2007-12-06 / News

Audubon features island's bobolink project

By Dotti Farrington

The bobolink is named for its bubbly song. The bobolink is named for its bubbly song. Jamestown's unique investors' crop of bobolinks is featured in the current issue of the National Audubon Magazine. Environmental journalist Andrea Anderson has written an overview, "Hold the Hay," about the pilot island project for the Field Notes section on bird conservation for the magazine.

Stephen Swallow, the University of Rhode Island environmental economist who leads the bobolink project, is also ballyhooing the status of Conanicus birds as part of a speaking tour, including a program tomorrow, Friday, at Oregon State University.

The Jamestown bobolinks are related to his long time work on the concept that has resulted in last year's book, "Economics and Contemporary Land Use Policy: Development and Conservation at the Rural-Urban Fringe." Swallow co-edited the book with Robert Johnston, agricultural economics professor at the University of Connecticut. The book features 14 papers on the latest concepts about land use economics.

Swallow said the purpose of the Jamestown project is to serve as a pilot for establishing communitybased markets for wildlife protection. Securing nesting sites for bobolinks is the specific aim of the project. It also is expected to serve as a model for securing protection for other forms of wildlife, protecting water quality and addressing other ecological issues.

The concept is part of federal efforts to diversify and enhance farm income through market mechanisms that encourage conservation and sustainable farm practice.

Swallow and his team wrote several letters and sent brochures to all Jamestown residents, and the Jamestown Press published several stories and advertisements as the project was developed and carried out this past year. Carol Trocki of Jamestown, a conservation biologist, was a major participant in the project, serving as a coordinator for local farmers.

Audubon view

Anderson wrote in Audubon Magazine, "While most investors anxiously tracked their stocks this summer, people in one Rhode Island community were keeping an eye on a different kind of portfolio- one that paid ecological dividends. Residents of Jamestown invested in bobolink nesting habitats, paying local farmers to delay hay cutting for several weeks."

The Audubon article called the project a "novel initiative… (that) is pioneering a new means of wildlife conservation." It said the attempt at "this new 'ecological market' may help preserve not just bobolinks but also Jamestown's rural character."

Anderson quoted Swallow as reporting, "We're pretty confident that at least some of the methods we're trying will be an improvement over the donation approach in the long term."

Bobolinks are decreasing as they lose grassland habitats to development and reforestation, Anderson noted. Swallow and his associates are working to assign economic values to preserving the birds through multi-year efforts with $1.2 million in federal grants through URI and EcoAssets Markets, Inc.

The bobolinks migrate 6,200 miles between North and South America, nesting on Northeast grasslands from mid-May to late July. "Unfortunately, this period also coincides with prime haymaking season. As a result, farmers mowing their hay fields often inadvertently destroy nests and fledgling bobolinks," Anderson wrote.

The well-established link between nesting success and hay mowing made it a convenient target in Jamestown's first ecological market, Anderson reported. Based on the productivity of each hay field, organizers established the price necessary for farmers to delay haying until after the first week in July, she explained.

Emi Uchida, assistant research professor at URI, was quoted as saying, "It's actually the first [ecological market] I've seen in the U.S. or the world that involves community investment to this scale."

"So far the results look promising. (URI) is busy hammering out the design for the next market," Anderson's report concluded.

Bobolinks

The bobolink is a small blackbird, with some yellow, white and brown markings. It is named for an interpretation of its bubbly song, familiar in fields and meadows. They breed across the northern United States and southern Canada, and winter in central South America. Bobolinks have declined in the Northeast. They nest in hay fields, vulnerable to agricultural practices, and to development.

College talk

Swallow's talk in Oregon is entitled, "Selling Bobolinks: Progress in an Experimental Ecosystem Service Market, Selling Grassland Nesting Bird Habitat from Farms to Ex-Urban Residents in Jamestown, Rhode Island."

He will describe how his project, called the Natural Services Exchange of Jamestown, is redesigning the plan to bring the island community the opportunity to buy wildlife contracts with local farmers through the URI-EcoAssets partnership.

Pre-project concepts

Before starting the URI project, Swallow detailed its concepts in a report entitled "Assessing public priorities for experiment station research: contingent value and public preferences for agricultural research" in a 2004 issue of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. He explained that the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 1993 motivated renewed efforts by federal agencies to strengthen the relationship between their mission and constituents. He said that work was bolstered by the Reform Act of 1998 that mandated Agricultural Experiment Stations to develop work plans after considering stakeholder input through an "open, fair, and accessible" process for individuals, groups, and organizations. Economists and environmentalists said the government regulations led to a "reemergence of the economics of land use… (that) contributes to social wellbeing … (and) now stands as a key element in the definition of households' quality of life."

Meanwhile, Johnston and Swallows' book on land use policy has been garnering reviews as one of the first books to deal exclusively with the economics of rural-urban sprawl and the concepts represent "a timely and relevant contribution to the land-use policy debate and will prove an essential reference for policymakers."

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