In the early 1930s the United States, and the world, was facing a crisis of epic proportions. The stock market crash of 1929 had hurled the U.S. economy into the worst depression the country had ever known. Banks were being mobbed by panicked citizens demanding withdrawal of their deposits—in cash—and many banks were run out of business when they could not comply. Unemployment was at an all-time high, and breadlines and handouts were the only source of daily food for millions of people. Adding insult to injury, the central United States was experiencing the worst drought anyone could remember. This was the infamous Dust Bowl era. Farms were simply abandoned by families that could not afford to buy the basic staples of life and pay their mortgages.
During this time, however, an editorial cartoonist with the Des Moines Register—Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling—was bombarding newspapers with a call to arms to control the loss of wetlands and the ensuing reduction in waterfowl populations. His appeal went out to duck hunters, asking them to proclaim their allegiance to conservation, not by demanding that someone else take action, but by recognizing that hunters are first and foremost conservationists; that they understand habitat conservation costs money; and that they were willing to pay.
It's hard to imagine that during the worst depression and drought the country had ever known a group of dedicated people would step forward and say, "Tax me." But that's exactly what duck hunters did. They petitioned Congress to pass the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, which required every waterfowl hunter to purchase a stamp prior to being able to legally hunt. At a time when a dollar would buy a week's worth of flour, sugar, and beans for a family, hunters lobbied hard to pay $1 to purchase what has become known as the duck stamp. Since 1934 the duck stamp program has protected more than 6 million acres of wetlands through expenditures of more than $750 million. That's $750 million unadjusted for inflation. This has contributed to the conservation of more than 2.5 million acres in the Prairie Pothole Region, including the protection of 7,000 Waterfowl Production Areas totaling 675,000 acres.
We have a responsibility to continue to grow and improve on this success. Unfortunately, the cost of conservation has dramatically increased over the years, which has significantly diminished the ability of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, and others to conserve habitat. But efforts are afoot to remedy that.
The last duck stamp price increase occurred in 1991, when it reached its current level of $15. Back then gasoline was selling for $1 a gallon. Today a gallon of gas costs three to four times that amount. The price of land has likewise increased, but duck stamp revenues have not. In the last session of Congress, two bills were introduced to increase the price of the duck stamp to $25 (it would take $23 just to meet inflation). I am convinced that today's hunters are no less the conservationists than the hunters of the early 1930s, and that because of this we could have wide support for an increase. The acres we care so deeply about are under significant stress, as are the landowners who would rather see their land conserved than used for other purposes. But our friends in the agricultural community must make a reasonable living off their land.
DU and our partners will be supporting an increase in the price of the duck stamp in the next Congress. I encourage all hunter-conservationists to accept the challenge and put our stamp on conservation, as our forefathers did.