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Saturday, June 10, 2023
June 10, 2023

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Farmers: Birding tourism has gotten out of hand

Program targets damage done by trespassing birdwatchers and their vehicles


A pilot program aimed at cutting down on the impacts of birdwatchers on farmland is set to roll out next month.

The Be Bird Wise program is run by Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, with a coalition of partners, including the Skagit Audubon Society, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Western Washington Agriculture Association.

In the spring, as birders and photographers flock to spot snow geese and swans, and other visitors come to see the tulips, many local roads are flooded with cars.

Farmers on Fir Island and other areas report people stopping their cars abruptly and trampling their crops in an attempt to take photos of birds.

Parked cars can fill both sides of the road, making it difficult for farmers to get heavy equipment through.

Rachel Sorrels, education and outreach manager for Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, said the pilot program intends to use Fir Island as a test study, to see if education can have an effect on the impacts.

“People get excited. They see birds and forget,” she said.

Sorrels said the program is trying to educate visitors without drawing more to the area.

Fir Island Road often experiences high tourism traffic. Jeff Osmundson, the chair of the Education Committee for the Skagit Audubon Society, said the Skagit Wildlife Area’s Fir Island Farm Reserve in particular draws birdwatchers to the area.

Those involved in the program, which officially launches in April, will hand out materials, including signs to landowners that can remind visitors about proper behavior.

The program has already started to gauge the baseline measurements for behavior and impacts, Sorrels said. Those working on the program are asking those affected to fill out a survey seeking to quantify the current impact.

They will survey again next year to see if the educational materials had any influence. Sorrels said she has already received 32 responses.

She said she sees the large and immediate response to the survey as a measure of how much those impacted need to be heard about this issue.

“Parking a tire over the fog line seems like such a little thing, but it has an impact that ripples,” she said.

Jenn Smith — who is co-owner of Smith and Burklund Farms, president of the Western Washington Agricultural Association and a board member for Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland — said she hopes that consistent reminders will help shift behavior.

“I think the project is a really great way to try to kindly and gently remind people how to be, and to make it better for everybody,” she said.

Smith has had issues with tourists impacting her fields. Some visitors trample her fields along the edge of the road, affecting the health of crops.

Smith said she once found 75 to 100 people standing in one of her fields. Some were having a picnic and flying a kite, while others were birdwatching.

Smith said it’s gotten to be a safety issue. She said she worries about someone getting hit by a car.

“I’m just afraid it’s only a matter of time,” she said.