Last week, two members of Ducks Unlimited's conservation staff were among four key speakers during a plenary session at the Kansas Natural Resources Conference in Wichita. This year's conference, with a theme of "Wetlands: The Jewels of Kansas," was attended by nearly 400 representatives from the state and regional conservation community.
Dr. Scott Yaich, DU director of conservation operations, and Ryan Heiniger, director of conservation programs for DU's Great Plains Region, spoke on conservation challenges in Kansas and nationwide. Their focus was the importance of conservation protections—specifically through the Clean Water Act, the Farm Bill and state initiatives—and how to keep them funded in the face of economic adversity.
Dr. Yaich's focus was the withdrawal of long-standing Clean Water Act protections from at least 20 million acres of geographically isolated wetlands nationwide, including the critical habitat of the Prairie Pothole Region, the single largest nesting area for waterfowl in North America and DU's highest conservation priority area, and the playa wetlands of Kansas and adjoining states.
Yaich shared with the audience the results of the first national survey of wetland trends since the U.S. Supreme Court decisions weakened Clean Water Act protections in 2001 and 2006. The survey showed that, since 2004, the rate of net wetland loss in the United States has increased 140 percent and is 45,000 acres faster per year than it was in 2004. With decreasing state and federal funding available for voluntary, incentive-driven wetlands conservation, this rate can only be expected to increase.
In addition to restoring Clean Water Act protections through a rulemaking, one way to address this threat and help conserve wetlands is through federal and state funding. With the growing federal deficit causing Congress to propose spending cuts to virtually all federal conservation programs, Heiniger stressed the need to diversify funding sources at the state level.
Heiniger suggested seeking out support and funding from a larger segment of the conservation community, going beyond the traditional hunting and fishing participants. He highlighted significant recent successes in Minnesota, where a percentage of the states' sales tax is now being dedicated to conservation and clean water initiatives.
In Minnesota, the Outdoor Heritage Fund is at the heart of this new conservation funding effort. Thirty-three percent of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment to the Minnesota state constitution is distributed to the OHF for conservation protection programs. With 2012 proposed funding still awaiting legislative appropriations and governor approval, OHF funding is expected to approach $60 million in the four years since the fund's inception. Once all currently funded projects are complete, the conserved acreage is likely to exceed 500,000. And with the funding program approved through 2034, this is just the beginning for improved conservation protections in Minnesota.