Climate Change

Birds, Birding and Economic Gains on a Restored Coast

August 13, 2014

Piping plovers. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This post is the first in a two-part series that tells the story of the benefits that have resulted for communities from the restoration project. The second post will focus on the flood reduction benefits.

When The Nature Conservancy purchased the South Cape May Meadows Preserve in southern New Jersey in 1981, the goal was to protect an important natural system for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. In a pleasant surprise, it turned out that protecting and restoring the habitat for birds also expanded local tourism revenues and reduced costs from storm damage.

By improving habitat and making the preserve more accessible, the restoration attracted many birders who would not otherwise have visited the county and played a key role in over $200 million in per year in new spending.

Between 1955 and 2005, the preserve and surrounding areas lost 124 acres of coastal land, largely due to storm-driven erosion. In addition, construction of the Cape May Canal and other structures intended to protect neighboring shores actually deprived the area of new sand deposits.

Without mitigation measures, 138 additional acres would have been lost by 2050. As the threat became evident, a broad group of stakeholders — including the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, local municipal leaders, and The Nature Conservancy — developed a plan to restore the 465-acre beach, dune and wetland areas of the preserve and neighboring Cape May Point State Park.

The restoration process took many years – from the 1998 feasibility assessment to its completion in 2007. The project involved replenishing sand on the beach, building the height of the dune, removing invasive Phragmites that had overrun the site. Additional improvements included increasing beach nesting bird habitat, creating piping plover ponds behind the dunes and making islands within the wetland to provide resting and feeding areas for birds.

Improving Access and Enjoyment

In addition to the habitat restoration, the project included a larger parking lot, observation tower, and higher, wider trails, which made the site more accessible to area visitors. Removing large areas of the 20-foot tall invasive reed Phragmites helped restore native cattail marsh and a network of ponds, making it easier for visitors to see marsh wetland birds such as glossy ibis, snowy egret, least sandpiper, and green winged teal.

“Prior to the restoration, the preserve appealed to hard core birders and naturalists who were skilled and patient enough to identify birds within the wetlands, which were dominated by Phragmites,” says Preserve Coordinator Adrianna Zito-Livingston, who manages the South Cape May Meadows Preserve for the Nature Conservancy. “Most visitors to Cape May wouldn’t have known the preserve was there, let alone had a reason to visit. Now it is listed on Trip Advisor as #11 of all attractions listed for Cape May, NJ.”

This dynamic shift in bird viewing opportunities was just one of the reasons the Nature Conservancy decided to conduct an analysis of the economic and social benefits from the Lower Cape May Meadows restoration project.

Bob Allen, the Director of Conservation of the Nature Conservancy in New Jersey, and lead scientist on the restoration recalled, “At first we were really interested in being a partner on the restoration project because we knew that the restoration would have great benefits for birds. But as the project moved forward, we realized that the project would have really amazing benefits for communities as well. In fact, this motivated us to hire an environmental economist to quantify those benefits.”

Do More Visitors Mean a Better Economy?

First, we used Cornell’s eBird database to find out whether the restoration had increased the number of birding trips to the park. Because eBird has grown in popularity over the past decade, a simple before-and-after comparison would have been misleading, so we compared the change in eBird observations at the Cape May Preserve to similar data at another nearby unrestored birding hotspot, Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area.

Observations on eBird are only a fraction of the total number of visitors, but the data suggest that visits to the Cape May Preserve and Park increased by roughly 3-4 times those to the Higbee Beach site.  Zito-Livingston explains, “Having spent time birding at all three sites, I can say that you have to ‘work’ much harder for birds in wetlands and beach edges at Higbee Beach, which are still dominated by Phragmites.  Birders like a challenge, but after the restoration controlled Phragmites at Lower Cape May Meadows and improved the trails, a wide variety of visitors can now view birds and other wildlife with relative ease.”

The bird trip numbers told us that more birders were visiting the site, but to know the economic impact on Cape May County, we needed to understand how many birders came from outside of the region and how many birders chose to visit Lower Cape May Meadows because of birding. (We wouldn’t want to include visitors who chose Cape May due to the beaches, and happened to go birding while they visited.)

We also needed information on the spending habits of birders. Fortunately, this data was available. Applying the available data to the southernmost portion of Cape May County, we concluded that restoration lead to an increase by approximately $210-$235 million per year, above the previous annual spending by birders. Lower Cape May Meadows and surrounding sites are attracting birders whose spending on hotels, restaurants, and other items impacts the local economy of Cape May County for a total of $313 million per year.

And Another Bonus: Storm Resilience

In addition, Lower Cape May Meadows received virtually no damage from Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, allowing the Preserve and State Park to open for birding immediately after the event. In contrast, county-wide infrastructure damage was estimated at $640 million (Cape May County 2013). The Lower Cape May Meadows ecosystem is playing a vital role in the resilience of the tourism industry in the county and the restoration almost certainly improved the resilience of the Preserve and Park. Refer to the full report for more information on the economic analysis.

“We were surprised by the results of the economic study,” concluded Allen, “We knew the work we were doing was likely to have economic benefits, but were thrilled to see how striking the results turned out to be. We’re excited the Conservancy can play a key role in pushing forward projects that have these great benefits for people and nature.”

If the benefits for people in this project were initially considered “incidental” to the project, imagine what could be done with even more up front design work and planning that explicitly incorporates people and economic benefits.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

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