Across its 50 miles and 47,000 acres, the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge gives shelter to thousands of migrating birds.
Something else flies from the refuge: some $8 million in additional economic activity in the region, including $4 million in direct spending every year, as in 2011 when the refuge had nearly 224,000 human visitors.
A new report by economists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states America's federal wildlife refuges generate $2.4 billion a year for the economy alongside their primary mission of preserving wildlife habitat and keeping North America's natural heritage alive. The Asbury Park Press reports that the Forsythe refuge is one of 92 that they examined throughout the country to get a snapshot of wildlife economics.
Researchers calculate the Forsythe refuge generated $4.1 million in direct spending by visitors, $1.9 million in local wages, and $887,600 in tax revenue as they paid for food, lodging, transportation and other costs for outdoor activities.
Left unsaid in the report is how those benefits were largely lost in the past year, when most refuge areas were closed after superstorm Sandy. Now reopened, the refuge is in the midst of an extensive cleanup.
Hunting and fishing are allowed under tightly controlled season and access rules, and those are a big part of public use. Some 20,000 visitors fished at the refuge's Holgate area, using their beach buggies at the south tip of Long Beach Island when beach nesting shore birds have left for the year.
But the big growth area is ecotourism, what the economists call "non-consumptive uses," meaning the visitors are not there to eat what they find. The single biggest purpose of visitors entering the refuge is photography, some 28,000 visits in 2011, the report stated.
One big take-away from the report is now much the Shore's burgeoning resident year-round population uses refuge lands. With population growth in the Ocean-Burlington-Atlantic counties region about 10 percent from 2001 to 2010, locals accounted for almost three-quarters of the 223,924 recorded visits during 2011, the report stated.
At the national scale, that differentiation between locals and outside visitors posed an issue for the economists that they acknowledge in the report.
"Local residents would probably have spent their recreation money in the local economy with or without the refuge. If they couldn't go birding, they might go bowling," the authors wrote. "In contrast, non-residents may have been attracted to the area by the refuge. They would have gone elsewhere except for its presence, and their spending is a stimulus to the economy. Non-resident spending generates new income and new jobs. It has an economic impact on the region."
Still, local residents' use of the refuge counts for economic "significance." It needs to be recognized, "but should not be interpreted as income that would be lost if the refuge were not there," the report stated.
Data for the study came from the wildlife service's 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, a project conducted every five years, and its Refuge Annual Performance Plan. The economists also tapped refuge staff and regional tourism agencies to get average lengths of visitors' stays and what they did on the refuges.
The five-year survey aims to measure how much visitors spend in four categories: food, lodging, transportation, and expenses such as equipment and hiring local hunting guides. Every year, the wildlife service collects detailed numbers on visitor use. For example, waterfowl hunters on the Forsythe marshes must obtain permits for shooting in specific areas, and there are entrance fees collected at the refuge's Wildlife Drive bird watching area in Galloway.
For less tightly controlled access points, the service uses automatic traffic counters in access roads, or workers can get an idea of average uses by counting cars and foot traffic in popular hiking areas such as Eno's Pond in Lacey or the deCamp Wildlife Trail in Brick.
While refuges are drawing more visitors, the report authors caution it's important not to lose sight of the system's main mission: preserving natural habitat for wildlife.
"It would be a mistake, for example, to increase recreational opportunities at a refuge at the expense of resource preservation goals just because the added benefits could be measured by the methods used here," they wrote. "This analysis should be seen as only one part of the benefits that the National Wildlife Refuge System provides."