By Jennifer Boudart
When asked to sum up the importance of public policy to Ducks Unlimited, Chief Policy Officer Zach Hartman offers a compelling response: "Wetlands can be conserved or degraded with the stroke of a pen based on incentives the government provides." In other words, Hartman says, the fate of many wetlands ultimately rests in the hands of federal, state, and local policy makers and their perceptions about what is important to Americans. "Our policy work helps to keep DU's priorities top of mind for these decision makers and to ensure that the policies they support reflect DU's values and the values of our members."
DU's policy priorities target a range of issues. Examples include funding and regulations for conservation work on public and private lands, public access for hunting and angling, fees for hunting licenses and duck stamps, and managing wetlands to serve as natural infrastructure solutions.
Work to pursue these priorities happens on several fronts. The first is educating members of Congress, state legislators, and other important stakeholders about what DU is doing in their backyards, how it benefits their constituents and aligns with issues they care about, and how partnering with DU on common priorities represents the best return on investment for their dollars. Securing partnerships helps to protect and grow government programs and revenue that support DU's mission, Hartman says.
It also enables DU's conservation team to leverage and amplify revenue generated by DU volunteers. "We can take a dollar someone raised from selling raffle tickets at a banquet and turn it into four or five dollars for putting habitat on the landscape by matching it with two or three dollars from the federal government and one to three dollars from state government—but it all starts with that DU dollar and our volunteers," Hartman adds.
Expanding opportunities to fundraise is another policy focus. "For example, during lockdown we cancelled 2,000 events," Hartman recalls. "In 14 days, our fundraisers built a system to do online events and keep the fundraising machine going in spite of the fact that we couldn't gather together." DU's policy team worked to pass laws in state legislatures across the country to help make that possible.
Promoting DU's reputation is also critical, Hartman says. "That duck head brand reputation is really at the essence of everything DU does. Whether it is a major donor or a foundation, a legislator or governor, or even the president, when we walk in, if people have a positive view of DU, they're more likely to partner with us."
Kellis Moss agrees. Moss serves as DU director of public policy in Washington. "When I say I'm with Ducks Unlimited, frankly DU has such a good reputation for all the millions of acres of work we've done and the work our volunteers have put in, I'm already starting out with a great first step."
Moss also agrees it's imperative to keep DU's priorities top of mind. "As we like to say, if you're not at the table you're on the menu. It's important for people who care about DU's mission to be engaged, because every other constituency is trying to be heard as well."
DU has roughly a dozen policy staff. Several work in Washington, and the rest are regional staff who handle legislative and regulatory work at the state level. As with every aspect of DU's operation, volunteers provide a crucial support network and serve as a force multiplier for DU staff. A volunteer advisory policy committee is part of the DU board, many states have volunteer policy chairs who work with DU state chairs, and hundreds of volunteers are trained to engage in policy work.
Policy volunteers form relationships with state and federal legislators and other policy stakeholders in their state. They regularly attend meetings in Washington or at their state capital to discuss top-priority issues and to represent DU. Back home, volunteers coordinate "in-district engagements," such as tours of conservation projects, where legislators and other stakeholders can observe DU's work in their districts and hear from passionate volunteers and members.
Hartman says policy volunteers are very effective ambassadors for DU. "It's one thing for a professional lobbyist to walk into a legislator's office and make a request. It's a completely different thing if that request comes from an electrician from South Dakota who has taken personal time and expense to travel to the state capital or Washington for a visit with their legislator. That volunteer can say, 'This is important to us, to the DU members who live in your state. We care about these issues, and we vote!'"
Policy volunteers have real power to shape state legislation too. For example, Nels Swenson, DU's Wisconsin state policy chair, successfully coordinated a volunteer campaign to engage state legislators on increasing the state's waterfowl stamp fee, which hadn't been adjusted since 1997. The state's most recent biennial budget now includes a $5 fee adjustment, which will generate nearly $400,000 of additional dedicated funds per year for wetland restoration across Wisconsin.
Volunteering is just one way to become engaged in DU policy. For the latest news, people can search for #DuckPolicy on Twitter or visit the Public Policy page on DU's website at ducks.org/conservation/public-policy. Click the Take Action icon on that page to visit the Duck Policy Action Center. "Anyone looking to support duck policy can access the Action Center to find active campaigns," says Parker Williams, DU policy and strategic communications manager. "We regularly send out alerts urging members to contact their congressional representatives to voice support for specific legislation that's important to the conservation community or to DU." Action alerts may target national or federal issues or may be more regional in scope. They were effective in the effort to increase the Wisconsin state stamp fee, for example.
The Public Policy page also provides a link to subscribe to #DuckPolicy Insiders, which DU launched earlier this year in response to requests from DU volunteers. This e-mail communication includes concise updates about different policy-related topics at the state and federal levels accompanied by links to learn more. Williams says the response has been very positive, and the subscriber list is growing rapidly.
Whatever the form of policy engagement, at the end of the day any DU supporter can be a voice for the ducks, notes Moss. "All it takes is taking that step of contacting your member of Congress or reaching out to a congressional staffer. Invite them to a local event. You don't need to be an expert on policy. Just talk about the good work DU does."
"And respond to those action alerts," adds Moss. "I can guarantee that every e-mail DU members send to a congressional office is read by that office. That helps our policy team make progress on crucial policy provisions at every level, and it can absolutely influence policy decisions."