Birders Boost Jersey Shore Economy: Why Communities Should Invest in Nature

Posted on by Elizabeth Schuster and Patty Doerr, The Nature Conservancy

A recent Nature Conservancy study found birders who visit Lower Cape May Meadows and surrounding birding destinations contribute $313 million each year to Cape May County’s economy. Birders return to the Meadow after a restoration project led by The Nature Conservancy improved the wetlands, dune and beach system after a damaging breach.

Costly storms like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene, with the great destruction they bring to coastal towns and hardship they bring to people, are drawing public attention to the need for increasing the ability of our coastal communities to recover from a storm event, as well as to maintain livelihoods, health and well-being. Already, the economic costs of coastal disasters are substantial.

Patty Doerr, The Nature Conservancy
Elizabeth Schuster, The Nature Conservancy

Superstorm Sandy resulted in over $50 billion in damage, with more than half — $37 billion — in New Jersey. Yet what is often missing from discussions on how to reduce coastal flood risk are solutions with a “triple bottom line” — that is, solutions that have social, ecological and economic benefits.

We’re talking about nature-based solutions — the salt marshes, dunes and coastal wetlands that help reduce flooding. Ecologists have long touted the multiple benefits provided by open space in coastal areas. For example, in addition to reducing flooding to homes and businesses, salt marshes also improve water quality, lead to ecotourism revenues by attracting rare birds and enthusiastic birders and can serve as nurseries for recreational and commercial fisheries that support whole communities.

A recent analysis conducted by The Nature Conservancy, with support from the New Jersey Recovery Fund, is among the first studies in New Jersey to quantify the triple bottom ling benefits — social, ecological and economic — for local communities from a wetland, beach and dune restoration project in Cape May County.

Lower Cape May Meadows before the restoration, during the dune breach of the “Perfect Storm” of October 1991.

Lower Cape May Meadows in 2007, after the restoration of the freshwater wetlands, dune, and beach system. The restoration will provide $9.6 million in avoided damaged from flooding from future storms.

The focus of the analysis is the 456-acre Lower Cape May Meadows, a natural area made up of Cape May Point State Park and The Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows Preserve.

Not only is Lower Cape May Meadows surrounded by Cape May communities, but part of the site used to be home to the town of South Cape May — a Victorian resort community abandoned after the hurricane of 1944. Over the decades, the freshwater wetlands, beaches and dunes deteriorated, leaving the surrounding homes at risk to flooding during storm events.

In the 2000s, a restoration project was undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to marry the needs of wildlife with those of the human communities. The end result was nature-based, restoring function to the freshwater wetland and re-establishing two miles of beach and sand dune.

The results of our recent analysis of the Meadows show that the benefits resulting from the project are substantial. Comparing National Flood Insurance Program storm damage claims pre-restoration to claims post-restoration, we estimate that the restored LCMM is reducing future damages by approximately $9.6 million total over the next 50 years by allowing the wetlands to absorb rainfall and the beach and dune to guard against storm surge. In addition, there is a considerable economic impact to the regional economy from having prime birding destinations in the area. The data indicates that birders to Lower Cape May Meadows and surrounding sites in the southernmost portion of the county generate nearly $313 million a year across the county on hotels, restaurants, tour guides, and other items such as retail and gifts.

Additional benefits from the wetland, beach and dunes, as calculated by a variety of methods applied to Lower Cape May Meadows, include:

Type of benefit

Habitat type

Dollar value

General value

Wetland

$5.04 million per year

General value

Beach/dune system

$5.82 million per year

Beach recreation

Beach/dune system

$11 – $12.5 million per year

Value placed on ecological restoration

Multiple habitat types

$176,800/year

Water quality

River/estuarine

$29/year per person boating

In addition, the economic literature supports the claim that open space provides multiple benefits. A comprehensive analysis from 2013 on the role that open space plays in reducing NFIP damage claims found that the average savings are $200,000 per community each year.

Another recent study that analyzed 34 major hurricanes in the United States since 1980 found that a loss of just one acre of coastal wetland leads to an increase of $13,360 in damage to communities from each storm. Finally, in another study quantifying the benefits for all parks and open space in Long Island, N.Y., the total value aggregates to an astounding $2.74 billion a year, taking into consideration fiscal impacts to local governments, the increase in property values near open space, tourism, recreation, agriculture and health.

Lower Cape May Meadows is not a rare example of open space providing triple-bottom line benefits to people.

Nature provides a multitude of benefits and we need to be looking across the state for more opportunities like Lower Cape May Meadows and incorporating these nature-based opportunities along with traditional gray solutions. Policy makers, conservation organizations, and municipal managers will be more successful as they work together to identify coastal nature-based projects that maximize the multiple benefits for local communities.

Even when the towns are rebuilt and the memory of Superstorm Sandy fades from the forefront of public concern, the need for coastal resiliency lives on. Adding nature-based solutions to the toolkit is a great way for coastal managers to have a greater range of options to create sustainable communities.

Since its founding in 1951, The Nature Conservancy’s work has been based on and guided by science, which has expanded from the natural sciences to include economics and social science. Hallmarks of our work include community-based conservation and forming partnerships to protect our most important lands and waters. Elizabeth Schuster, environmental economist, joined the Conservancy in 2013 to bring expertise in economic valuation to their conservation work. Patty Doerr, Director of Marine and Coastal Programs, joined the Conservancy in 2010 to manage the New Jersey Chapter’s efforts to protect and restore critical coastal and marine habitats.

Find the New Jersey Chapter of the Nature Conservancy on Facebook. Learn more about the Nature Conservancy’s initiatives at this link.

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