More than 71 million Americans actively participate in bird watching, spending some $45 million annually on the sport.
Unfortunately, Mississippi seems to be flying under the bird-watching radar. According to researchers at Mississippi State's Forest and Wildlife Research Center, the Magnolia State ranks 45th in income realized from the recreational activity considered both a hobby and sport.
In an effort to help move--maybe even, fly--the state up the list, university scientists are in a three-year study to determine the best methods for increasing state revenues from birding-related activities. Initially, they are giving special attention to areas along the Mississippi River.
"The Mississippi River and its 30-million-acre floodplain form a vital flyway for migratory birds and provide opportunities for anyone who enjoys bird watching," said forestry professor Steve Grado. "The Great River Birding Trail, named for the federally designated scenic drive called the Great River Road, consists of more than 2,000 miles along the river from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico."
Grado, a natural resource economist, said bird-watching sites have been established for 1,366 miles along both sides of the river from its headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Ill.
"The next step in completing the trail is to extend it along both sides of the Lower Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico," he said.
Officials of Audubon Mississippi--the state office of the National Audubon Society--and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have identified about 300 Mississippi watch sites and located bird species of interest. Two-thirds of the sites already are open to the public, with about 5 percent situated on private lands.
"By estimating potential impacts of the Great River Birding Trail, we hope to show private landowners the value of allowing bird watching on their lands," Grado said.
Assisting him with the study is research associate Marcus Measells. Among other activities, the duo has surveyed participants at state birding festivals.
"Just two birding festivals in Mississippi had more than 8,000 participants and resulted in a $107,685 impact to the state in 2006," said Measells. "Also, in 2006 alone, wildlife watchers spent an estimated $181 million in Mississippi."
Measells is a Morton native who holds MSU bachelor's and master's degrees in forestry. He and Grado both emphasized that a central goal of their efforts is to help Audubon Mississippi increase private landowner participation.
"We hope information from our study will assist natural resource and tourism agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, in finishing the trail in the Lower Mississippi River area by increasing private landowner participation," Measells said. "Without this information as a framework, it will be difficult to evaluate the benefits to private landowners in providing bird-watching opportunities to the public."
He said the research also will enable rural land planners and policy makers to estimate the benefits gained from various land management options on areas related to the trail. On the basis of that research, funding for watch-area restoration, species sustainability and tourism promotion can be justified from both the biological and economic standpoints.
Grado said many of the proposed sites are public water bodies surrounded by private lands, so many of the economic benefits from the already existing lake sites could potentially roll over to the private sector if more landowners were involved.
"We soon will visit birding site operators to create profiles for business owners and public sites," he continued. "This information can be used to establish birder-related marketing and policy strategies related to ecotourism and resource management."
As the project continues, additional surveys will be conducted at other festivals and related events. Even with just a year's worth of data gathered so far, Measells said it's already obvious that birding can have "a significant economic impact" in Mississippi.
"We have valuable natural resources here," he observed. "Birding is a very sustainable, environmentally friendly way of using them."
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