“Jobs, jobs, jobs,” is what President Joe Biden promised his climate change agenda would deliver, a truism that New York policymakers and advocates already know well. Investments in our environment drive economic growth and create jobs. A recent announcement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to restore hundreds of acres of Montezuma wetland through his Reimagine the Canals initiative is further proof that restoring our environment can be the foundation of the state’s recovery plan.
New York has countless opportunities for exploring the great outdoors, and interest in birdwatching has soared during the pandemic – leading more New Yorkers to learn about the joy of birds. This increased interest gives the sstate the perfect opportunity to achieve the dual goal of protecting the environment and reinvigorating local economies that were hit hard by the pandemic.
Increasing opportunities to birdwatch is more than just a safe outdoor activity – it is also a strong economic driver. The Montezuma Wetlands Complex and other natural areas are popular ecotourism destinations that drive millions of dollars in economic activity each year. Data from a 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation census report found that 3.3 million New Yorkers engage in birdwatching and that wildlife watchers at large generate approximately $4.2 billion in ecotourism revenue each year in New York State.
One of the largest wetland conservation projects in the nation is the Montezuma Wetlands Complex. The complex is one of the Empire State’s greatest bird sanctuaries and a Globally Important Bird Area – providing habitat for over 240 different species of birds. The wetlands are also a migratory stopover for more than 1 million birds each year, making it a popular attraction for bird watchers who flock to observe Snow Geese, Sandhill Cranes, and Tundra Swans that travel over a thousand miles to the Arctic Circle each year.
Acknowledging this value, Governor Cuomo has taken action to protect Montezuma. Starting in 2019, Governor Cuomo engaged a panel of community leaders and experts, including Audubon, to create the Reimagine the Canals Task Force, the driving force behind the “Reimagine the Canals” initiative. Outlined in the task force recommendations was a plan that would divert Canal water to restore and re-nourish wetlands in Central New York. During Earth Week, this plan was put into action, and now New York’s Northern Montezuma Wetlands Complex will be significantly enhanced to further attract birds and other wildlife – which will, in turn, bring visitors from throughout the region and beyond to enjoy their beauty.
As the state begins to open back up to tourists and safely welcomes even more visitors, we must keep pushing for strong conservation policies that not only protect birds and the places they need, but also provide opportunities for safe recreation and economic development. Governor Cuomo’s Reimagine the Canals program is an important part of that strategy, and will support our critical ecotourism industry and conserve the natural lands that make these destinations so special – all while preserving and protecting the legacy of the historic Canal. Now more than ever, it is critical for New Yorkers to support efforts to protect the environment and work to sustain the wildlife that inhabits them and the local economies that depend on them.
Chris Lajewski is the director of Montezuma Audubon Center