Public Policy, Waterfowl, and You

DU members can make a big difference for waterfowl by becoming actively engaged in public-policy decisions

DU CEO Dale Hall, Sen. Scott Brown and Fran Rich
U.S. Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts (center) recently met with DU CEO Dale Hall and Fran Rich, a member of DU's Conservation Programs Committee, in Washington, D.C., to discuss wetland conservation issues. Photo by Chris Jennings, DU.

As you read this, 2010's waterfowl nesting season is winding down. Most of this year's ducklings have already hatched and some are even learning to fly. To successfully nest and raise their young, waterfowl need healthy wetlands and associated upland habitat on the breeding grounds. Ducks Unlimited works with farmers, ranchers, government agencies, and many other partners to protect and restore these vital habitats on the prairies and in other high-priority areas. DU's hard-working and dedicated volunteers are the backbone of the grassroots fund-raising network that enables DU to put this habitat on the ground. Another important component of DU's conservation work that also depends on grassroots support is public policy.

For more than 20 years, DU's governmental affairs staff has worked with the U.S. Congress, presidential administrations, and federal agencies to enact legislation and policies that restore and maintain healthy ecosystems for waterfowl and other wildlife. DU's goal is to foster policies that ensure breeding grounds are healthy and sufficient migration and wintering habitat exists to support waterfowl at key times in their annual cycle. DU continues on that path in 2010.

Much has happened in the public-policy arena over the past few months that could have a significant impact on DU's conservation mission. Following are DU's top public-policy priorities in 2010 and the most recent developments on these issues of vital importance to wetlands and waterfowl:

Maintaining adequate funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA)

Many DU members heeded the call this spring to contact their congressmen and senators in support of maintaining NAWCA funding at last year's level. Among the most successful conservation programs in history, NAWCA has been responsible for conserving more than 25 million acres of wetlands and associated upland habitat across North America. Unfortunately, this year NAWCA is threatened with a 10 percent funding cut. Because of NAWCA's matching component, every federal dollar this program loses represents an additional three- to four-dollar loss for waterfowl conservation. A 10 percent cut in federal NAWCA dollars would result in a reduction of $15-$20 million in conservation funding. This would have a significant impact on conservation progress being made on the ground for waterfowl and other wildlife.

It's imperative that DU members make their voices heard on this issue by contacting the senators and congressmen who make funding decisions on Capitol Hill. Go to the DU website at www.ducks.org/nawca for a list of these elected officials and step-by-step instructions on how you can contact them. Please help the ducks by speaking up now in support of maintaining NAWCA funding at last year's level.

Increasing the buying power of the federal duck stamp

The federal duck stamp program has conserved more than 6 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the national wildlife refuge system. Since 1991, however, the price of the stamp has held steady at $15 while land prices have skyrocketed. A recent analysis found that land values in South Dakota's prairie pothole country have increased sevenfold since the last federal duck stamp price increase. Bipartisan legislation that would increase the price of the federal duck stamp to $25 is pending in Congress. Additional funds generated by this price increase would only be used in areas of crucial importance to waterfowl, ensuring a good return on sportsmen's investment.

Protecting prairie potholes and other wetlands

Wetlands such as those in the Prairie Pothole Region are not only vital to waterfowl and other wildlife but also purify drinking water supplies and help control flooding. Last year, the U.S. Senate passed the Clean Water Restoration Act out of committee. This legislation would restore Clean Water Act protection to "geographically isolated" wetlands while excluding previously farmed lands. In April, Congressman Jim Oberstar introduced a modified bill that has gone to committee for review.

As in the past, DU members must make their voices heard to meet our public-policy goals in 2010 and achieve a duck-friendly Farm Bill in 2012.


Implementing the Open Fields program

Ducks Unlimited and partners were successful in establishing an "Open Fields" program in the 2008 Farm Bill. This program is designed to support voluntary, state-run initiatives that pay private landowners to allow hunting or fishing access on their property. This program has the potential to open thousands of acres of private lands to public hunting and fishing, which will also provide an economic boost for rural communities. Rural areas are the primary beneficiaries of more than $75 billion that sportsmen contribute to the nation's economy each year.

To help ensure that $50 million in funding for Open Fields is used before the program expires in 2012, DU has made repeated requests to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expedite publication of a required rule. This proposed rule is expected to be published in the federal register soon, allowing state fish and wildlife agencies to submit grant applications for Open Fields funding in their states.

Beginning work on the 2012 Farm Bill

In the upcoming Farm Bill, Ducks Unlimited will continue to emphasize protection and restoration of grasslands and wetlands in the prairie pothole states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and Iowa. The last Farm Bill lowered the acreage cap on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from 39.2 million acres to 32 million acres. The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) has lost nearly 1.6 million acres of CRP land since 2007, and another 2.8 million acres are set to expire by 2012. Without action from USDA, more than 52 percent of CRP acres in the PPR will disappear by 2012. Biologists expect that the loss of this waterfowl breeding habitat will have a significant impact on waterfowl production in the United States.

On a positive note, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has committed to maintaining CRP enrollment at close to 32 million acres and recently announced plans for a general CRP sign-up in 2010. Secretary Vilsack has also allocated an additional 50,000 acres to the Duck Nesting Habitat Initiative, a continuous CRP practice that is focused on areas of the PPR that attract the highest densities of breeding ducks. This announcement by Secretary Vilsack raises the enrollment cap for this initiative to 150,000 acres. DU is working to maximize CRP enrollment in the PPR.

The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), which compensates farmers and ranchers who retire flood-prone croplands, will continue to be a major public-policy priority for DU. Changes to WRP in the last Farm Bill created some confusion, discouraging enrollment in this important waterfowl habitat program. However, following a recent commitment from Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Dave White, WRP enrollment increased from approximately 70,000 acres between 2006 and 2008 to more than 180,000 acres in 2009.

NRCS also expects WRP participation to increase in 2010, which is good news for waterfowl and other wildlife. But for WRP to reach maximum enrollment, the agency will need to secure additional funding and work more closely with DU and others to fully implement the program. Achieving maximum enrollment in WRP becomes even more critical as the new Farm Bill approaches, as it allows us to demonstrate a strong need to continue the program and perhaps even expand it. DU is working with Congress and NRCS to secure additional funding for WRP technical assistance now as well as in the 2012 Farm Bill.

As in the past, DU members must make their voices heard to meet our public-policy goals in 2010 and achieve a duck-friendly Farm Bill in 2012. Join the Governmental Affairs Team today at www.ducks.org/policyteam to keep informed about the latest news and become actively involved in important public-policy issues for waterfowl.

—Caroline Garrett, Conservation Policy Specialist at Ducks Unlimited's Governmental Affairs Office, Washington, D.C.