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Skagit officials hope birds will help economy take flight

A largely untapped natural resource in the fields of Skagit County could help build the local economy.

Every winter tens of thousands of swans and snow geese fill the skies of Skagit County. It's one of the most beautiful and unique sights in Washington that most people never see.

Officials across the county are hoping to change that.

They foresee a growing migration of bird lovers descending upon the area. Skagit County is a winter home to swans and snow geese, along with eagles, falcons and many other species of bird.

Ron Holmes has been watching them for decades.

"There's just so much to see," he said, snapping a picture of a long-necked swan. "It's real relaxing to me. I can calm down and feel at peace."

Now, a flock of folks, including farmers, conservationists, tourism officials and economists, are planning to use the birds to draw people to the valley and build the local economy. Winter is typically very slow for business across Skagit County. Giving people a reason to visit could be a big boost.

"There are bird festivals in Texas that bring in $400 million," said Andrew Miller of the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County. "By comparison, the Tulip Festival is about a

$65 million impact in Skagit Valley. So we certainly see the opportunity is there."

It's also an opportunity to help preserve precious farmland in the valley.

There were once nearly 1,000 dairy farms here. Now there are just two dozen.

The plan is to use state and federal grants to pay farmers to plant winter crops that feed the birds, keeping farms and birds in Skagit County.

"If there are no more dairy farms, maybe in 50 years there won't be any more swans visiting," said birdwatcher Jed Holmes.

You can find out more about birdwatching in Skagit County by visiting Jed's website www.birdsofwinter.org.