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Growing Money Trees
by Keith Hackland (alamoinn@aol.com)
published July 2015

If I had a money tree, unfurling green dollars on each branch, would I nurture it, and help it grow to produce more and more green dollars? You bet I would. Most folks would be thrilled to have a green money tree growing in their yard.

Well, there are several money trees growing in my yard. Almost every Valley yard grows money trees. The Valley is full of money trees. Our money trees here do not grow green dollars on each branch, instead they grow birds on each branch. Birds attract bird watcher tourists, people we call birders. Birders bring money with them and leave half a billion dollars a year here with us, spreading it around Valley businesses and birding destinations. We know this from a research study published by Texas A&M University (see southtexasnature.org, click on Nature Reports, then Economic Impact of Nature Tourism, and on pdf report Economic Impact of Nature Tourism).

Birders convert our trees into money trees, with their spending. But which trees are the money trees? They are typically trees native to the Valley. They have grown here for millennia, so are well adapted to Valley conditions of years of drought interspersed with wet tropical years. In particular, Anacua is very bird friendly, producing crops of yellow berries after rainfall. Other native Valley trees easy to grow and popular with birds for fruit, foraging, nesting, or roosting are Anacahuita Wild Olive, Blackthorn, Brazil, Catsclaw, Coma, Cedar Elm, Ebano, Hackberry, Huisache, Mesquite, Mexican Ash, Retama, and Tepehuaje. While most of these money trees are available at Valley nurseries, it is amazing after rain to look around in the yard and find them growing on their own. Usually they have been planted by birds (from undigested seeds in their droppings). When they are small and short they are easy to transplant into a good location in our yard. These trees attract the birds we enjoy, and the birds that birders seek. But to complete the circle, how do we attract the birders, letting them know that we have great birds? The Valley is particularly successful in this skill.

We have a non-profit organization that specializes in attracting birders. Formed in 2001, South Texas Nature Marketing Co-op (STN) is a non-profit supported by Valley Chambers of Commerce, Convention & Visitors Bureaus, Valley Cities, birding destinations and service providers. It is unique in U.S., attracting birders mainly in two ways.

Firstly, by hosting outdoor writers from all over the world, and showing them our Valley birds, restaurants, and culture. These writers typically have a great time and pen wonderful stories about the Valley and its birds in magazines, newspaper travel sections, and online, reaching tens of thousands of birders on each story. This attracts more birders here, often carrying the story with them in their luggage so they can follow the route recommended in the story.

Secondly, STN exhibits at bird festivals in U.S. and bird fairs in Europe. These events offer birder trade shows, lectures, and field trips, and are attractive to birders who travel, our Valley target market. Over the past 13 years this work has been so successful that other birding destinations in Texas have joined to support our effort.

With the richest birding in the United States occurring in Texas, this has raised our exhibit profile, an exhibit we call Texas Birding, and made it easier to attract attention. With the richest birding in Texas being in the Valley, it has raised the Valley's profile too, and made the Valley much more attractive, positioning us here as the richest birding location not just in Texas, but also in the United States. The Valley is number one in the U.S., and is in the top thirty birding spots in the world.

During the past year STN has exhibited at the following events:
British Birdfair, Great Britain, attended by 27,000 birders
Cape May Birding Festival, NJ, 3,000 birders
Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, Harlingen, TX, 3,000 birders
Space Coast Birding Festival, FL, 5,000 birders
Norfolk Birdfair, Great Britain, 2,500 birders
Scottish Bird and Nature Fair, Great Britain, 5,000 birders
Hamburg Birdfair, Germany, 2,500 birders

These events have reached an audience of 48,000 birders. Typically birders do not attend these events annually, but rather once in 3 to 5 years. So our audience there is largely new each year. The British Birdfair STN has worked since 2002, and the others we have exhibited at from 1 to 4 years.

Between the media and bird fairs coverage, STN has successfully grown the birder tourism in the Valley quite substantially, from my estimate of under $100 million a year in the 1990s to about $500 million currently.

There are other factors that attract birders to the Valley, in particular our great diversity of birds and of birding destinations, but that is another story, Locating Money Trees. Next it would be great to find out how to benefit from this birding resource, and that is the following story, Tapping Into Money Trees.