DU to the Rescue

Throughout the past 80 years, Ducks Unlimited has risen to the challenge of saving North America's wetlands and waterfowl

By Michael Furtman

Put yourself in their shoes. Many duck hunters believed that they were witnessing the end of their sport. The great flights that had once swept down from the north had dwindled. The autumn frost still came. The anticipation that every waterfowler feels on those first cold nights still came. The close-knit groups of hunters carrying gear into the marshes still came. But the ducks did not.

It was 1937, and the world was in the midst of the Great Depression. The devastating drought that had started seven years earlier had yet to relinquish its grip on the Prairie Pothole Region. The ducks were suffering their own depression, wrought by the drought and the drainage of their prairie breeding grounds. It was those dual disasters of drought and drainage that gave birth to Ducks Unlimited, an organization for which the need is still as great today as it was 80 years ago.

As dire as the situation was at the founding of Ducks Unlimited, some might say that today's waterfowl and waterfowlers face even greater challenges, which will require all of us to be as daring as DU's determined founders. The main culprit in the duck decline of the Dirty Thirties was drought. When water eventually returned, there was still abundant nesting habitat. But now ducks have far less of that habitat, and wetlands have been reduced in number and quality the length of the flyways. What would happen if today's ducks also faced a severe drought on their primary breeding grounds? Is there a way to build more resilience into the system?

Such questions were foremost on the minds of DU leaders when the organization's 75th anniversary rolled around in 2012. The time had come to launch another bold initiative for wetlands and waterfowl conservation: Rescue Our Wetlands. The multibillion-dollar effort to save vital waterfowl habitat across North America is the most ambitious campaign in DU history and one of the largest ever undertaken by a conservation organization. The goal? To raise $2 billion by the end of 2018 to ensure that key waterfowl habitats across an entire continent are conserved. 

Since the campaign's launch, $1.62 billion has been raised toward this continental goal and DU has conducted conservation activities on more than 1.4 million acres across North America. Additionally, DU and its partners have positively influenced millions of acres of vital waterfowl habitat in the Boreal Forest. These efforts include not only Ducks Unlimited Inc., but also Ducks Unlimited Canada, Ducks Unlimited de Mexico, and Wetlands America Trust. And as the campaign moves toward its final phase, broad-based support from all members of the DU family is essential. 

While we look to the past for inspiration and embrace the great accomplishments of those who went before us, the future of wetlands and waterfowl conservation is in our hands. History will judge us, too, by how we handle our obligations and responsibilities toward these precious natural resources. Let's make sure that those who follow in our footsteps will be just as inspired by our vision, hard work, and dedication as we have been by the efforts of past DU members, volunteers, and supporters.

Waterfowl Forever

Ducks Unlimited owes its very existence to a bold plan hatched by its founders as they sat in a lodge on the banks of New York's Beaverkill River in 1936. They had just slogged through another nearly duckless autumn. But they didn't simply complain. They were about to do something no one had ever done before: create an organization that would manage habitat on a massive scale to benefit species that spanned an entire continent.

These insightful men had already formed and funded an organization known as the More Game Birds in America Foundation, which had laid out a 10-year plan of action for increasing the number of upland game birds. Sitting at the fishing camp of the hard-charging, never-take-no-for-an-answer Joseph Palmer Knapp, the men discussed possible names for an organization that would restore duck numbers. With Knapp at the lodge were John C. Huntington, Arthur M. Bartley, and Ray E. Benson. 

Important to this discussion is the fact that these men already knew that in order to bring back the ducks they would have to concentrate their work on the Canadian prairies. And in order to operate in Canada, or to be able to purchase or own land there, the new organization would need to be incorporated according to Canadian laws. 

After a few names were bandied about, such as "More Ducks," Knapp suggested simply "Ducks." Bartley reminded him that in Canada, corporations are legally designated as "Limited," which would mean that the new organization would be incorporated as "Ducks, Limited." Knapp, who had a quick temper, immediately snapped at Bartley, "Dammit, we don't want limited ducks!"

At which point Bartley retorted, "Ducks Unlimited, then." And it stuck.

The plan was laid—raise money for the ducks from American waterfowlers through Ducks Unlimited Inc. and put it to work on the Canadian prairies, where most of the nesting habitat is located, through DU Canada. Initially, the founders believed that the job of rebuilding duck populations could be done in just five years by restoring a million or more acres of nesting habitat and wetlands. To accomplish this, they planned to raise $600,000 per year from members.

The goal was to organize a Ducks Unlimited committee in each state, under the guidance of a competent state chairman, assisted by one or more vice chairmen and a variety of officers. Each state committee had a financial target it had to accept and try to meet. And so, something very similar to today's DU chapter structure was born. From the onset, it was completely volunteer driven.

In order to fuel the growth of DU, excitement needed to be generated in every corner of America where duck hunters lived. But actual membership in the organization remained small compared to the number of hunters venturing afield each autumn. It wasn't until the 1960s that efforts turned toward mobilizing more of America's stable and prosperous middle class. In 1965, Dale Whitesell was hired to lead DU, and he in turn hired regional directors to help volunteer members grow their chapters. 

Prior to 1965, Ducks Unlimited had never been able to raise $1 million in a given year. Within 10 years, however, DU would raise $10 million in a single year and the organization's ranks would soar to more than 200,000 members. It was during this period that the immensely successful fundraising tool of membership dinners was born. These dinners became the engine that powered DU's phenomenal growth through the 1970s and 1980s.

From the very beginning, every gain made by DU has come through the contributions of its volunteers, members, and supporters. Today's DU members are living up to the legacy and example of the founders and volunteers that preceded them by securing $476 million thus far for the Waterfowl Forever priority of Rescue Our Wetlands—one event, one member, and one corporate sponsor at a time. 

Breeding Landscapes

DU's founders knew that the key to abundant waterfowl populations was healthy breeding habitat. This may seem obvious to us today, but consider that in the 1930s, the science of wildlife management was in its infancy. States, provinces, and even federal governments in the United States and Canada were only just beginning to hire trained biologists. Yet these audacious men sought to manage ducks on a landscape level, spanning the Canadian prairie!

The immediate issue was to restore water to the drought-ravaged landscape. While the amount of drainage that had occurred to that point in time was small compared to what would come, it was significant because it had removed some of the more permanent wetland complexes that waterfowl had relied on in years when small potholes were dry. 

The science that drove these early projects was more engineering than biology. In order to put a stopper in the drainage bottle, DU began building dams and other water-control structures to get water back onto the land. And because the local people had also suffered through the same drought, and had come to regret some of this drainage, the work was welcomed by not just the ducks. 

DU's first project, the restoration of Big Grass Marsh, was completed in just eight months during 1938. Once known as Big Lake, the area had been drained in 1916 as part of a plan to "reclaim" 100,000 acres for agriculture. The land turned out to be unsuitable for farming, and to make matters worse, it contained deep deposits of peat, which had somehow caught fire and began filling the Manitoba skies with noxious smoke. As with many of today's projects, the restoration of Big Grass Marsh brought not only tangible benefits for waterfowl, but also real relief for people, bringing an end to the smoldering peat fires and providing water for livestock. Other big projects rapidly followed, including Waterhen Marsh near Kinistino, Saskatchewan, and Many Island Lake northeast of Medicine Hat, Alberta. 

For decades the original DU formula of raising money in the United States and restoring habitat in Canada was successful and helped keep duck numbers stable. But eventually the organization's membership voiced concerns at the loss of habitat they were witnessing closer to home. New technology and equipment had brought an onslaught of drainage and plowing to the U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region.

In 1983, Ducks Unlimited announced that for the first time, funds would be spent to conserve waterfowl habitat inside the United States. Initial efforts were concentrated on the prairie states, where the majority of the ducks hatched in America are produced. Once DU began to focus on the U.S. side of the equation, it also became clear that influencing federal policy could produce more ducks than hundreds of on-the-ground projects would, leading DU to become a strong voice in the Farm Bill and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, two federal programs that put millions of acres of prime waterfowl habitat back on the landscape. DU's bet on focusing on U.S. habitat had paid off—big time.

Over the years, it had become apparent that significant numbers of waterfowl are also produced in "the other duck factory," the Boreal Forest. North America's Boreal Forest is the world's largest remaining intact, productive ecosystem, encompassing more than 1.5 billion acres of pristine forests, wetlands, lakes, rivers, and streams. A keystone habitat for this hemisphere's migratory waterfowl and songbird populations, it also supports vast populations of fish and other wildlife. 

But the Boreal Forest, like the Prairie Pothole Region, is changing rapidly as a variety of natural resources development expands across the region. To ensure skies full of ducks for the future, funds from Rescue Our Wetlands are being used to conserve this vital ecosystem. To date, the campaign has secured $475 million for the Breeding Landscapes priority so that ducks have the nesting habitats they need in order to thrive. 

Wintering and Migration Landscapes

Growing ducks is a good thing. But it's not enough. At the same time that DU began working on the American prairies, members were quick to point out that once the birds left their breeding grounds, they needed places to rest and winter. And these places needed DU's attention too.

Chesapeake Bay had grown polluted, with little food for its once-famous flights of canvasbacks. Bottomland hardwood forests and swamps in the South, places crucial to wintering mallards and cherished by hunters, had been cleared and drained. Important wintering wetlands in coastal Louisiana and Texas were eroding away, thanks to the construction of levees, oil and gas exploration canals, and shipping and navigation channels, as well as other factors such as development and pollution. California's Central Valley was losing waterfowl wintering habitat at a staggering rate. Migration habitats in the upper Midwest were polluted, developed, or altered in ways that left ducks with fewer places to stop and rest, and provided only lower-quality foods that could not build up the reserves the birds needed. 

It was time once again for DU to roll up its sleeves. To do the work needed at such local levels, the organization began creating regional offices. The first opened in the Great Plains region in 1984, and others followed in subsequent years in the West, South, and Great Lakes regions. As DU had done so successfully in Canada for decades, these offices began working with local landowners and other concerned conservationists to solve the problems facing migration and wintering habitats in every flyway. Consider, for example, DU's efforts in the Central Valley of California. Flooding rice fields in winter, restoring wetland complexes, and creating new wetlands near population centers to demonstrate their value to people as well as wildlife would be the mainstays of DU's efforts there. Under the auspices of a new program called Valley Care, DU began to work with farmers to promote sustainable agricultural techniques.

Improving and conserving vital migration habitat in the Rainwater Basin of Nebraska also became a priority, as did safeguarding wintering habitat on Mexico's Gulf and Pacific coasts. Similarly, priority plans were developed for the U.S. Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast. The threats to wetlands in the Pacific Northwest in the form of pollution and human population growth also demanded attention.

Under Rescue Our Wetlands, volunteers, staff, and partners are working together to save the most important wetlands in these high-priority areas before it is too late. So far, the campaign has raised $375 million and conserved tens of thousands of acres to protect the continent's highest-priority waterfowl migration and wintering habitats.

Conservation Legacy

There's little doubt that DU's visionary founders would be proud of what the organization has accomplished to date. They would also be quick to recognize that there is still much to be done. In their time, there was the very real possibility that duck hunting would cease to exist. Think about that for a moment. What would it mean to you if you could no longer hunt ducks? 

We are not faced with such an immediate threat, but we are not immune to it either. Drought will return to the prairies. Development will continue to encroach on important habitats north, south, east, and west. As habitat is chipped away, these places become not only smaller but less resilient and ultimately even more vital to waterfowl. How will we continue to protect and restore the essential pieces of the puzzle that will ensure huntable fall flights forever? 

To help answer that question, DU created the Conservation Legacy priority of Rescue Our Wetlands. Think of it as a rainy-day fund, and as a gift that keeps on giving. DU has already secured $184 million in legacy commitments, which will help ensure the long-term financial stability of the organization. In addition to supporting this endowment fund, individuals can leave their own conservation legacy by including DU in their estate plans.

Conservation Education

The legacy of DU isn't just wetlands and waterfowl conservation. From our work comes the pride of knowing that every other creature that shares the habitats that ducks use also has benefited from our efforts. And whether they know it or not, the general public has likewise reaped the rewards of reduced flooding and cleaner water that wetlands provide. Over the years, DU has made its best effort to ensure that its members understand the broader values of healthy wetlands and other ecosystems. And now through DU's Greenwing, Varsity, and University programs, the work of fostering the next generation of conservationists is well under way. 

Waterfowlers are passionate about their sport. They have to be. There are easier ways, after all, to spend one's time outdoors. That passion for ducks, wetlands, and all wildlife is something that we now need to pass along and perpetuate. We need a young generation that's passionate about waterfowl and wetlands, but our message must reach and resonate with our nonhunting friends, too. 

There's the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Knapp and other early DU legends set two goals: grow a passionate membership base, and use the money those members contributed and raised to restore and protect habitat.

That sounds just like the goals of Rescue Our Wetlands. Going into our 80th year, this campaign and those that will surely follow will continue the conservation legacy of DU's founders. It is time to show that this generation of waterfowlers has the same commitment and passion as those that preceded them. From its first work on the Canadian prairies, to expanding to the U.S. Great Plains, to working on migration and wintering habitats in all four flyways, each generation of DU members has recognized those important goals and stepped up to take on each challenge—with great success.