This New App Looks to the Birds to Bolster Southeast Alaska’s Economy

A birding trail developed by Audubon Alaska and partners seeks to shift the region away from reliance on extractive industries.
A kayaker paddles in a pristine lake, the clear water mirroring the forest on either side.
Kayaker paddling in Blind Slough, Petersburg, Alaska. Photo: Troy Larson/Shutterstock

Known for its bear-viewing and its bar—where patrons receive a certificate for downing a high-octane mystery shot—Hyder, Alaska, is also an unheralded gem for birders. On a good day a visitor could spot as many species as there are people in this community of around 50, the state’s easternmost, perched at the tip of a 70-mile fjord.

Tucked into the Tongass National Forest, Hyder is one of many bird-rich towns and villages scattered across the Alaska Panhandle’s mountain peaks, creeping glaciers, and spruce-lined islands. Some of the largest colonies of Aleutian Terns nest in the region. ­Southeast, as it’s known to locals, hosts endemic subspecies like the Queen ­Charlotte Goshawk and Prince of Wales Spruce Grouse, and it boasts the world’s highest concentrations of Bald Eagles and Marbled Murrelets.

Discussing these avian treasures over dinner in 2016, staff from Audubon Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Juneau Audubon Society hatched an idea: What if they could draw attention to the area’s birding and, in the process, strengthen its economy? The result was the Southeast Alaska Birding Trail, a virtual travel guide connecting nearly 200 birding sites across 18 small communities.

Audubon Alaska published the trail online in 2019, but the pandemic put a damper on the launch. Now its creators hope that an app introduced in June will help to drum up a new clientele for nature-based businesses. “I don’t see any outfitters or guides having a lot of difficulty adding birding to their itineraries,” says Gwen Baluss, a Forest Service wildlife technician who helped develop the trail.

Attracting more birders would add welcome diversity to an economy that land managers and locals seek to shift away from dependence on extraction-based industries. Fishing is a top employer, but it’s volatile. While mining is growing, it’s a boom-and-bust business with environmental risks. Oil production, which is concentrated in the far north but provides up to 85 percent of the entire state budget, is at its lowest point in half a century

Timber industry employment, meanwhile, is down 90 percent from its 1990s peak. The Biden administration has in effect ended large-scale, old-growth logging in the Tongass and committed to work with tribes on managing the forest as a sustainable economic resource. “If you look at the numbers, ecotourism—by many orders of magnitude—provides more jobs for Southeast Alaskans than the timber industry,” says Melanie Smith, an Audubon program director based in Anchorage who helped create the trail. “A birding trail is a contribution in that direction.”

Tourism is indeed a bright spot amid the malaise. After cratering during the pandemic, Alaska’s cruise industry drew nearly 1.7 million passengers to the area in 2023—more than double the state’s population. Birders, who tend to stay longer and spend more money than other visitors, are an especially potent economic force: Nearly 300,000 of them visited in 2016, spending $378 million and supporting more than 4,000 jobs, ­according to a study by Audubon Alaska and the ­University of Alaska Fairbanks. But today most cruise passengers stick to ports of call and life-listers mainly visit popular sites. By providing information about overlooked hotspots—how to get there, where to stay, what birds one might find—the trail aims to lure more visitors to communities clustered along the coastline and help them become prime birding destinations.

To create it, Smith and collaborators asked birders and locals about favorite spots and tromped through wetlands to find undiscovered gems. Their picks are available online and in the Southeast Alaska Birding Trail app for iOS and Android, which lets birders download maps for offline use, since service can be spotty.

Bringing in birders has potential to benefit all sorts of businesses in towns where most are locally owned, says Wooshkeeká Brooke Leslie, who works in rural economic development for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. Leslie views a sustainable economy as one that values people, planet, and profits equally. A birding trail meets the first two criteria, she says, but profitability remains to be seen. The features that make Southeast Alaska a supreme birding destination—a thousand islands, few paved roads—also make it a challenging place to visit.

For the 2024 tourist season Audubon Alaska plans to partner more closely with local companies to connect them with adventurers. Katie Rooks, an outfitter in Klawock, is optimistic that more will arrive as word spreads. She guided a canoe trip for the Audubon team as they scouted sites on Prince of Wales Island. At one point Smith stopped the group to listen to the distant whistle of a Northern Pygmy-Owl. It was a lifer for Smith, and her excitement left a mark on Rooks. “I will treasure that memory no matter where life takes me,” Rooks says. She hopes more people will visit the island for a similar brush with its bounty of beautiful birds.

This story originally ran in the Winter 2023 issue as “Scenic Route.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.