Experts say ecotourism is experiencing nature

Published 6:51 am Friday, January 15, 2010

HOLLY SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) — When butterflies, hummingbirds and wildflowers return to the Mississippi landscape in a few months, flocks of ecotourists will be close behind.

At its most exotic, ecotourism means travel to famous destinations such as the Galapagos Islands or the Amazon rainforest with rare animals, plants or geological features. In reality, it can be as tame as a day trip to hike secluded trails or to take a class in promoting backyard wildlife.

“Ecotourism is kind of the wave of the future,” said Jill Smith. As director of the Union County Heritage Museum, she also oversees the Ingomar Mounds historic site, which includes a nature trail and environmental signage.

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“As we become less rural, we still have that need to get out and experience nature,” she said. “Whether it’s walking or riding on a bike trail, bird-watching or just sitting in the woods, we need to get back to an appreciation of the land we live in.”

Larry Jarrett, an outdoor recreation consultant from Union County, said not only is ecotourism an important economic engine directly, but it’s a vital amenity for communities seeking to create high-tech jobs.

“Outdoor recreation is an absolute necessity when you’re trying to recruit knowledge-based business and industry,” he said.

Northeast Mississippi already boasts some ecotourism destinations of choice.

Strawberry Plains Audubon Center near Holly Springs is a former 2,500-acre plantation largely reverting to nature. It hosts a nearly year-round slate of workshops on topics as diverse as raptors, water-quality issues and tree identification for both school children and adults.

Hands down, the center’s most popular event is its Hummingbird Migration Celebration in early September, which draws upward of 6,000 people for bird-watching and nature-related workshops.

Naturalist Kristin Lamberson said the celebration is a way to focus on attention on many aspects of the center’s work.

“We use the magnetism of the hummingbirds to draw people in, to show them what we can to help nature,” she said.

In northeast Mississippi is Crow’s Neck Environmental Education Center, on Bay Springs Lake.

Managed by Northeast Mississippi Community College, the center “uses hands-on, outdoor education activities to create in-depth learning experiences which foster responsible stewardship of Northeast Mississippi’s natural and cultural resources.”

Its programs are as introspective as journaling and storytelling and as hands-on as herpetology, entomology and survival skills.

“School groups are our bread and butter,” said Executive Director Cynthia Harrell, noting the center draws 5,000 to 5,500 visitors a year, including youth groups, churches, business groups and wedding parties.

With its remote location and group-oriented activities, Crow’s Neck attracts visitors largely through conference contacts, word of mouth and its Web site.

“We’re an intentional-visit destination,” Harrell said.

Several federal entities in the region also lend themselves to ecotourism.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (including Bay Springs Lake and Aberdeen Lake) and Sardis Lake. The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees Tombigbee and Holly Springs National Forests. State parks, wildlife management areas and other public lands offer their own nature-based recreation opportunities.

One attraction still in the works is Tanglefoot Trail, a 40-mile rails-to-trails route that will follow the now-abandoned railroad right of way through Union, Pontotoc and Chickasaw counties. With the property purchased and survey work under way, its proponents say it will be an economic and cultural boon.

“I don’t think we realize what’s about to happen to these communities,” said chairwoman Betsey Hamilton of New Albany, who recently visited Missouri’s 225-mile Katy Trail.

“There are people who want to ride all these rails-to-trails routes, just like some people want to play as many golf courses as they can,” she said. “I saw people from Iowa, Colorado, all over. They said, ‘Build it, and we will come.'”