Hold the Hay
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, an island community in Narragansett Bay, invested in bobolink nesting habitat, paying local farmers to delay hay cutting for several weeks.
The novel initiative—conceived of by economists and a biologist from the University of Rhode Island (URI) and the Providence-based business EcoAsset Markets—is pioneering a new means of wildlife conservation. At the same time this new “ecological market” may help preserve not just bobolinks but also Jamestown’s rural character. “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,” says Stephen Swallow, the URI environmental economist who spearheaded the project.
Bobolink numbers are falling in the Northeast, partly due to the loss of their grassland habitat to development and reforestation. To some Jamestown residents the songbirds represent something to treasure: a bucolic, undeveloped landscape. Swallow and his team are capturing this value economically in their $1.2 million project, which is funded by a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant and matching funds from URI and EcoAsset Markets.
Following a 6,200-mile migration from South America, bobolinks nest on North American grasslands from mid-May to late July. Unfortunately, this period also coincides with prime hay-making season. As a result, farmers mowing their hay fields often inadvertently destroy nests and fledgling bobolinks.
Although some grassland management is beneficial to the birds, the timing and frequency is crucial, says University of Vermont postdoctoral fellow Noah Perlut, who has studied bobolink nesting extensively. “Grassland management is the defining factor of the individual abilities to breed, and it appears to have implications for birds’ year-to-year survival,” he explains.
The well-established link between nesting success and hay mowing made it a convenient target in Jamestown’s first ecological market. 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. Farmers then signed contracts that organizers marketed to Jamestown residents for investment.
“The community investment is very new,” says Emi Uchida, an assistant professor of research in environmental and development economics at URI. “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. Organizers secured three of six eligible contracts, setting aside about 30 acres for the 2007 nesting season. “We did have successful nesting on a couple of fields that were under contract,” says URI biologist and Jamestown resident Carol Trocki. The project has another year of funding, so the team is busy hammering out the design for the next market.—Andrea Anderson
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