For the Ducks: 85 Years Strong

Throughout Ducks Unlimited's history, a shared passion for wetlands and waterfowl has fueled the organization's vitality and success

By Adam Putnam, DU CEO

Four score and five years ago, waterfowl conservation was transformed by the founding of Ducks Unlimited. The fledgling organization's name had been hatched the previous year during a gathering of four men at a fishing lodge on the banks of New York's Beaverkill River. They were visionaries who shared a common passion for hunting ducks and a zeal for ensuring they weren't the last generation to do so. The nation was in the grips of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, the ink was barely dry on legislation to raise money by selling duck stamps, and waterfowl populations across North America were in free fall.

The story goes that these founding members of ours, who included Joseph P. Knapp, Arthur M. Bartley, Ray E. Benson, and John C. Huntington, were discussing possible names for a new organization that would address the challenges facing waterfowl. When Knapp suggested that it should be named simply "Ducks," Bartley reminded him that in Canada, where the organization would be working to conserve crucial waterfowl breeding habitats, corporations are legally designated as "Limited." As a result, the new organization would be incorporated as "Ducks, Limited." Knapp, who was the group's indomitable leader, snapped at Bartley, "Dammit, we don't want limited ducks!" At which point Bartley replied, "Ducks Unlimited, then." And the rest, as they say, is history.

Much has changed over the decades since our humble founding just as some things have not. Our hunting clothes are lighter, warmer, drier, and costlier. Today's waders are a welcome improvement, but duck calls are still the "most effective conservation tool" in the hands of the untrained, to paraphrase author Nash Buckingham. Duck camp lies are the same, and the diets haven't changed much in calories or cholesterol, though I suspect the quality of bourbon in the evening has improved greatly. Collectors would pay a king's ransom for our great-grandfathers' old decoys, and today's motorized gadgets with batteries, wires, and remote controls might cause some head scratching among the old-timers.

For all the changes, the most important ingredient in the secret sauce of Ducks Unlimited remains the passion of our people. The common ground that unites waterfowlers across North America with corporate sustainability executives, city leaders, and other clean-water advocates is the timeless, selfless desire to leave the world better than we found it. DU volunteers are best in class, and the success of our work proves it.

Our original investment in recovering devastated waterfowl populations was limited to protecting prairie wetlands in Canada. In 1984 we began work inside the United States, and we can be proud of the more than 15 million acres of wetlands we've conserved and the nearly 1 billion acres of Boreal Forest we've worked with First Nations and other partners to protect. Our founders would be gratified to know their vision has scaled to conserving over half a million acres each year, yet undoubtedly they'd be saddened to know that we are still losing so many wetlands.

Remarkably, the platform they built to do good for the ducks has been resilient. The event fundraising system today is stronger than ever, having overcome recessions, wars, shifts in culture, and now Covid to be a model of how to reach people, raise dollars to invest in science-based priorities, and have fun doing it. These events across the nation come together because volunteers make it happen. All 45,000 of you.

The passion of our people, the generosity of our donors, and the common-sense solutions our science and engineering teams deliver on the ground represent the very best of the human spirit. Yet the canvasbacks on our cover remind us that our work is far from complete, as these regal birds have not recovered from the days of no-limit market hunting.

As you look through this issue, you'll notice that our magazine has a new design to inaugurate our 85th year, but even our original members would recognize the content, science, and ambition within these pages. The conservation machine they built has grown in size and scale but remains rooted in the power of our people. Never underestimate what a group of passionate people can accomplish together for the special places left on earth. We're making a continental impact, just as our founders envisioned 85 years ago.