The birds that laid the golden eggs
When the first Colorado miners exclaimed “there’s gold in those hills,” they likely had no idea what that might mean some 150 years later. Today, the bounty of Colorado’s mountains, rivers and great outdoors is indeed gold — economic gold — bringing in a multitude of outdoor recreationists who, according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, generate nearly $500 million in annual state tax revenues and produce $7.6 billion in retail sales and services across the state.
To put these numbers in perspective, annual spending in 2006 by Colorado’s 593,000 resident hunters and anglers alone was two and a half times more than the combined revenues of the Colorado Rockies and Denver Broncos and Nuggets ($1.2 billion vs. $463 million).
As most of us might guess, tourism is one of the top revenue producers for Colorado, and fully two-thirds of all tourists visit the state to enjoy our pristine natural environments. Visitors come to participate in outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, rafting, camping, fishing, hunting, biking, wildlife watching or just plain sightseeing our parks and monuments – activities which all depend on healthy lands.
What may surprise many Coloradans is the amount of revenue brought into Colorado by wildlife watching activities, mostly by bird watching enthusiasts. Bird watching is now the #1 sport in America, with one in every five Americans participating. That’s twice as many birders as golfers and five times as many as skiers. In Colorado in 2006, $703 million dollars were spent for wildlife watching more than one mile away from home, with a secondary impact of $515 million. Total impact for the state: $1.2 billion and 12,800 jobs.
Particularly in rural areas, the economic boost provided from wildlife viewers can be an important source of revenue for towns and individual landowners. The famed Monte Vista Crane Festival in the San Luis Valley held each year in March, celebrates the annual spring return of the cranes to one of Colorado’s most spectacularly scenic places.
The event lures people from as far away as Japan and nearly doubles the population of Monte Vista. Ron Martinez, owner of the town’s popular Mountain View Restaurant, reports that he and other locals always appreciate the terrific spring business boost the three-day festival provides each year, “way above the norm for March.”
In fact, birding is so lucrative for Colorado towns that the Colorado Division of Wildlife decided to make it easy for enthusiasts to find and enjoy the best viewing places statewide. Recently the agency completed its marvelous Colorado Birding Trail website at www.coloradobirdingtrail.com, which provides detailed information on almost 30 different trails and 219 viewing sites from the Eastern Plains to the Rocky Mountains to the Western Slope.
At the Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs in Ouray, birding is a popular activity for guests and visitors, who come from as far as Florida to catch a glimpse of the rare Black Swifts that live in the city’s canyon cliffs. During the summer season, the Lodge attributes over 200 room nights to people who come specifically to see the large Black Swift colony that nests near waterfalls in Ouray’s picturesque Box Canyon Park.
All of this income from state residents and millions of tourists from around the globe year-round hinges on one pivotal policy – good land conservation. In Colorado, land conservation not only preserves the wide open spaces and clear running streams that support a robust hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation economy — good conservation policies support productive working farms and ranches which provide healthy food close to home. In addition, agricultural lands that are managed properly provide wildlife habitat, flood control, watershed/wetland protection, improved air quality and more.
In February 2010 the Colorado office of the Trust for Public Land released a revealing report with a detailed analysis of the economic benefits provided by Colorado’s conservation easements (http://www.tpl.org/content_documents/Final%20report%20ecosystem%20services.pdf). Easements are the primary land preservation tool in Colorado, accounting for more than two-thirds of all conserved land in the state.
The report findings are impressive. Colorado’s $595 million investment in conservation easements since 1995 has returned $3.51 billion in benefits to the state. That’s a return of $6 for every $1 invested!
Colorado is a national leader in land conservation and park creation, and thanks to a combination of funds from local, state and federal programs and a steady commitment from the state’s leaders, Colorado is able to show how good conservation makes good economic sense.
The underlying math is simple. Continuing to invest in and support healthy conservation for land, water and wildlife means the best possible recreational opportunities and tourist experiences — which means continuing major economic payoffs for the State of Colorado.