Virginia’s New Birding & Wildlife Trail First In Nation

They say everything is bigger and better in Texas. But Virginia’s about to change all that.

The Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail may be the first state-wide wildlife-watching trail in the United States when it is finished sometime in 2004, says David Whitehurst of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

To be fair, Texas does deserve a little credit for coming up with the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, a 500-mile driving trail stretching from Louisiana to Mexico that Virginia is using as a model for its trail. Still, the Texas trail is confined to the coast and only has birds.

Virginia’s trail promises a variety of wildlife spread out over the entire state, from the coast to the mountains. What’s more, Whitehurst says, the Virginia trail will weave historical and cultural attractions into its trail.

But DGIF does hope to exactly imitate one characteristic of the Texas trail – its success.

McAllen, Texas, is a city of 110,000 people on the border of Mexico in the Rio Grande Valley. Ten years ago, McAllen was one of the poorest places in the country, Whitehurst says. Since the Texas trail opened in 1994, wildlife tourism has boomed there. McAllen makes $15 million per year off its wildlife, says Convention and Visitors Bureau director Nancy Millar. “And 927 jobs have been created or preserved” because of wildlife tourism.

Millar points to the many new businesses created by wildlife tourism: 22 new bed and breakfasts, a new birding store and a new, upscale wildlife magazine. McAllen now hosts seven major birding and wildlife festivals and gets between 63,000 and 100,000 outside visitors per year.

But the best thing wildlife tourism has done for South Texas is to build bridges between traditional landowners and environmentalists, Millar says. When McAllen residents saw all the middle-aged, high-income birders flocking to their city, they realized their wildlife and its habitat were important for economic development, she says. “It’s created a sense of pride in the community.”

And it’s even spreading across the border to Mexico. McAllen and Mexico’s Monterey Park often plan wildlife festivals together. “Texas is helping Mexico understand the [economic] value of wildlife,” Millar says.

Unlike Texas, Virginia is already one of the top 10 tourist draws in the nation because of its rich history. VDGIF hopes to use that tourist base to capitalize on the 425 species of birds and other “watchable wildlife” in the Commonwealth.

Planning for the Virginia trail began in earnest two years ago when VDGIF awarded a bid to Austin, Texas-based Fermata, Inc., the nature tourism consulting firm that planned the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.

The Virginia trail is being developed in three phases: coastal, mountain and central. Public meetings have been held all over the three regions and hundreds of sites in hundreds of communities have been officially nominated for inclusion on the trail.

Fermata will evaluate each of these sites based on 35 criterion, the most important of which are availability of wildlife, habitat quality, site safety, accessibility, and proximity to other sites and services, VDGIF watchable wildlife manager Jeff Trollinger says.

The coastal trail sites have already been evaluated and chosen, and that section of the trail is slated to open the first weekend of October, Trollinger says. Evaluation of the 340 nominated sites in the mountain region is underway, and that section is slated to open in the summer of 2003. The central phase has 104 nominated sites which will be evaluated in the spring and summer of 2003. It is slated to open in the summer of 2004.

A “very attractive map” will guide visitors along the trail, bringing them in on Interstates and main highways and “looping” them through smaller communities, Whitehurst says. These loops will take about 2-3 days to complete, something easily done in a long weekend.

The map will detail designated sites along the loops and give information about local accommodations, restaurants and other attractions, particularly historical and cultural attractions. The map will also be on the Internet and will be constantly updated, Whitehurst days.

VDGIF has often been criticized by environmentalists for focusing too much on hunting and fishing and not enough on “non-consumptive” wildlife management. But the birding and wildlife trail “marks a significant expansion of [VDGIF’s non-consumptive] responsibilities,” Trollinger says.

“We want to show local communities that there is money to be made in maintaining the natural habitats they have and using them to attract low-impact tourism dollars. This helps us in conserving Virginia’s wildlife resources while assisting local communities with economic development,” he says.

Communities will determine the success of the Virginia trail, Whitehurst says. It’s up to each community to decide what makes it special and how it can capitalize on the trail. Whitehurst also believes it’s important for communities to form partnerships, pool their resources and execute effective marketing campaigns to draw people from the trail to their regions.

Blue Ridge Travel Association of Virginia executive director Kitty Barker says her organization is excited about the trail. The association includes businesses in 13 counties from Bristol to Roanoke.

“[Birders and wildlife watchers] are generally an older population; they have more income and more free time. They are more likely to go to the theater, visit museums, bike and hike. They like wine and shopping and eating out. They stay in bed and breakfasts and inns. They are the kind of tourists we want here,” she says.

When complete, Whitehurst says the trail will cost a little over $2 million. Most of that money comes from transportation enhancement grants from the Virginia Transportation Commission. But the program is not completely safe from the budget axe that Virginia legislators have had to swing lately due to a severe budget shortfall.

Last year, former Gov. Jim Gilmore tried to gut VDGIF to remedy the shortfall, and the Watchable Wildlife program would have been cut entirely, Trollinger says. Hard lobbying by outdoors enthusiasts and sympathetic legislators spared the department.

Trollinger says one of the best things about the trail, especially in this difficult financial situation, is that neither DGIF, nor the Virginia taxpayers, have to build any structures to get this trail going. It simply knits together state, federal and private lands to make a strong tourist net.

“Nature tourism is hot right now,” Whitehurst says. “There are 19 other trail projects currently underway across the country.” He believes these trails and their wildlife serve a spiritual, as well as economic, function.

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