NAWCA turns 25

Now a quarter century old, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act is more important than ever to waterfowl and hunters
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.

Where Does the Money Come From? 
NAWCA's federal funding comes from a variety of sources, and one of the most important is federal appropriations (i.e., your tax dollars). Other sources of funding, which together typically have generated an amount of money roughly equal to appropriations, include the interest on dedicated taxes that sportsmen pay through the purchase of firearms, ammunition, and fishing tackle; and federal fuel excise taxes on small gasoline engines such as boat motors.  

As its name implies, NAWCA supports projects across North America, requiring that some funding is provided for projects outside the United States. Throughout NAWCA's history, the council has directed about 45 percent of eligible funding to projects in Canada, 5 percent to Mexico, and the remainder to projects in the United States. Another important catalyst for NAWCA partnerships is the act's requirement that federal funding used in Canada and Mexico be matched with some nonfederal funding from U.S. sources. These two stipulations create a shared obligation for U.S.-based partners to generate nonfederal funding for Canadian and Mexican projects to balance conservation efforts in the United States. Congress thereby implicitly recognized the importance of taking care of waterfowl and other wetland-associated migratory birds throughout their continental range. DU and its state conservation agency partners have been and continue to be the principal providers of U.S.-based funding for NAWCA projects outside the United States.    
 
Celebrating NAWCA's Success
Twenty-five years after the legislation became law, NAWCA's partnership- and incentive-based approach has succeeded beyond anyone's dreams. Through late 2013, $1.24 billion in federal NAWCA funding has flowed to wetland projects across North America. Notably, although the act requires only a 1:1 match, its federal funding has leveraged over $3.4 billion in contributions from partners. Together, NAWCA and partner funds have contributed to the conservation of 26.9 million acres of wetlands and associated habitats across this continent, an area larger than the state of Tennessee. More than 2,300 wetland conservation projects, involving over 5,000 separate partners, provide clear evidence of the broad-based interest in and support for the program. More important, this level of continuing success stands as a clear indication of the benefits resulting directly from the act's foundation in and commitment to the importance of private-state-federal-international partnerships dedicated to wetlands conservation. 

This phenomenal success, and the importance of NAWCA to wetlands conservation, is apparent today. More than 1,500 projects have been completed in the United States, positively impacting almost 8 million acres throughout all 50 states. In Canada, 145 partners have collaboratively delivered 512 projects in 13 provinces and territories, contributing to the conservation of more than 16 million acres, largely in the key waterfowl production areas of the Prairie Pothole Region and Western Boreal Forest. The Mexican NAWCA program has completed 268 projects in 31 states, affecting 3.25 million acres. And thanks to the generosity of all its supporters and members, Ducks Unlimited has been a significant NAWCA partner across North America.   

NAWCA, Waterfowl, and the Future
What has all this meant to waterfowl populations? Certainly, as many waterfowl hunters know, populations of most species are in dramatically better shape now than when the act was signed in 1989. There can be no doubt that extensive and diverse NAWCA-delivered habitat, and the underlying partnerships that put those acres on the ground, have significantly benefited waterfowl conservation in many ways. However, an unusually long period of wet weather and good habitat conditions for waterfowl production on the breeding grounds has played the most significant role in the resurgence of waterfowl populations.

Nevertheless, NAWCA projects are a key part of the vast, complex, and interconnected "safety net" that sustains continental waterfowl populations. As we celebrate the successes and progress made during NAWCA's first 25 years, we cannot afford to rest. We must maintain the partnerships that keep the NAWCA program vital and successful—and whether you know it or not, every DU member is an important partner in that effort. As long as we all work together to grow the strength and breadth of these partnerships, we can look forward to many more productive years of wetlands conservation through NAWCA. 


Dr. Scott Yaich is national director of conservation planning and policy at DU headquarters in Memphis.

NAWCA NEEDS YOUR SUPPORT The longevity, success, and broad bipartisan congressional support that NAWCA has achieved during its first 25 years is a remarkable legislative achievement. But this didn't happen by accident. NAWCA's continued success will require ongoing stewardship to maintain its support and effectiveness. Congress must reauthorize NAWCA every five years, and sets funding levels for the act every year. With so many other issues competing for congressional attention and federal funding, we must remind our elected officials regularly how important NAWCA is to us and all the good things this legislation is doing for conservation, recreation, and the economy. DU's website has a page (ducks.org/nawca) dedicated to keeping its supporters informed about the status and needs of NAWCA. This page also provides links to make it easy for you to contact your legislators. Whether you call, email, or visit your senators and representatives when they are back home, your advocacy is important and will translate into more congressional support for NAWCA, wetlands on the landscape, and ducks in the skies.