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Published: Tuesday, 5/8/2012

Watch the birdies

GUEST EDITORIAL

The "Biggest Week in American Birding" festival, which ends Sunday, is the centerpiece of two months of bird-watching events that are expected to draw 100,000 people to the shoreline of western Lake Erie by the end of May.

For decades, Lake Erie birding has provided a model of how Ohio can do eco-tourism right. As Gov. John Kasich seeks to double Ohio's marketing budget for tourism, the lake deserves its share.

The birding festival has grown in each of its three years. Hotels, restaurants, ferries, and other businesses benefit from birding tourism, especially in Ottawa and Sandusky counties. Maumee Bay State Park in eastern Lucas County is the center of festival registration, shoreline bus trips, and guest lectures.

The festival showcases the state-owned Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. The U.S. government is offering shuttles to its Ottawa and Cedar Point national wildlife refuges through May 17.

Birding has become one of the most popular forms of outdoor recreation. Enthusiast publications and Web sites rank western Lake Erie's shoreline among the best in the world for viewing.

And whatever obsolete stereotypes may still adhere to bird-watching, it contributes $26 million a year to northwest Ohio's economy and supports nearly 300 jobs in the region, according to a new study by Ohio Sea Grant.

Done correctly, eco-tourism is one of Nature's educational tools as well an economic advantage. It should play a major role in the state's tourism promotion efforts.

A bill approved this month by the Ohio Senate would authorize state government to spend as much as $10 million a year on tourism marketing, twice the current funding level. The money would come from a tourism sales tax instead of the state general fund. It would be phased in over five years, starting in 2014.

Before the recession, Ohio had spent as much as $9.5 million a year on tourism marketing. Even with the proposed increase, Ohio still would spend less on tourism marketing than do Michigan and Kentucky.

But the proposed increase would make Ohio more competitive. And it would enable the state to promote Lake Erie in a way that encourages visitors to tread lightly, and to go home inspired to help protect the lake and the wildlife -- including birds -- it sustains.



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