By Scott C. Yaich, Ph.D.
The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA)
is a good example of how Congress, with leadership, motivation, and broad-based support, can do great things to address the nation's challenges. Like Ducks Unlimited, this groundbreaking conservation legislation
was born during a time of crisis. The late 1980s were tough years for waterfowl and duck hunters. Drought had sucked the productivity out of the Prairie Pothole Region
, and many duck populations were well below their long-term averages. During the first half of the decade, U.S. waterfowlers enjoyed a daily bag limit of 10 ducks, including up to 10 pintails or scaup. By 1988, the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways
were down to a 30-day season and a three-duck daily limit, and total waterfowl harvests were less than half of what they were earlier in the decade.
Wetlands weren't in any better shape. New surveys revealed that over half the nation's wetlands were gone and that drainage was rapidly eating away at the remainder.
Yet, during those dark days, the seeds of positive change were planted. The North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP)
was signed in 1986, providing a framework for a new approach to waterfowl conservation. It made clear that waterfowl conservation would not succeed if it remained mostly a government enterprise, and stated that only through a shared commitment by a partnership of federal, state, nonprofit, and private entities could the goals of NAWMP be achieved. Although it may be taken for granted now, the emphasis on joint ventures was a new way of thinking about continental waterfowl conservation at that time.
Through NAWMP, innovative partnerships were formed, generating funding to deliver creative wetland conservation projects in Canada and the United States. These collaborative efforts served as models for NAWCA's authors.
The Key to NAWCA's Success
NAWCA was conceived as a way to provide funding to implement NAWMP, and was championed by Senator George Mitchell of Maine
. But as the act made its way through the legislative process, the senator saw that it would have to appeal to a broader constituency to garner enough legislative support to become law. So he and other key sponsors broadened NAWCA's mission to also support the conservation of wetland ecosystems and associated habitats and other wetland-associated migratory bird populations. This breadth, based on the wide range of benefits that naturally flow from wetlands conservation, was the key to NAWCA being passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in late 1989. It has also been a key to maintaining strong, diverse support for the act throughout its history.
NAWCA provides funding for wetland conservation projects across North America, but with the stipulation that every federal dollar must be matched by at least one nonfederal dollar. This provides a strong incentive for conservationists to form partnerships to generate the matching funds needed to secure NAWCA dollars. The act also established the nine-member North American Wetlands Conservation Council to oversee administration and project selection. The council was another of the act's partner-based ideas. NAWCA specified that the council must include staff leaders from one federal agency, one quasi-federal organization, four state wildlife agencies, and three nongovernmental organizations. Ducks Unlimited has had a representative on the council from the start. This innovative, partner-based approach to guiding the allocation of wetland conservation funds has been instrumental to NAWCA's success and support for the past 25 years.