On the surface, the first Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival will give people a chance to watch and learn about some of Southeast Arizona's most world-renowned attractions: its birds, along with its cacti, shrubs, large cats and other wildlife.

But the lead organizer of the festival next week has another, not-so-hidden agenda: to press upon officials, business leaders and other community leaders the message that our birds are an economic as well as an environmental asset.

The festival will have two days of mostly free workshops and three days of paid, guided trips to birding hotspots. Attendees can see or learn about some of this country's most ecologically diverse birding hotspots and other wildlife habitats.

They will range from the cottonwood-willow riparian forest of Cienega Creek, the high desert grasslands of the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, the 25-mile drive up Mount Lemmon and the oak woodlands of Madera Canyon.

"The ultimate goal in all of this is to impress upon people, businesses and local governments the importance of habitat for wildlife and the economics of wildlife viewing," said Paul Green, executive director of the Tucson Audubon Society, the festival's host.

With 125 people having signed up as of Monday to fly into Tucson "from all over the U.S." to the festival, Green said he hopes that business leaders will see the potential for green(backs) from having out of town birders spend money on hotel rooms, restaurants and car rentals. Organizers hope for 500 to attend in all.

"I'm trying to link this business community into nature and conservation," Green said. "Our goal is to try to keep many birders in the Tucson area. So many people fly in here and go straight to the Chiricahuas and Sierra Vista when there's an awful lot to do here."

With many economic development experts saying that Tucson should "brand" itself as being prime for industries such as optics or electronics, Green said he'd like to make wildlife watching another branded industry.

"Wildlife watching is perhaps our ultimate sustainable industry," Green said. "People come in, spend their money and need habitats to go to. The habitats are there. We just need to make sure we keep them and enhance them whenever we can."

Proceeds from the festival will go toward enhancing a riverfront riparian area, by fencing part of Sonoita Creek in Patagonia Lake State Park from trespass cattle, which society officials hope will let more low-lying shrubs grow and draw more birds.

If you go

• What; Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival.

• Sponsored by: Tucson Audubon Society.

• When: Wednesday through Aug. 21.

• Where: Workshops will be held at the Riverpark Inn, 350 S. Freeway, along the Interstate 10 frontage road near North Granada Avenue.

• Cost: Most of the workshops and events are free; other prices are noted. (For a complete schedule, visit www.tucsonaudubon.org/festival )

Some highlights

• Midnight Aug. 17 - 24-hour Sky Islands Birding Cup, a fundraising contest to find as many species as possible.

• 5 p.m. Aug. 18 - Bird and Beer Social, The Riverpark Inn, 360 N. Freeway; $10.

• Aug. 19 - Free workshop on hummingbirds at 1:30 p.m. by Sheri Williamson of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory. Sky Island Alliance biologist Sergio Avila will speak on "The Sky Islands as a bridge for tropical wildlife" at 3 p.m.

• Aug. 20 - Author Kenn Kaufman, whose latest book is the "Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding," will give talks at 1:30 p.m. on how to improve bird identification skills ($25) and at 6:30 p.m. on the vast numbers of migratory birds passing through this area ($40, which includes dinner). Ken Lamberton speaks on the Santa Cruz River at 1:30 p.m. (free).