Ecotourism Can Benefit Rural Communities

How to Turn Isolation into a Destination

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Fred Lochner is senior development specialist at MSA Professional Services in Baraboo, Wis.

Greg Bruce is principal of sustainability on the Townsville City Council in Queensland Australia.

Cindy Adams Dunn is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Meredith Hill is director of the Pennsylvania Wilds for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Jake Jensen is a student at Loras College in Dubuque, who helped start the Dubuque Area Reduce Reuse Recycle Network.

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2018 3:00 pm | Updated: 9:35 am, Fri Oct 12, 2018.

In 2006, Fred Lochner was hired by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to help it decide what the group could do with some land it had bought in a remote part of Pennsylvania. (Lochner, an engineer who has long worked in parks and recreation, is now senior development specialist at MSA Professional Services in Baraboo, Wis.)

He went to visit the area and stayed in a farmhouse on the property. The next morning, he found a herd of elk outside the window.

Lochner thought, “What if people who grew up in the city could experience this?” Pittsburgh was only two and a half hours away, and New York, Baltimore and Washington were less than a day’s drive.

His idea turned out to be an inspired way to revive an economically depressed area decimated by strip mining. Lochner saw it as an opportunity for nature tourism, now expanded to ecotourism. Ecotourism is distinguished from most visits to natural areas by its “emphasis on conservation, education, traveler responsibility and active community participation,” according to the Nature Conservancy. It can be a path to economic self-sufficiency for rural areas whose main assets may be their natural resources.

“Ecotourism is a driving force for economic, social and environmental change in the world,” said Greg Bruce, principal of sustainability on the Townsville City Council in Queensland Australia. Bruce is participating in an international conference on ecotourism in Queensland November 26-28. “Ecotourism includes a different way of thinking about the environment, whilst accounting for the social and economic needs of people in the areas that the activities are occurring in.”

The role of local government, said Bruce is “to build and provide investment opportunities, so investigating all evolving markets matters.” The important areas for ecotourism are ones that can make money but also protect the environment and social conditions of the people living there.

Millennials are a particularly good audience for ecotourism, Bruce said, as they “want to tread lightly and gain a full experience.”

Where has ecotourism been successful?

Pennsylvania Wilds

The Pennsylvania Wilds, which grew out of Lochner’s vision of urban residents driving to enjoy the elk and natural landscape of the area, has become an ecotourism success story.

“We wanted to deliver all the assets we have to all Pennsylvanians in a place-based approach that makes public lands an economic and community asset,” said Cindy Adams Dunn, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Initially, residents whose property was surrounded by public lands felt that the restrictions on the land limited the area’s economic potential.

But the county planning offices in the 13-county area saw the public land as an asset. One-quarter or more of the state parks are in the region, plus 3.1 million acres of state forest land. The Civilian Conservation Corps was active in the area during the 1930s, and conservation was always a high priority.

That was before logging destroyed much of the area’s natural beauty. But Gov. Ed Rendell, who served from 2003 to 2011, saw the value of bringing the land back, making it into a destination for outdoor recreation. To make the region accessible to visitors, the state has spent close to $130 million over the past decade to upgrade the infrastructure. That included everything from improving the roads and signage, to building hiking trails along old railroad beds, to building modern restrooms. The aim was to create a regional destination focused around ecotourism assets.

One major asset is the elk, the largest free-ranging herd in the Northeast. Visitors can learn more about the elk at the Elk Country Visitors Center that has been built in the small town of Benezette, Penn.

Another asset is the dark sky natural to a rural area and pronounced in the Pennsylvania Wilds because of the isolation. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the area the number one place for stargazing east of the Mississippi. Now Cherry Springs State Park has observation domes and astronomers teaching visitors how to photograph the night sky.

One key to the project’s success is state officials’ efforts to engage local residents, said Meredith Hill, who works in DCNR as director of the Pennsylvania Wilds.

“That’s an area of the state that’s never done strong zoning,” said Hill. “But the planning office of the country offered a lot of assistance.” The office created a design guide for the community, asking residents what they want their community to look like and what story they want to tell to visitors.

For instance, the exhibits in the Visitors Center talk about lumbering as an important part of the region’s history. The region has some of the most valuable hardwoods in the world, and the cherry wood is exported to China as part of an effort to diversify the economy, Hill said.

“When the Pennsylvania Wilds started, it was all about tourism,” said Dunn. But planners learned that boosting tourism should never be at the expense of the community’s wishes.

“We worked deliberately to engage our youth,” Hill said. They developed a workshop exploring entrepreneurship around the area’s outdoor assets. The message, said Hill, was, “You don’t have to necessarily leave the area to make a living.”

Today, visitors spend an estimated $1.7 billion annually in the Pennsylvania Wilds. Between 2009 and 2014, the latest data available, visitor spending grew an average of 33.7 percent; tourism employment grew 13.4 percent, and labor income from tourism jobs grew 26 percent.

What advice would Dunn and Hill have for other state and area officials who want to market an area as an ecotourism destination?

“Understand the natural assets you do have,” said Dunn, “a river system, an old rail trail, state parks that have a theme and could be connected.” It’s important to work with community members. Then, figure out current visitor numbers and how you can enhance them, market the region and bring new people to the area.

Driftless Region

Lochner, whose trip to north central Pennsylvania sparked the idea that grew into the Pennsylvania Wilds, is now focusing on an area in the Midwest that he feels has great ecotourism potential, the Driftless Region. Its cuts across Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. During the glacial period, each time the glaciers came down and receded, they missed this area, leaving layers of limestone sediment that creates a unique geology, Lochner said. It has a cold-water ecosystem so that a visitor who goes there in the summer and digs a hole will find extremely cold, fresh water.

The Driftless has cliffs with rare wildflowers, dramatic caverns and a world class trout fishery. Sustainable Driftless, a nonprofit group, is promoting the idea that “you build vibrant, sustainable communities through nature tourism,” said Lochner. “You’re protecting that environment at the same time you’re promoting the economy.”

Lochner is working with Sustainable Driftless to champion the idea that a large green space like the Driftless Region should be protected as cities grow around it. Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay and Minneapolis, with a total of 20 million people, are all within 225 miles of the Driftless.

Several attempts have been made in the past to promote the natural assets of the Driftless, said Lochner, but working with four states has made it difficult. He is convinced that promoting the Driftless as an ecotourism destination can attract more young people.

“Parks, trails and recreational amenities pump up the value for young people,” Lochner said. One of the benefits of tourism is that it allows people to live, work and play in that area.

The Driftless has already seen a big economic payoff from promoting one of its biggest natural assets, excellent rivers for trout fishing. In 2016, trout fishers brought $1.6 billion to the region, up from $1.2 billion in 2008.

Promoting an area as a nature tourism destination can also bring health benefits, Lochner said. His firm, MSA Professional Services, works with communities in the region, many of them below the poverty line. The University of Wisconsin extension plotted obesity rates by Zip code and found that the farther people live from urban areas, the higher their obesity rate and the worse their health. One explanation is that rural residents must drive everywhere, while city dwellers walk a lot.

So, the multiuse bike trail that has been built in the Driftless area makes sense for everyone, not just tourists. Local citizens can use it to walk their dogs or ride their bicycles.

What advice does Lochner have for state officials who want to promote ecotourism in their area?

“If you’re in a region that’s lucky enough to have those natural resources, look to preserve them,” he said. “Also create a guest experience, and promote it.

“If you have areas that don’t have beautiful scenic aspects but you’re still trying to compete, look at other aspects,” Lochner said. For example, planners could develop splash pads, a low impact recreational offering that does not need lifeguards.

Sustainable Dubuque

Ecotourism is not just for wild rural areas. Dubuque, Iowa, is starting to promote itself as an ecotourism destination. One step is its use of a mapping system, where people looking for ecotourism destinations can find points of interest, from the Dubuque Arboretum to the Global Goods store that sells handmade articles created by artisans from developing nations. OpenGreenMap extends to 65 countries.

Jake Jensen, a student at Loras College in Dubuque, helped start the Dubuque Area Reduce Reuse Recycle Network. He will attend the ecotourism conference in Australia in November, sponsored in part by Green Dubuque. Jensen plans to give a presentation on Dubuque as a sustainable destination, including the Driftless Region and the importance of water quality.

The area’s natural assets “should hopefully economically support our community,” Jensen said.

At first blush, tourism might not seem environmentally friendly, he added. Tourists use carbon to drive or fly to their destination and produce waste by eating out while they are traveling.

But “[tourists] are temporary locals, they’re part of your community,” said Jensen. “They want to come to your city because it’s environmentally friendly.”

That’s the vision. And in some places, it’s already happening.

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