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World Leader in Wetlands Conservation

The Ducks Unlimited Story

Over the past 75 years, generations of DU supporters have worked together to safeguard the future of North America's wetlands and waterfowl 
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  • During a special visit to the White House, DU President Hazard Campbell (right) and Executive Vice President Dale Whitesell presented President Ronald Reagan with a commemorative decoy.
    photo by Ducks Unlimited
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A New Era in Conservation

Given Ducks Unlimited's phenomenal growth during the 1970s and 1980s, it was almost inevitable that its mission would also expand in scope, and DU had the financial wherewithal to do it. There was a growing movement in the United States for an increase in habitat work to benefit ducks locally, especially in those states that contributed significant numbers of ducks to the continental population, such as AlaskaMinnesota, Montana, and the Dakotas. DU had already launched Ducks Unlimited de Mexico in 1970 to conserve important waterfowl wintering habitat south of the border. In 1984 DU launched its U.S. habitat program, which was a logical extension of DU's longstanding efforts to conserve and enhance the most important wetlands to waterfowl in Canada and Mexico. 

Now that DU was working on a continental scale, it was no longer feasible to administer its U.S. operations solely out of its national headquarters in Illinois. Regional offices had to be formed, and the first was established in Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1984. DU's Western Regional Office in Sacramento, California, was opened in 1987. DU opened its Governmental Affairs Office in Washington, D.C., in 1989. 

The Southern Regional Office, located in Ridgeland, Mississippi, was established in 1990. And lastly, the Great Lakes/Atlantic Regional Office, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was established in 1998. 

As Ducks Unlimited moved fully into working in the United States, a host of forces came together at the same time that would provide new challenges, opportunities, and focus. A drought of record proportions seared the Prairie Pothole Region from Alberta to Iowa, and it would last nearly a decade. At the same time, wetland loss and conversion to agriculture on both sides of the border had reached a point that many feared the ducks would never be able to rebound to healthy levels, even if a wet weather cycle returned to the prairies. By 1985, duck populations in the traditional survey area had declined to almost an all-time low. Daily bag limits and hunting seasons were curtailed to the most restrictive levels since the 1960s. 

Recognizing the importance of waterfowl and wetlands to all North Americans and the need for international cooperation to help support the recovery of a shared resource, the Canadian and United States governments developed a strategy to restore waterfowl populations through habitat protection, restoration, and enhancement. This bold new vision culminated in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP), signed in 1986 by the Canadian Minister of the Environment and the United States Secretary of the Interior. NAWMP was the foundation upon which hundreds of other conservation partnerships would soon be built on behalf of waterfowl and their habitats. And Ducks Unlimited, which celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 1987, would become a major partner.

If it were not for three-quarters of a century of dedication and work by DU volunteers, staff, and partners, the magic that the prairie—and wetlands elsewhere—can produce would be greatly diminished.

In 1987, Matthew B. Connolly Jr. became the second executive vice president in DU's history. Not long after he took the helm, Connolly was selected to serve on a group charged with implementing NAWMP. This group of conservationists fleshed out how the plan would be delivered on the ground, as well as how much funding would be required to meet its objectives. That was the easy part. NAWMP then needed a reliable source of funding sponsorship. This much-needed financial backing would ultimately come from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), visionary legislation that was passed with bipartisan support in Congress. 

NAWCA received another powerful endorsement from President George H. W. Bush, who was the keynote speaker at DU's 6th International Waterfowl Symposium in Washington, D.C., on June 8, 1989. During his speech, President Bush reiterated his administration's policy of achieving a "no net less" of wetlands in the United States. He also announced his support for NAWCA, which he would sign into law more than six months later, on December 13. Since NAWCA's inception, more than 4,500 partners have collaborated on over 2,000 conservation projects and conserved upward of 26 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

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