BANGOR (AP) – Maine officials are hoping to cash in on bird-watching tourists who spend their money not just in the state’s oceanside communities but also away from the coast.

Bird watching is the fastest growing outdoor activity in America today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Seven states, including New Hampshire and Vermont, bring in more revenue from bird-watching than from hunting and fishing combined.

“Texas is making money hand over fist, and they don’t have as many rare bird species as we do,” Rep. Sean Faircloth, D-Bangor, told the Bangor Daily News.

State legislators passed a bill this session creating the Commission to Promote Jobs and Economic Development though Ecotourism. The 20-member group will be asked to chart Maine’s ecotourism future and to design a promotion plan.

Faircloth, who sponsored the bill, imagines new highways signs informing visitors of good spots to see a bald eagle, an osprey or a loon. He pictures walkways in wetland areas so visitors can get close to a warbler or a thrush.

Legislators hope the new ecotourism commission will help develop a natural resource that has been ignored for years while giving ecological values an economic hook, Faircloth said.

Already, Maine earns more than $105 million in annual revenue from nonresident wildlife watchers, according to a 2001 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

More than 400,000 nonresidents came to Maine to watch wildlife in 2001, while about half a million Mainers said they watch wildlife in the state.

Maine has about a dozen rare bird species, including the federally endangered roseate tern, as well as countless bright-colored songbirds that make brief appearances during their spring and fall migratory flights.

Several bed-and-breakfasts have started offering bird-watching specials, such as the “Warbler Wave Week” at Goose Cove Lodge in Deer Island, timed to coincide with the spring migration.

At Acadia National Park, dozens of people participate in “Hawkwatch” every fall, when state endangered peregrine falcon chicks leave their nests and join the flight south for the winter.

AP-ES-06-05-03 0748EDT

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