By Jennifer Boudart

Waterfowlers know how important wetlands are to waterfowl and other wildlife. They value these habitats and understand the need to protect and conserve them. But the same habitats that support waterfowl also provide many other "ecosystem services" that benefit people from all walks of life. Wetlands help protect coastlines, improve water quality, recharge groundwater supplies, sequester carbon, and reduce floods. They also provide places for people to pursue a variety of outdoor recreation in addition to hunting, including bird-watching, fishing, boating, hiking, photography, and environmental education.

In short, conserving wetlands provides an excellent return on investment for society. It is a compelling message that can help inspire broad support for conservation. Indeed, the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) now includes recommendations to "help people understand the opportunities for conservation and outdoor recreation resulting from NAWMP and how society benefits from waterfowl habitat."

Ducks Unlimited is expanding its message to broaden support for its mission too, says Dr. Steve Adair, DU national director for conservation strategy. "There's growing science about the benefits of natural areas to society's health and well-being, and people are becoming increasingly aware of that," he explains. "We want to highlight benefits of wetlands, such as ecosystem services, that have a broader appeal to society. We want to invite everyone to the table who has an interest in conservation."

Waterfowl and people flock to wetlands restored by Ducks Unlimited and its partners near San Francisco and other major cities.

Photo Sonoma Land Trust

Broadening support for wetlands conservation means delivering habitat projects in DU's highest priority waterfowl landscapes, but sometimes it also means delivering projects in places where people can see the benefits firsthand.

Public opinion survey data shows that many people would like to have access to natural areas within an hour's drive of their homes. That's where DU projects in urban areas, such as California's San Francisco Bay, come into play.

San Francisco Bay is among DU's highest-priority conservation areas in the Pacific Flyway, supporting thousands of migrating and wintering waterfowl, shorebirds, and other waterbirds. And, with a population of 7.8 million people spread across nine counties surrounding the bay, it is the most densely populated of NAWMP's joint ventures. San Francisco Bay has lost more than 80 percent of its historical tidal wetlands, many of which were diked and drained in the 1800s.

Most DU projects in this area are designed to restore these estuarine habitats, which not only provide crucial habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife but also prevent pollutants from entering the bay, improve water quality, protect against storms, and mitigate effects of sea-level rise.

Dr. Renee Spenst, lead biologist for DU's San Francisco Bay and California Coast Program, says the public has a keen interest in improving the condition of the bay. Part of her job includes finding opportunities to raise the profile of DU's work among residents and to engage new communities in ongoing conservation efforts. That involves working with landowners and funding partners to ensure public access on DU's habitat restoration projects. "Getting people out into nature is the first step toward increasing support for conservation," Spenst says.

Recently restored tidal marshes on the Sears Point project provide wintering habitat for canvasbacks and a variety of other waterfowl.


A prime example of DU's work in this densely populated area is the Sears Point Restoration Project, located 20 miles northeast of San Francisco on San Pablo Bay. DU and other partners worked with the project's landowner, Sonoma Land Trust, to restore nearly 1,000 acres of tidal marsh that had been diked for more than 120 years. Over time, the site had subsided seven feet relative to surrounding marshes. The restoration project, which was managed by DU over a three-year period, involved excavating tidal channels and building hundreds of mounds and ridges throughout the marsh. These features provide habitat diversity, reduce wave action, and help reestablish vegetation. A new inland levee was also built to protect surrounding infrastructure including a highway, a rail system, and agricultural land. Finally, the outer levee was breached in two places to restore tidal flows to Sears Point.

Sonoma Land Trust transferred Sears Point to the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and it now serves as the location for the refuge headquarters. The project area provides habitat for waterfowl such as canvasbacks, scaup, mallards, and northern pintails as well as numerous species of shorebirds and nearly two dozen fish species. It also benefits fisheries by providing nursery and rearing grounds for commercially important species such as Chinook salmon. And it offers many recreational benefits for nearby residents.

Visitors can enjoy five miles of trails for walking, biking, wildlife viewing, and photography. One 2.5-mile stretch is part of the San Francisco Bay Trail. Portions of the area are open to waterfowl hunting and fishing, and a boat launch is available for paddlers. Interpretive panels and kiosks are available for outdoor education, and the refuge regularly hosts special events and school visits. DU staff also engages with the public at Sears Point. For example, DU partnered with Cargill, a company that manages a working landscape of more than 20,000 acres in the Bay Area, to deliver a program that brings local middle school and high school students out to the refuge on field trips.

Spenst and Adair both agree that urban projects like Sears Point offer DU a unique opportunity to share the beauty and ecological value of wetlands with the public. "These projects provide people with different ways to connect with wetlands," Adair says. "They help create a whole new audience, and that can broaden support for public policy and funding for wetlands conservation."

Other Urban DU Projects

White Tract
New Orleans, Louisiana

DU facilitated the purchase of this 1,777-acre wetland parcel located 10 miles southwest of New Orleans. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries added the White Tract to the Salvador State Wildlife Management Area to enhance opportunities for hunting, fishing, boating, hiking, and wildlife viewing.

Howard Marsh
Toledo, Ohio

Metroparks Toledo partnered with DU and others to establish Howard Marsh, a 1,000-acre restored wetland metropark on the shores of Lake Erie. The metropark offers kayaking, a walking trail, a boardwalk through the marsh, and waterfowl hunting.

Community Nature Park
Bismarck, North Dakota

Ducks Unlimited is helping to fund the purchase of 120 acres in north Bismarck to create one of the city's largest community parks. The Bismarck Parks and Recreation District will ultimately own the property. DU will help develop wildlife habitat in the park, which will feature restored wetlands and walking and biking trails with interpretive signs.