s a pretty nifty idea. And it really got me wondering: where the heck is my Washington state World Birding Center? How come we aren’t doing more things like this in the Puget Sound area?
Now Washington state doesn’t have 600+ species of birds like Texas, but we do have more than 500, including some relatively rare and sought-after ones. We have Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge located an hour south of Seattle, a real gem of place that hardly anyone (even in Seattle) knows about. Texas advertises their nature hotspots on TV and on paper brochures, on giant billboards and in nature magazines, on the internet and in the newspaper. And we… don’t. The Olympic Peninsula is one of the premier birding spots in the United States, where you can get great close-up views of Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks, Rhinoceros Auklets, and Tufted Puffins. Yet when I meet birders from other states, no one has visited there. Everyone has been to Texas. When you drive the backroads on the Olympic Peninsula, you see bumper stickers that say “Save a logger, shoot a Spotted Owl.” The folks in the Rio Grande Valley have bumper stickers for the WBC. Local groups have been trying to save Skagit and Samish farmland from development an hour north of Seattle, but land there is under significant threat from development. Maybe if nature lovers around the country actually knew about it – that you can go there and see thousands of Snow Geese, Tundra and Trumpeter Swans, and five species of falcons – there might be more support to keep the area protected.
Yes, we do have a Washington Birding Trail (featuring art by my favorite Washington artist, Ed Newbold). And there are a few Washington birding events, like the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival in eastern Washington. But these were things that Texas was doing decades ago.
So, progressive eco-groovy Seattleites, I have a question for you. Put down your organic soymilk latte (in a compostable cup!) for just a minute, and think about this: can we learn some important things about conservation and ecotourism from our friends down in Texas? And what Texan lessons can we apply here in Washington state?