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It was an odd mix of Washington players teaming up for the first time ever. Late last year at the National Press Club, top guns from the Defenders of Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, Army Corps of Engineers, Navy, Air Force, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation and Izaak Walton League, and various state fish and gamers, gathered in one room around steaming trays of little meatballs.
Seventy-five people attended. Buzz-words like biota, course of eons, coactive programs and—that new goody from the nation's capital—ecotourism, floated above the Sprite and Diet Cokes.
But this stuffy twilight event at the National Press Club launched one of the most significant nationwide wildlife programs since the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was signed into action.
The program is called Watchable Wildlife. Strictly speaking, it is the brainchild of Defenders of Wildlife, but the coalition formed to implement it includes such long-feuding organizations as the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service as well as Defenders of Wildlife.
What's happening is that more and more people are heading out to federal public lands (we each "own" 2.64 federal acres somewhere) to enjoy what the bureaucrats term "nonconsumptive wildlife"—that is, critters you don't necessarily hook or shoot and eat. According to the most recent Fish and Wildlife survey, 134.7 million Americans trek to the 661 million acres of federal public lands each year specifically to look at wildlife. This does not mean that they just take pictures of the bears begging handouts in Yellow-stone. It means they also seek out lesser-known, less cooperative guys, like the black-footed ferret, tufted puffin and desert tortoise.
Traditionally, money for wildlife programs had come from fees for hunting and fishing licenses and permits, and excise taxes on sporting goods. This has led to the traditional "without hunters, there wouldn't be any wildlife" argument. The somewhat belatedly discovered fact that birdwatchers, photographers and just "Hey, look-ers" pour at least $14 billion into mostly rural economies has made a lot of chambers of commerce and state tourism agencies sit right up.
By the year 2000, the coalition hopes to have established about 5,000 Watchable Wildlife sites on public and private lands. The sites will be marked by giant binocular symbols placed alongside roads. So far, Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Utah and Wyoming have programs in place (by the end of this year it is anticipated that programs will also be established in California, Indiana, Texas and Washington). With the exception of Wyoming and Alaska, the states have prepared absolutely elegant viewing guides, which are available through Defenders of Wildlife from Defenders of Wildlife, 1244 Nineteenth Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20036. The guides—keyed by species, location and facilities—are $5.95 apiece.
Defenders also has a free introductory booklet to Watchable Wildlife, available on request. It was prepared by Bureau of Land Management and includes classy photos, lots of flora and fauna facts and a brief review of wildlife-watching etiquette: "Watch from a distance....If the animals you watch are watching you—with heads up and ears pointed in your direction—or are nervous, you are probably too close or moving too quickly.... Move casually, calmly and ... don't surprise them." This is especially important to keep in mind if you're, say, on the Gulkana River at Alaska site 8R, schmoozing with Ursus horribilis, a big, brown, rather grizzly bear.
What it all means is that if someone you love looks at you and says, "I've really got my heart set on seeing a yellow-headed collared lizard," you can thumb through the Utah guide and set straight off to Site 91-LaSal Loup, just east of Dead Horse Point. Or you can call to see if the Navy will invite you to its base in Cutler, Maine, to peek at the peregrine falcons.
The guide books offer the specific and unexpected. The Oregon book warns seekers of harbor seals at Strawberry Hill to "watch out for slippery rocks in the intertidal area." And that in the month of March, the red-necked grebe may be spotted from the telescope set up inside Oregon Site 14-Hershey's Place, a bar and restaurant in Lincoln City, close by the shores of Siletz Bay. Should you still be there after the grebes have disappeared north, you can always say you are trying to spot a marbled murrelet, which summers over in the Siletz Bay area.