Conservation's Best Kept Secret

DU’s public policy efforts are more important than ever for wetlands and waterfowl

By Scott Sutherland

Recently, a friend who is a longtime DU staff member and volunteer saw an advertisement for a job vacancy in DU’s Washington, D.C., office and called me in alarm. He was concerned that we were doing something wrong. The position description contained the words “full-time lobbyist.” He insisted that DU could get into trouble if we lobbied and that it could jeopardize the organization’s nonprofit status.

Sometimes we joke that DU is the conservation world’s best kept secret. My friend’s call gave me the chance to share what sometimes seems like a secret, but shouldn’t be. Okay, are you ready for the secret, because here it comes: Ducks Unlimited has been “lobbying” almost since the organization was founded 70 years ago. Within limits, it’s perfectly legal for nonprofits to lobby, and today DU expends extensive effort to work with our government to foster and fund programs that help safeguard the present and future for waterfowl.

Now let me clarify this a bit. By “lobbying,” I don’t mean that DU staff members are using conservation money to write $500 checks to attend political fundraisers. That’s only one aspect of lobbying, and as a nonprofit, we’re not allowed to do that. When we lobby, much of what we’re doing is helping to educate members of congress, state legislators, and their key staffs. This has been done (although less formally) for many decades when issues important to the waterfowl resource have arisen.

A little history is in order. In the late 1980s, DU’s board of directors realized how important the North American Waterfowl Management Plan was to the future of waterfowl. They wanted to encourage important decision makers to actively support it, so DU opened a Washington, D.C., office to educate Congress and others about the plan’s importance and hence obtain funding for the conservation activities that would be required to reach the plan’s goals. Many battles and many victories later, the governmental affairs office has become an integral part of DU, delivering opportunities to significantly fund waterfowl programs, promoting duck-friendly policies, and discouraging harmful ones.

Today, DU has a professional staff working in Washington, D.C., in the regional offices, and at headquarters that combines well over a century of experience working on Capitol Hill, on the White House staff, within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Interior, and within state agencies and legislatures.

Right now, we’re involved in over 30 issues that include helping to combat the most extensive wetland loss on the planet (the disappearing Louisiana coast), working to ease taxation of conservation easements, and obtaining funding that allows hunting and other active management on national wildlife refuges. And, of course, the governmental affairs office works on the critically important public policy issues with which DU members are most familiar, like the Farm Bill and North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA).

So what does this mean for the future? DU’s top scientists, our conservation planners, recently looked into their biological crystal ball to see what will work best for waterfowl over the next 25 years. They have created a “vision document” that explores the question: “What will it take to keep waterfowl populations at sustainable levels into the foreseeable future and beyond?”

Their first question was, “Is current conservation work getting the job done?” We all know that DU and our partners are doing lots of good work. Together we’re completing many projects, conducting significant scientific research, and achieving many important conservation accomplishments. But unfortunately, we also know that vital waterfowl habitat continues to be lost each year. So, is the conservation community just “buying time” for North America’s waterfowl by slowing their eventual demise? Where will that leave us in 25 years?

One of the primary conclusions DU’s planners reached is that we need to increase the energy and effort we’re putting into public policy. Wonderful things get accomplished for ducks on a project-by-project basis, but by fielding a team of waterfowl activists that can help save the Conservation Reserve Program, for example, we can help maintain 8 million acres in the heart of the most important duck breeding area in the United States. Every waterfowl enthusiast must be a part of this team so that our representatives in Congress will hear a loud and unified voice on behalf of our waterfowl resource.

It’s this simple: If we aren’t out on that governmental advocacy “playing field” advocating for waterfowl needs, we won’t be successful in securing the birds’ future. All the other special-interest groups in this country are out on that governmental playing field, and if we aren’t, the ducks will assuredly lose.

Now, we need to realize that a public policy effort requires some new thinking and new understanding. While we celebrate many victories in our partnership with government, we must also realize that the government is a many-headed dragon that sometimes works against itself. That may not make sense to taxpayers, but it happens every day. For example, DU works successfully to obtain federal government funds that perpetually conserve precious acres in the Prairie Pothole Region. Yet, at the same time, by dramatically raising the production goal for biofuels, the government fosters the plowing of more grassland in the same region and hence provides more competition for conservation efforts. Also, increased competition for land drives up the cost of protecting each acre.

So that’s it; now you know “the secret.” DU is doing lots of important work on public policy issues, and as was made clear by our senior scientists, we must do more if we are to win for the ducks.

For most of us, 25 years in the future seems a long way off. But oddly, when we think of 25 years in the past, 1982 seems like a short time ago. Think about this: We owe it to ourselves, but more importantly to our children, grandchildren, and future generations, to join together and fight to fix things. After all, the future we argue for now will be the one they will have to live with in 30 or 40 years. It’s not far off. Our work now will determine the duck seasons they will have. Our work now will determine their future.

Scott Sutherland is the director of DU’s governmental affairs office in Washington, D.C.