By Al Montna
Advisory Senior Vice President, Public Policy
DU Board of Directors
Ducks Unlimited's vision of "wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever" is the common thread that ties together everyone in the DU family. For each and every DU volunteer, professional staffer, member and supporter, that shared vision is what unites us in our passion and what drives us each day. After all, putting ducks in the sky is what we do, and that's true for every facet of our organization. Conservation puts ducks in the air by delivering our on-the-ground work. Fundraising hosts great events and generates dollars to support conservation. Communications tells our story and builds enthusiasm and support for our mission. You may not realize it, but Policy, too, puts ducks in the air by ensuring our local, state and national priorities reflect those of DU and our members.
What our policy efforts may somewhat lack in notoriety, they more than make up for in impact to DU's mission. After all, from the bountiful beauty of the Chesapeake Bay to the Golden Coast of California, the impact of policy on habitat conservation is felt nationwide. Look no further than NAWCA.
When the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) was reauthorized by Congress in Fall 2020, it marked a continued commitment to waterfowl habitat conservation that began back in 1989. Since its inception more than 30 years ago, NAWCA has funded more than 3,000 projects affecting more than 30 million acres of habitat in North America. Today, NAWCA continues to deliver the best bang-for-the-buck in conservation by pulling together federal, state and private partners in support of wetland habitat.
From restoring altered wetlands and improving water quality, to reducing soil erosion and mitigating the damaging effects of floods, there is arguably no single program that directly puts more ducks in the sky than NAWCA. DU's efforts last year to secure the program's first congressional authorization since 2012 provided certainty for the future and helped get the next 30 years started on strong footing.
The policy success stories from DU and our volunteers aren't limited to those at the federal level – we've also achieved impactful legislative wins for the ducks in statehouses across the country. Let's start in Ohio.
When Governor Mike DeWine took office in 2019 he rolled out an aggressive 10-year program to improve water quality and wildlife habitat on Lake Erie – he dubbed it the H2Ohio Initiative. Thanks, in part, to the support of DU and others in the conservation community, the Ohio General Assembly ultimately passed this initiative and included $172 million in their biennial budget. So far, DU has already received more than $7 million in direct grant awards for five separate wetland restoration projects in the western Lake Erie basin marsh region. The benefit of these investments is simple – more habitat leads to more ducks.
Staying on the subject of water, but moving a bit further out West to Utah, DU and our partners worked with the state legislature in 2019 to designate the Willard Spur Waterfowl Management Area (WMA) on the Bear River Bay in the Great Salt Lake. An estimated 3 to 4 million waterfowl use the Great Salt Lake area as staging points before heading to the Pacific Flyway, Central Flyway and Mississippi Flyway.
Over the past few years, DU has been working to secure the donation of 80,000 acre-feet of water that will be transferred to the newly designated Willard Spur WMA. Once finalized, this water transfer will further strengthen a WMA that DU helped create and provide invaluable habitat to hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and other birds each year, which means more ducks in the sky.
In nearby North Dakota, DU Policy has been an advocate and steward of the North Dakota Outdoor Heritage Fund (OHF) since its inception in 2013. Drawing its funding from a state oil production tax, the OHF is a tool for conservation that puts ducks in the sky by enhancing ground nesting habitat in the critical Prairie Pothole Region, known by many as simply "The Duck Factory." Innovative DU programs for grazing infrastructure on ranches, cover crops on farms and improved soil health practices were incubated and hatched using OHF grants. DU Policy is dedicated to protecting the Outdoor Heritage Fund in every legislative session and executive deliberation as it becomes an increasingly larger part of the long-term conservation culture on the prairies.
In South Carolina, most of DU's waterfowl habitat restoration projects on public lands would not be possible without the South Carolina Conservation Bank. To date, DU and our partners have used Conservation Bank grants to deliver more than $19 million in conservation projects. That's why our policy team worked with the General Assembly to pass legislation that permanently reauthorizes the Conservation Bank, enabling it to become a foundational pillar of South Carolina's efforts to conserve the state's uniquely beautiful waterfowl habitat and put more ducks in the sky for generations to come.
DU Policy helps our fundraising volunteers put ducks in the sky, too. During the depths of the pandemic last year, DU Policy doubled down to expand our fundraising freedom by working with government agencies and passing laws to allow more online fundraising – such as raffles – in states across the U.S. In Nebraska, DU policy led the way to legalize credit card transactions for online raffles. This change in the law has resulted in an estimated increase of $100,000 for the ducks. When the pandemic is behind us and we can more safely gather at our beloved DU events, these new fundraising opportunities will remain as another tool to raise unrestricted dollars and put more ducks in the sky.
If you're a waterfowler, odds are you're familiar with the federal Duck Stamp and its contribution to waterfowl habitat conservation. Over the years, many states have adopted a similar strategy of raising dollars for conservation through a stamp to permit waterfowl hunting, with all revenue generated through the sale of the stamp going directly to protecting and restoring waterfowl habitat. In 2018, DU helped pass legislation through the Colorado legislature to increase the price of the Colorado Waterfowl Stamp from $5 to $10. This new law also smartly designates a percentage of revenue to go toward important waterfowl breeding habitat restoration in Canada. These wise investments of hunters' dollars will help keep our waterfowl hunting traditions alive and well for future generations and, you guessed it, put more ducks in the sky.
After all, that's what it's all about, isn't it? For many of us, waterfowling is a tradition passed down for generations. For others, it's a passion we've discovered in our lifetime – and one that maybe our grandkids will pass down to their children one day. Regardless of the reason you support Ducks Unlimited, we're just thankful that you do.
As the DU Public Policy team, we share the same vision as the rest of our organization – wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever – we just contribute in a different way. Advancing good policy helps unlock funding from private donors and federal, state and local governments, as well as private partners, that otherwise might not have been available to our conservation team.
For most people, policy may never be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of DU – and that's okay. But the next time you're in a blind and the greenheads are coming in, wings cupped and feet down, just know that DU Policy helped them get there.