Ecotourism and Conservation

NJAS Opinion: Summer, 1996

On 4 March 1996, NJAS testified at a hearing conducted by the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development. The committee sought comments on the following issues: A definition of ecotourism; whether New Jersey should promote ecotourism; how to use scarce resources to promote ecotourism; and how to encourage the growth of ecotourism markets while maintaining environmental quality in the state. Our comments to the senate committee give rise to this column, which includes much of our testimony.

For 100 years NJAS has been bringing people and nature together through our natural history field programs. We have always had an extensive field trip program in the state of New Jersey, particularly centered around birds. Our seven centers sponsor an average of 25 field trips each in New Jersey every year, so that the society is running 175 trips to all parts of the state every year for the purpose of observing and learning about wildlife. In recent decades we also have sponsored an extensive travel program to good birding areas all around the U.S., including Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Texas, California, Maine, and other states; and a foreign travel program which includes Trinidad, Galapagos, Venezuela, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Australia, Kenya, England, and Canada.

Some of our best-known ecotourism events are our birding weekends held in Stokes State Forest, in the Highlands, in Cumberland and Salem counties, and especially our spring and fall Cape May Weekends, and the World Series of Birding held in Cape May the second week of May. The weekends in Cape May attract 500 people or more to our package programs, and there are many more part-time participants in our weekend activities. We are an advocate of conservation and ecotourism as well as a practitioner of ecotourism, and a host of ecotourism at our centers. Our former Cape May Bird Observatory Director, Dr. Paul Kerlinger, conducted many of the studies that produced the hard statistics on avitourism in New Jersey and throughout the U.S.

We describe ecotourism as travel to natural areas for wildlife-related purposes, such as birding, hiking, fishing, rock-climbing, botanizing, nature photography, whale watching, etc. We think the promotion of ecotourism (and in particular, our brand of avitourism) is a wise use of natural resources, because it calls attention to the outstanding natural features of our state; provides an excellent additional motive for conservation of our natural resources; and is a positive economic asset not only for tourist businesses, but also for the ancillary businesses that serve both the ecotourism promoters and the tourists themselves. A multiplier effect occurs in the local economy surrounding a wildlife refuge (sometimes as high as 3:1), and on average, the multiplier is probably 2:1 in economies around ecotourist destinations. This means that for every dollar spent by the ecotourist, two dollars are spent by the locals in the local economy.

The promotion of ecotourism is cost effective in most places, so why not here? The Province of New Brunswick, Canada, has done a good job of promoting birds and bird habitats to their ecotourists. I am one, and I've used their materials. They are good. Perhaps we could initiate an exchange with them. For example, they have a major shorebird staging area at Mary Point in the Bay of Fundy in July-sandpipers number in six figures, which folks go to see. We have a similar phenomenon here on the Delaware Bayshore of New Jersey for two or three weeks in May, when a significant portion of the world's turnstones, knots, and sanderlings feed on the horseshoe crab eggs. It is a world-class tourist phenomenon. We need some promotion of avitourism itself, not as a footnote to tourism in general, but as a separate and growing economy.

The state Division of Tourism and Travel could promote visitation in conjunction with the Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife; not only for the shorebirds on Delaware Bay, but other phenomena as well. The Division has some tourist infrastructure now on the bayshore-interpretive signage, platforms for observation, and a parking lot at Reeds Beach. With the state's Watchable Wildlife Program, the Stopover Project, the many state parks and forests, we have the existing sites and the programs to promote ecotourism at the state level. Signage, parking areas, and "watchable wildlife" designations would serve the tourist trade in the Pinelands, in the Highlands (where it can be combined with history-the state of Virginia has done well in this area), and in combination with the Coastal Heritage Trail on both coasts.

There are a wealth of avitourism targets (some well-known, others not) around the state: The mouths of Oldman's and Raccoon Creeks along Route 130 in Gloucester, where anywhere from twenty to fifty thousand pintails stage before spring migration each February (a globally significant site); the Delaware Bayshore in Cumberland and Salem Counties, where a quarter million snow geese winter; the biggest raptor migration in the U.S., with a quarter million raptors passing through Cape May every fall; the seawatch in Avalon, where a million migrant waterbirds pass each fall; the Highlands, where 150 species of birds, including 27 warbler species, are resident, a good June destination; and the million shorebirds of 3 species on the Delaware Bay in May.

Here are some thoughts on balancing tourism needs with preserving the environment. Our view is that the greatest threat to natural areas is not from tourism, but from incompatible development which permanently alters the landscape. While there is some anecdotal information about harassment of animals on safaris and whale watches, by and large the plus factors outweigh the minus on the issue of tourism impacts. Along with avitourism, whale watching is one of the fastest growing versions of ecotourism, and New Jersey is getting more popular as a destination, in all four seasons, for this activity. Several whale watches run in Cape May and are always full. Captain Larsen out of Barnegat ran them successfully on Mondays in summer; Bogan out of Brielle runs watches on weekends even in winter, because whales are wintering here. Ecotourists, when they grow to know and love the resource, become a force for conservation, for example, the petition drive to make Stellwagen Banks off Cape Cod a marine sanctuary for whales; the success of the tax checkoff and license plate programs; and the success of Green Acres bond issues in New Jersey. Folks want conservation, and ecotourism increases the advocates for the conservation of habitat.

Actually the promotion of ecotourism is not so much a threat to the environment as it is an opportunity. It can drive resource-compatible economies in key regions of the state like the Highlands, where you have the birthplace of the North American industrial revolution coupled with some of the highest biodiversity in the state and fine recreation areas-all sitting within the water supply for half of the state's residents. Bed and breakfasts and hotels to scale, serving a tourist economy, can prevent the area from being lost to suburban sprawl, which it assuredly will be without regional planning and growth management. Sprawl doesn't fit in the Highlands. A resource-based economy does. The same can be said for the Delaware Bay region. The State Plan can be a help in these regions if actively supported by government and implemented. If permits and approvals in the various regulatory programs follow the plan's guidelines, the environment can be safeguarded, with help from regional planning and cooperation between towns.

Here are some facts about avitourism in New Jersey, generated by our research department under Dr. Paul Kerlinger. The average birder spends $350 a year on travel and equipment. A committed birder spends much more, about $2000/year, half of that on travel. In Cape May, 100,000 birders visit the peninsula each year, about half from out of state, and contribute about $10 million to the local economy. Forsythe Refuge in Atlantic County gets 250,000 visitors a year; 175,000 of them go around the dikes; about 140,000 of those are birders. In Cape May during 1988, birders stayed in 63 hotels and 30 bed and breakfasts; they used 116 restaurants; their average stay was 4 days and 3 nights. They return on average two seasons a year. Furthermore, the avitourist money is spent in the coastal off-season, i.e., after Labor Day and before Memorial Day. Land conservation is key to this economy.

Other numbers are interesting too. Our Audubon society weekend in spring at Cape May puts $35,000 into the hotel where we stay. In fall, our annual meeting hotel tab is $55,000. For the World Series of Birding, it is $24,000. The World Series of Birding is held in New Jersey because it is a rich bird state. About 350 species occur here every year in our five physiographic regions. The World Series raises about a half million dollars for conservation, and through pledges involves about 70,000 people from conservation organizations in various states. Cape May is the magnet that draws the World Series participants, and birders from all over the world. Most bird clubs in the Northeast and the Middle Atlantic States schedule at least one birding trip to Cape May each year, many in both spring and fall.

Our avitourism in New Jersey includes all parts of the state. One hears a lot about Cape May, and deservedly so. But avitourist trips also go to Liberty State Park in Jersey City to look for snowy owls and other owl species in the winter. The Hackensack Meadowlands is a frequent locus for bird trips; there is an eco boat tour on the Hackensack River run by HEART, a local organization promoting conservation there. These urbanized areas are important stops used by World Series of Birding teams. Salem and Gloucester Counties are popular destinations for birders, especially in winter and spring, looking for raptors, waterfowl, and shorebirds. Many of our parks and forests in all corners of the state, from Parvin to High Point, from Lebanon to Sandy Hook, are avitourist destinations in the off months, even the cold months. A good avitourist belongs on the Manasquan jetty in January at 25 degrees looking for razorbills! There is no off-season! Let's promote ecotourism to our natural treasures by all means, so they don't get plowed under and disappear.

Richard Kane

Director of Conservation.