The Power of Partnerships

Conserving North America's wetlands and waterfowl is a team effort involving a variety of players

By Becky Humphries and Gildo Tori
Throughout Ducks Unlimited's 75-year history, we have maintained a steadfast commitment to protecting and restoring North America's most important waterfowl habitats. And DU would not have been able to accomplish all that we have for wetlands and waterfowl without the cooperation and support of our many partners. Partnerships help DU leverage our supporters' hard-earned dollars with funds from other sources and maximize different capabilities and talents to achieve results that are truly exceptional. In fact, Ducks Unlimited rarely completes a conservation project on its own. Our conservation work usually involves at least one partner, and typically more. 

DU's partners run the gamut from individual donors and corporations to other conservation organizations and government agencies. Partners contribute to conservation projects in a variety of ways. Contributions can include the use of a piece of land for a project site, technical expertise for work on the ground, community support for a particular project, long-term management of the completed project, and of course cash to help cover the cost. 

State fish and wildlife agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are among DU's most important governmental partners. These agencies not only provide financial support for DU's conservation work, but also often own the land on which many of our projects are located. DU has completed thousands of habitat projects on state and federal lands, but we wouldn't have been able to complete any of them without the cooperation and support of these land-managing agencies. Working together, DU and our state and federal agency partners have built an extensive habitat network that not only helps sustain waterfowl but also benefits other wetland wildlife (more than 900 species have been documented on DU projects). In addition, sportsmen and other outdoor enthusiasts benefit immensely from this habitat, much of which is open to the public for hunting, fishing, and other forms of recreation.

Farmers, ranchers, and other private landowners have always been among DU's most valued partners. These land stewards work with us by protecting wetlands and other wildlife habitats on their property with conservation easements and by enrolling land in government programs such as the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Private landowners who voluntarily dedicate a portion of their property to wildlife habitat, forgoing other uses, are incredibly generous and important conservation supporters. Through its public policy work, DU helps ensure that federal and state funds are available to landowners who wish to enroll in conservation programs like WRP and CRP, and that tax laws are structured to reward landowners for good conservation stewardship.  

These partnerships support what is known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which has its roots in more than a century's work by sportsmen and other dedicated conservationists. At the heart of the model is the idea that wildlife is public property and as such is a shared resource that must be conserved for the greater good. Partnerships are the glue that holds this collective conservation ethic together. 

A Blueprint for Conservation 

A spirit of collaboration is prevalent throughout the waterfowl conservation community. Nowhere is this more evident than in the blueprint for waterfowl conservation on this continent—the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP). Signed by the United States and Canada in 1986 and later by Mexico, NAWMP was launched with the ambitious goal of reversing declining waterfowl numbers by protecting and restoring a habitat base sufficient to sustain healthy populations. To accomplish this goal, the plan called for a landscape-level approach to conservation on a continental scale, which necessitated international cooperation across North America. The plan also encouraged an array of partnerships in both the public and private sectors, establishing a spirit of cooperation that has resulted in more waterfowl across this continent. Because of its success, NAWMP has also served as a model for other conservation initiatives worldwide. And Ducks Unlimited has been proud to foster and support the spirit of participation and cooperation that is the foundation of NAWMP. 

To help bring the plan's partnership concept to life, NAWMP supporters worked with the U.S. Congress to pass the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA). Since 1989, more than 4,500 NAWCA partners have collaborated on over 2,060 conservation projects and conserved upward of 26 million acres of habitat in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The program encourages public-private cost-sharing partnerships that match every federal dollar provided by NAWCA with an average of more than three dollars from nonfederal sources. 

In true partnerships, all the parties involved benefit. This is certainly the case with NAWCA. Taxpayers get "more bang for their buck," as public funds are used to leverage an even greater investment from the private sector, resulting in conservation of many more acres of wetlands than would otherwise be possible. And the benefits extend beyond waterfowl, duck hunters, and the broader public, as each year an estimated 7,500 new jobs are created through this wetlands conservation program. 

Ducks Unlimited has been a partner in the majority of NAWCA projects completed across North America. In many states, DU has become the NAWCA broker for large coalitions of partners working together on wetland conservation. These partners rely on DU's staff of professional biologists, scientists, engineers, policy experts, and others to assist them in a wide range of conservation projects. In many cases, DU acts as the grantee, helping other partners accomplish a variety of specialized tasks, including land acquisition, wetland and grassland restoration, invasive species management, and habitat enhancement, as well as accounting and fundraising.

Promoting Sound Public Policy DU's ability to influence public policy has a direct impact on our ability to fulfill our conservation mission. Successful government programs like the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and Wetlands Reserve Program began as policy initiatives. And the legislation behind these programs would not have passed without the support of waterfowl hunters and other conservationists who made their voices heard in the nation's capital. DU's Governmental Affairs Office in Washington, D.C., and our regional policy directors (including DU staff and volunteers) often meet with legislators to share the DU story and inform them about the need to support wetlands and waterfowl conservation programs. But DU can only do so much on its own to influence public policy, which is why we work with an array of coalitions and partner organizations that share our goals. Organizations such as the American Wildlife Conservation Partners, Healing Our Waters Coalition, and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership regularly join DU in a collective call for conservation that carries farther in the halls of Congress than would any single voice.

Forming New Partnerships

The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC) is another example of the power of conservation partnerships. This program was established in 2004 when President George W. Bush issued an executive order creating a task force that brought together more than 1,500 organizations and individuals to provide strategic direction for restoring the Great Lakes watershed. In an amazing testament to the effectiveness of working collectively, a plan was produced in less than a year. 

In 2010, Congress and President Obama provided hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the GLRC's strategic plan by creating the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). This initiative enlists the cooperation of federal, tribal, state, municipal, business, environmental, and conservation organizations. DU has been a major partner in the GLRI as well as in an affiliated group, the Healing Our Waters Coalition, which works to maintain funding and focus on Great Lakes restoration projects. In cooperation with these groups and more than 30 other partners, DU has already received 25 grants to conserve tens of thousands of acres of Great Lakes habitat vital to waterfowl, other wildlife, and regional water quality. 

Wetland restoration projects are complex undertakings, demanding more resources, talents, and strengths than any single organization can contribute on its own. Consider, for example, the Black Creek Filter Marsh project in western Michigan. DU's partners in this GLRI-funded project included the Mona Lake Watershed Council, the Muskegon County Drain Commissioner, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the NRCS, Pheasants Forever, the Muskegon County Wastewater Facility, and the Annis Water Institute, among others. These diverse groups contributed money, expertise, and services to restore wetlands, filter 30 square miles of farm runoff, improve grassland nesting habitat, and improve water quality downstream in Mona Lake. By working together, these partners not only accomplished their own missions, but also had a collective impact on the resource that is far greater than what any one partner could have accomplished by itself. 

Celebrating with Our Partners 

As we celebrate 75 years of conservation success this year, DU's many partners are joining the party. Over the past 75 years, the evolution of DU and the broader campaign for wetlands has been nothing short of amazing. What started as the dream of a few visionary waterfowl hunters has become the shared commitment of some 600,000 DU members and volunteers, as well as millions of other conservationists. 

While DU relies on the individual dedication of each of its members, collectively these same members form a force that can't be ignored. The sum of their passion, creativity, and ingenuity is what drives DU forward. The same is true of our partnerships. Our partners inspire us to think creatively, dream bigger dreams, and achieve results that would be unattainable without their help. 

A Case Study in Conservation In 2010, DU received a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant of $783,823 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's (NFWF) Sustain Our Great Lakes Program to enhance 75 acres of coastal marsh in Manistee County, Michigan. To secure NFWF's backing, DU and its main project partner and owner of the marsh, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC), expanded the scope of this project to solicit additional support and develop a truly ecosystem-based conservation partnership. 

Habitat work included restoration of a one-mile section of Bowens Creek that flows through Arcadia Marsh. The Conservation Resource Alliance (CRA) and Manistee County Road Commission joined the effort by replacing several culverts that drained into Arcadia Marsh, restoring more than 10 miles of fish passage for trout and other cold-water fish species. In the future, fish habitat will be enhanced by placing woody structure in the restored stream channel, invasive species will be controlled, and native wetland plants will be restored. A comprehensive project-monitoring effort led by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and GTRLC will be conducted to ensure that all habitat restoration objectives are achieved. In the end, many potential stumbling blocks were transformed into opportunities, thanks to the power of partnerships.


Becky Humphries is director of operations and Gildo Tori is director of public policy at DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Regional Office in Ann Arbor, Michigan.