By Paul Schmidt and Whitney Tawney
It was the worst of times for ducks, and the bleakest of times for duck hunters. During the early 1930s, the most devastating drought in U.S. history was turning vital wetlands into barren wastelands and decimating duck populations. Hunters had seen duck numbers decline steadily since the turn of the 20th century, but the situation had never been so dire. Something had to be done—and fast—to save waterfowl. Duck hunters and their allies rallied, urging Congress to pass the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, popularly known as the Duck Stamp Act, in 1934. What this program has done for waterfowl and other wildlife since is one of the greatest success stories in the history of conservation.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the federal duck stamp. Since its enactment, this landmark initiative has generated more than $900 million to conserve nearly 6 million acres of wetlands across the United States through the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. The program is a model of conservation efficiency. Approximately 98 cents out of every duck stamp dollar is spent to acquire or lease lands for the National Wildlife Refuge System. These refuges and waterfowl production areas benefit not only ducks and geese but also hundreds of fish and wildlife species, including one-third of those listed as endangered or threatened. In addition, wetlands restored and protected on these lands provide clean water, help control and mitigate floods, buffer storm surges, reduce soil erosion and sedimentation, and offer a host of other ecological benefits.
The duck stamp program has been such a mainstay of our conservation heritage that it's easy to take for granted, but the truth is that this historic legislation didn't happen overnight. It was years in the making. A bill to establish a federal duck stamp was first introduced in Congress in the early 1920s. Similar bills followed but never got the votes they needed to pass both the House and Senate. It is one of the ironies of history that the period of the Roaring Twenties, for all its prosperity and lavish spending, couldn't muster the resolve to spare a few bucks for the ducks.