Conservation: Anatomy of a DU Project

A bird's-eye view of the wetland restoration process from beginning to end
—By Ryan Heiniger

The stars and stripes whipped in the southerly breeze, courting pintails performed impressive aerial maneuvers, and skeins of snow geese sailed northward against the prairie sky. The spectacle of the spring migration was in full display in Nebraska's Rainwater Basin. In addition to saying goodbye to winter, there was another reason to celebrate—a new Ducks Unlimited wetland restoration project was being dedicated. 

Each DU project is its own unique success story. But before restoration plans are drafted and the first shovels of dirt are moved, DU's conservation work always begins with the hard work and generosity of its dedicated volunteers and members. Each year, DU volunteers organize and host more than 4,000 fundraising events, where legions of DU members "fill the halls" and generously contribute their hard-earned money to support conservation. 

Many DU supporters go a step further in their commitment to the future of wetlands and waterfowl by becoming a Major Sponsor or making an estate gift through the Feather Society. While many donors give cash, securities, or stock, land and other assets can also be donated to DU in support of wetlands and waterfowl conservation. Membership dues, major gifts, proceeds from events, and donations and revenue from corporate partners and licensees compose the majority of DU's private funding. DU also leverages these funds many times over with grants and contracts from state and federal agencies and other partners. 

All of DU's conservation work is guided by its strategic plan. Using the best available science, DU has identified the landscapes and habitats that are most important to the health of North America's waterfowl populations and ranked them according to priority. When evaluating proposed projects, DU considers their location and their potential contribution to the goals outlined in the strategic plan. In the Rainwater Basin, for example, DU focuses on providing high-quality foraging habitat during the spring migration, thereby allowing waterfowl to rest and refuel before continuing their journey to the Prairie Pothole Region, the western boreal forest, and points north. 

After a proposed project has been approved by DU's conservation staff and leadership, the next step is to assemble a team of experts to deliver the work on the ground. For example, land protection specialists and attorneys typically take the lead in projects involving land acquisitions and conservation easements. In traditional wetland restoration and enhancement projects, an array of conservation professionals—including biologists, land surveyors, civil engineers, hydrologists, and construction managers—work together as a team. 

Let's take a look at how our featured project in the Rainwater Basin became a reality. In the first phase of this project, a professional land surveyor conducted a topographic elevation survey of the project site using cutting-edge Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. Thousands of data points were collected and used to produce a detailed topographic map that served as a general blueprint for the project. 
Restoring Rainwater Basin Wetlands Nebraska's Rainwater Basin is among North America's most important waterfowl staging areas. Each year an estimated 9 million waterfowl stop to rest and refuel in this region on their way north to their breeding grounds in the Prairie Pothole Region, western boreal forest, and Arctic. Unfortunately, the Rainwater Basin has lost 90 percent of its original wetlands, forcing staging waterfowl to crowd into impressive, yet dangerously large concentrations on the region's remaining wetlands.  
Under the umbrella of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, DU is working with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Nebraska Environmental Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, private landowners, and many other partners to restore vital spring staging wetlands in the Rainwater Basin. To date, DU and its partners have protected 7,700 acres of wetlands and adjacent uplands, and restored or enhanced 20,000 acres of wetlands in this region, with much more conservation work to come.

Next an engineer investigated the watershed, hydrology, soils, and other physical features of the project area, and working in consultation with a biologist, determined what needed to be done on the ground to restore the wetland to a healthy, functional state. In this case, the wetland was restored by building embankments, installing water-control structures, and filling a pit excavated long ago by a previous landowner. The bioengineering team also recommended drilling a well to ensure that the wetland would have water—and provide habitat for waterfowl—during periods of drought. 

This information was then incorporated into a detailed restoration plan, which included cost estimates for each phase of the project. At this point, DU held a meeting with its key agency partner, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and neighboring landowners to give them an opportunity to offer input and make recommendations. Depending on the size of the project, a larger stakeholder meeting or formal public hearing is sometimes held to gather additional input and build community support. Participating in these meetings is another way that DU members can further support our conservation work on a local and regional level. 

The next time you see a flock of ducks or geese, whether you are five miles or 500 miles from the nearest Ducks Unlimited project, rest assured that your contributions are directly responsible for helping to fill the skies with waterfowl, today, tomorrow and forever.

When the project design was finalized, necessary permits requested and received, and funding secured from partners including the North American Wetlands Conservation Council and the Nebraska Environmental Trust, DU hired an independent contractor to implement the restoration plan after advertising the project on the DU website and accepting competitive bids. Next a DU construction manager was deployed to ensure that the restoration plan was precisely implemented and all specifications were followed. After years of planning and fundraising, ground was finally broken on this project in the fall, and heavy construction equipment was used to restore the natural hydrology of this Rainwater Basin wetland. When the earthwork was completed, DU, its agency partner, and the contractor conducted a final inspection of the project to verify that all design elements were in place. 

A few months later, snowmelt filled the restored wetland basin, providing productive new habitat for waterfowl and a variety of other wildlife. But this wetland restoration project was not yet complete. A dedication ceremony was scheduled to say thanks to DU's many partners, and especially to its volunteers and members, who helped make it all possible.  

The day of the dedication finally arrived. The flags went up, and thankfully, the ducks and weather cooperated. The sight of water glistening in the restored wetland and a flyover by a flock of mallards were all that was really needed to motivate everyone in attendance to keep working "for the ducks."

So the next time you see a flock of ducks or geese, whether you are five miles or 500 miles from the nearest Ducks Unlimited project, rest assured that your contributions are directly responsible for helping to fill the skies with waterfowl, today, tomorrow and forever. 


Ryan Heiniger is director of conservation programs at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota. 

Volunteer Today Volunteering for Ducks Unlimited is a great way to have fun, make new friends, and support our vital wetlands and waterfowl habitat conservation work. DU's dedicated volunteers are the heart and soul of the organization, planning, hosting, and managing more than 4,000 local fundraising events across the nation each year. By selling raffle tickets, gathering donations, securing sponsorships, contacting government officials, and putting together some great parties, DU volunteers generate more than $38 million and recruit more than 300,000 DU members each year. To join our team of nearly 50,000 DU volunteers and become a leader in wetlands conservation, visit the DU website today at www.ducks.org/volunteer.