Deepening Our Commitment to Sustainable Travel: Carbon Offsets and So Much More

by Emily Pinkowitz, Education Director

Last year, over 160 people traveled with Bird Alliance of Oregon. We traveled close to home, visiting gems like Malheur National Wildlife Refuge where we learned about collaborative conservation in the Harney Basin. We traveled across the world, meeting butterfly conservationists and immigration activists in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and supporting local educators working to build a strong conservation ethic in rural Costa Rican youth. And of course, we birded, viewing thousands of species and donating to local conservation efforts to protect those species in perpetuity.

Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill, photo by Peter Brannon

Travel is invigorating. It builds a sense of connection and care for people, cultures, animals, and ecosystems across the world. In many places, it’s the life blood of economies and, importantly, fuels environmental and species protection. And it’s common. Globally, 1.4 billion people travel each year.
But it comes with a cost. This February the New York Times reported that air travel accounts for about 4% of human-induced global warming. As a conservation organization, Bird Alliance of Oregon has to weigh the impacts of leading travel-based programs. According to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, each year, over 45 million Americans spend approximately $41 billion on bird-related trips and equipment. Because we know people will continue to travel for birding, we’ve opted to continue offering ecotours. But we’ve made important changes to better reflect our values.

We began by reducing our financial dependence on international trips. Before the pandemic, ecotours accounted for $600,000 of Bird Alliance of Oregon’s revenue. Over the last four years, we’ve worked hard to offset this; we increased the number of Pacific Northwest excursions we offer by 50% and launched a robust roster of digital classes. This enabled us to reduce the plane-based trips we lead by one-third, from 15 in 2019 to 10 in 2022. We’ve also focused on shorter trips. Today, at least 50% of our ecotours each year are domestic.

At the same time, we’ve deepened our commitment to sustainable tourism practices. The International Labour Organization defines this as “composed of three pillars: social justice, economic development, and environmental integrity.” Bird Alliance of Oregon trip leaders strive to uphold this standard. We work with local guides and make sure they’re paid a fair wage. We seek out locally owned lodges and businesses. We connect with Indigenous communities and invite them to share the histories of their lands from their own voices. And we make a point of visiting and donating to local conservation projects.

But we recognize that these changes alone are not enough. That’s why, this summer, we further deepened our commitment to sustainable tourism by joining Sustainable Travel International, and are delighted to share that as of July 2023, every Bird Alliance of Oregon trip will include carbon offsets. But Sustainable Travel International is more than a carbon offsets program. It works alongside local communities, engaging travelers, businesses, and policy-makers in responsible practices. Through this work, they aim to combat climate change and empower communities to preserve destinations around the globe. Read more about them at

This decision was long in the making, and was led by Erin Law, our longtime Adult Classes & Trips Specialist. Over the last five years, Erin brought a tremendous amount of strategic thinking to the department. When the pandemic hit, she pivoted quickly to launch digital classes and expand our programs across the Pacific Northwest. As a result, revenue from local programs doubled from 2019 to 2023. This created a strong foundation from which to reimagine our relationship to ecotours. Erin researched different companies and facilitated discussions within our department to identify the partner that most aligned with our values. Our membership in Sustainable Travel International is in many ways the culmination of her efforts. This August, Erin moved on from Bird Alliance of Oregon. We’re grateful for all that she’s accomplished in her time here, and know that the impact she’s had on thousands of participants will be felt for years to come and reverberate across the globe.