By Craig LeSchack, Doug Gorby, Jeff McCreary, and Johann Walker, Ph.D.
Past Ducks Unlimited President Stirling Adams once said that conservation without money is just conversation. Simply put, it takes big bucks to have ducks, and no other organization is better at making the most of available conservation funding than Ducks Unlimited. Our leveraging model takes money raised by DU members, volunteers, foundations, corporations, and other supporters and uses it to secure matching funds from public sources, usually at a ratio of three or four dollars for every DU dollar that is raised.
Local, state, and federal conservation funds make up a significant portion of DU's annual habitat delivery budget. During the past fiscal year, DU received over $86 million from public sources, which combined with DU philanthropic funds positively impacted nearly 400,000 acres of waterfowl habitat across the United States. Following is an overview of key public funding sources that play a crucial role in conserving wetlands and associated waterfowl habitats, while also increasing access for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation.
Federal Duck Stamp Program
The Federal Duck Stamp Program is among the most important funding sources for wetlands and waterfowl conservation in the United States. Signed into law in 1934, the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act requires everyone age 16 and older to buy a federal duck stamp in order to hunt waterfowl each year. Ninety-eight cents of every dollar raised from duck stamp sales goes directly into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund to be used for habitat conservation. To date, nearly six million acres of wetlands and grasslands have been permanently protected through this program. Much of the habitat conserved with federal duck stamp funds is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Last year, the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund protected 56,570 acres of waterfowl habitat in 12 states, including 44,796 acres secured through voluntary conservation easements on private lands in the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).
The USFWS Small Wetlands Program, which turns 60 this year, is funded by proceeds from federal duck stamp sales. Established by Congress in response to widespread wetland drainage on the prairie breeding grounds, this program authorized the USFWS to spend federal duck stamp funds to protect wetland and grassland habitat through fee-title acquisition and voluntary conservation easements purchased from private landowners. Waterfowl production areas, as the tracts acquired through the program came to be known, are the backbone of a sprawling network of public and private lands that today support more than one-third of the breeding dabbling ducks in the U.S. PPR.
Unfortunately, the majority of the remaining waterfowl habitat on the prairie breeding grounds is currently unprotected and vulnerable to conversion. Almost two-thirds of breeding dabbling ducks in the U.S. PPR rely on these at-risk wetlands, which are being lost at a rate of more than 6,200 acres per year. In response, DU's conservation team in the Great Plains Region works closely with the USFWS to protect threatened waterfowl habitats in the Dakotas and Montana through the Small Wetlands Program. DU realty specialists, easement technicians, and private lands biologists help promote the benefits of conservation easements in the agricultural community and finalize easement agreements with farmers and ranchers. Today, the Small Wetlands Program is more popular than ever among private landowners, as many farmers and ranchers are seeking to access capital to expand their operations and help the next generation get established. Right now, more than 1,500 landowners in the Dakotas have expressed interest in conservation easements, but the demand far exceeds available funding. By purchasing federal duck stamps and supporting DU, waterfowl hunters and other conservationists can help ensure that farmers and ranchers have the opportunity to protect threatened wetlands and grasslands on working lands, which is essential to sustaining healthy waterfowl populations.
North American Wetlands Conservation Act
The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 to serve as a funding source for the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, an international effort launched in 1986 to restore waterfowl populations to healthy levels. The NAWCA program provides matching grants for wetlands conservation projects in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Each federal dollar contributed through NAWCA is matched by three dollars (on average) from partners including DU, private landowners, foundations, companies, and other conservation groups. In fact, NAWCA grants totaling more than $1.48 billion have leveraged over $4.34 billion for conservation projects through matching and nonmatching funds. Since 1989, more than 2,644 NAWCA projects have contributed to the conservation of 33.4 million acres of habitat across North America. Ducks Unlimited led the campaign for passage of this legislation and is a perennial champion of NAWCA reauthorization and annual appropriations in Congress.
In the Midwest, for example, NAWCA grants have helped DU and its partners conserve vital waterfowl migration habitat along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. This includes 130,000 acres of wetlands and associated habitats on public lands in Missouri, many of which offer excellent waterfowl hunting opportunities. In southern Indiana, NAWCA funding has helped DU and its partners acquire land to expand public access and protect habitat on Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). And in southern Illinois the program has supported efforts to restore and enhance wetlands in Oakwood Bottoms, a popular public waterfowl hunting area in Shawnee National Forest.
Farther south, in Louisiana and Texas, NAWCA has provided approximately $5 million annually to conserve crucial waterfowl habitat along the Gulf Coast, where nearly 14 million ducks and 2 million geese have historically wintered. Places like Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, Boeuf Wildlife Management Area, and White Lake Conservation Area in Louisiana and Jefferson County wetlands in Texas have benefited from wetland restoration and enhancement work supported by NAWCA grants and matching funds contributed by DU and its partners. More than 9,000 acres of vital waterfowl habitat have been conserved through these projects, which have improved hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation opportunities on these public lands.
States are another crucial source of funding for DU's conservation programs. Across the country, state funds are used not only to directly conserve habitat and improve public hunting opportunities but also to leverage federal dollars, such as NAWCA grants, for conservation projects. Every state has a conservation funding mechanism in one or more of the following categories: royalties, lottery proceeds, appropriations, taxes and fees, and public bond sales. Depending on the state, the amount of conservation funding that is generated can range from millions to billions of dollars. These state funds help DU fulfill its mission by supporting projects that conserve habitat, increase public access, promote agricultural sustainability, improve water quality, and provide other social and ecological benefits.
No other state invests more in conservation than California. Since the mid-1990s, voters in the Golden State have approved five major conservation-related bond measures, providing more than $16 billion for water-related conservation work, including wetland restoration and enhancement projects. Ducks Unlimited was instrumental in ensuring that significant portions of the nearly $1.5 billion allocated through California's recently passed Proposition 1 bond measure will be used to conserve wetlands that will benefit waterfowl and waterfowl hunters. This includes two grants that together will provide $59 million for high-priority conservation projects in the state's Central Valley, the Pacific Flyway's most important wintering area for ducks and geese. The first grant will support a partnership with the Biggs-West Gridley Water District to renovate water-delivery infrastructure, which will allow Gray Lodge Wildlife Area to receive its legally allotted water supply. The second will fund a project on Sutter NWR that will enable managers to reliably flood wetlands on the refuge during waterfowl season. While only one-third of California's wetlands are publicly owned, they are among the most valuable in the state, providing essential wintering and migration habitat for millions of ducks and geese, and places where people can hunt waterfowl and pursue other forms of outdoor recreation.
Minnesota has also benefited from state funding provided specifically for conservation work. In 2008, Minnesota voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which directs a portion of state sales tax revenue to the Outdoor Heritage Fund (OHF). Included among the amendment's stated objectives are protecting and restoring wetlands and grasslands and increasing opportunities for public outdoor recreation. DU and its partners now receive more than $7 million annually to restore prime waterfowl breeding habitat in Minnesota. Through its leveraging expertise, DU has been able to secure roughly eight dollars from the OHF and NAWCA for every DU dollar invested. While Minnesota has suffered tremendous wetland and grassland losses in the past, these funding sources are helping DU and its partners turn the tide by restoring historically important waterfowl habitats for wildlife and people.
On the East Coast, the South Carolina Conservation Bank has provided $152 million to conservation organizations and state agencies to protect nearly 300,000 acres across the Palmetto State. DU has leveraged more than $3 million in conservation bank funds to secure over $10 million in NAWCA grants. This funding has been used to conserve nearly 6,000 acres of wetland habitat on state wildlife management areas such as Santee Delta, Bonneau Ferry, and Bear Island, and national wildlife refuges like Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin, Santee, and Waccamaw. These public lands provide not only important habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife but also opportunities for the public to hunt and pursue other outdoor recreation.
Charitable contributions from DU members like you are the fuel that drives the organization's conservation work across North America. However, we will never fulfill our mission by relying on private funding alone. To meet the habitat needs of this continent's waterfowl, we must maximize our conservation impact by leveraging our private contributions with public funding sources. Just as DU will not be successful without our legion of dedicated volunteers and members, we cannot meet our objectives without strong partners at the federal, state, and local levels and the crucial funding they provide for conservation.
Craig LeSchack, Doug Gorby, Jeff McCreary, and Dr. Johann Walker are directors of conservation programs in DU's Southern, Great Lakes/Atlantic, Western, and Great Plains Regions, respectively.