Secretary's speech stresses importance of volunteerism within DU

Transcript courtesy of the United States Department of the Interior

As Secretary of the Interior, I certainly view Ducks Unlimited as a best friend to our department when it comes to fulfilling our mission to conserve and restore wildlife.

In fact, I am honored today to be here at the national convention of one of the most effective and most influential conservation organizations in history.

As I have traveled the country visiting different communities and groups, I see firsthand one of the things that makes America a great nation -- the willingness of Americans to join together in a common cause.

Volunteerism is the lifeblood of our country. From the local volunteer fire department to the Candy Stripers in hospitals to the thousands upon thousands of charities, Americans give of our time, our treasure and our talent for the common good. It is one of the things that makes me most proud to be an American.

There is no greater example of this spirit of volunteerism and partnership...and what can be accomplished through it...than Ducks Unlimited.

As Secretary of the Interior, I have ultimate responsibility for managing nearly one out of every five acres of the United States from wildlife refuges to national parks. I have responsibility for conserving migratory birds, threatened and endangered species, and other wildlife.

Imagine what it means to me to have an organization of nearly 800,000 members, each one a committed conservationist, supporting my department's conservation mission. An organization that over the past seven decades has conserved and restored more than 12 million acres of wetlands and other waterfowl habitat. That's roughly twice the size of the state of Maryland.

Remarkable. Awesome.

Imagine what it means to me as Secretary of the Interior to have an organization that has been a committed partner and driving force behind what is arguably the most successful conservation initiative ever, the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

Today, we are using the North American model to guide our efforts to conserve many different species, but back in 1986, it was a new idea thought of and executed by waterfowlers. You were not only ahead of the curve in international wildlife conservation, you led the way.

Imagine what it means to me as Secretary of the Interior to have an organization that has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to support habitat restoration projects funded through North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants.

Ducks Unlimited has been a member of the North American Wetlands Conservation Council longer than any other non-governmental organization. I am pleased to announce that I am reappointing Ducks Unlimited's representative on the council, Dr. Alan Wentz, to another term. I want to thank Dr. Wentz, already the longest tenured member of the council, for his continued service to our country and the cause of conservation.

As Secretary of the Interior, I have responsibility for overseeing the National Wildlife Refuge System. Imagine what it means to me to have the support and partnership of Ducks Unlimited as we seek to make the world's greatest system of lands dedicated to wildlife even greater in its second century.

I especially thank you for your leadership in the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, or CARE group, that has been so important to our efforts to get funding for the system in Congress.

And, of course, members of Ducks Unlimited are always among the first to show up to volunteer on our national wildlife refuges, wildlife management areas and other public lands. When a wetland needs to be restored, hunters put on their boots. When trees need to be planted, sportsmen get out their shovels. When our refuge managers need volunteers, they find hunters waiting at the gate at the break of dawn.

For the members of Ducks Unlimited, conservation is not simply writing a check once a year. Conservation is a way of life.

All Americans have benefited from your contributions. We have a healthier continent. We have a more beautiful continent. And, of course, we have more ducks.

It is no wonder that President Bush called Ducks Unlimited "the model by which all conservation should be delivered in America." I applaud you. You are American heroes.

As we begin the 21st century, it is critical that we sustain and build upon the spirit of cooperation and partnership that has been the foundation of conservation in America. In many ways, we have reached a threshold, and the future of conservation hangs in the balance.

Earlier this month, we celebrated the 100th Anniversary of one of the most important events in the history of conservation: the 1908 White House Conference on Conservation convened by Theodore Roosevelt at the White House and attended by the nation's governors, members of his cabinet, scientists like Gifford Pinchot, captains of industry and other leading citizens.

The conference launched the modern conservation movement. Since then, America has done more than any nation in history to set aside pristine lands, conserve and restore wildlife habitat, and recover declining species, including many game species such as canvasback ducks, wild turkey and Rocky Mountain elk.

With so many leaders of different political parties present at that one conference, I'm sure there were a wide variety of opinions on the many issues of that day.

But overriding all the differences was a single uniting factor. These leaders were sportsmen. They shared a deep and abiding love and passion for wildlife and the great outdoors. They saw the need for a conservation ethic in America and they took the lead in creating it.

In the past century, the nation's sportsmen have been the driving force behind conservation. Through license fees and excise taxes, you have contributed the lion's share of funding for conserving our nation's wild places and wild creatures.

Waterfowl hunters arguably have contributed more than anyone. Through the purchase of Federal Duck Stamps, you have enabled us to add 5 million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System, a total that itself is nearly the size of the state of Maryland.

I want to thank Ducks Unlimited for supporting the proposed increase in the value of the Duck Stamp to $25. It's been 17 years since Congress last raised the price of the Duck Stamp. Since then, we've had inflation. We've had rising land prices. The price of everything has gone up, except the Duck Stamp. The proposed increase would get us back on par with inflation. I hope you will continue to let Congress know how important this program is for waterfowl and other wildlife.

I also want to thank Ducks Unlimited for its strong support of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, including partnering with us to hold the contest twice in Memphis. By holding the contest outside of Washington, we've raised the visibility of the program and educated the public about the value of purchasing Duck Stamps.

Along the same lines, thank you for supporting our Birds Forever initiative in the President's 2009 budget to address the decline of many species of migratory birds and restore and conserve vital bird habitat.

The initiative continues our strong budgetary support for our National Wildlife Refuge System and adds an additional $9 million for joint venture partnerships, inventory and monitoring, and habitat restoration programs.

Imagine if you able to line not just one football field but 250 football fields side by side. Under this initiative, we will be able conserve an area of habitat equal to those 250 football fields for the entire distance from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. - a total of 40 miles. Just imagine what that will mean for waterfowl and other wildlife.

Working together, we are continuing the great legacy of the sportsmen conservationists who met at the White House a century ago.

As we begin the 21st century, however, our greatest challenge may no longer be restoring habitat. We have proven we can do that.

Our greatest challenge may be in the hearts of our children.

I fear that our young people are losing the deep and abiding love of the outdoors and of wildlife that stirs the heart of each person in this room. That makes you a conservationist.

Where is such a great love born? It is born at dawn, as the early morning light peeks through the leaves to find a parent and child in a duck blind. It is born at twilight when a canoe slices through the still waters of a mountain lake. It is born at night around a campfire, with crickets chirping and shooting stars streaking across an inky sky.

If people stop hunting, conservation is in trouble. More importantly, if people can't take their children and grandchildren hunting, conservation is in trouble.

If our hunting is allowed to slowly fade away, who is going to bear the burden in the next generation? Plenty of organizations can put out a press release decrying loss of habitat or the decline of a species. But conservation requires muddy boots, not fax machines. It requires organizations like Ducks Unlimited.

We need to ask how many in the next generation will be able to say, "When I was a child, my father took me hunting. I camped under the stars and smelled the pines."

You can't imagine the impact that simply getting out into nature can have on a child. It can be transformational. I saw it myself with my own daughter, Heather.

My wife, Patricia, and I used to take Heather and our son Jeff camping when they were children. When we'd arrive at the campsite, Jeff would be so excited, he'd get into everything and be covered with dirt in a matter of minutes. Heather was another story. She waited in the car until the tent was put up. Only then would she leave - I think we had to put a runner down for her - and march to the tent where she would hold court. She didn't come out until it was time to leave. She wasn't exactly a cover girl for Field and Stream.

Somehow, however, Heather came to discover the inner joy of being quiet and alone in the beauty of God's cathedral. When she went to college, she became a professional white water river guide and slept under the stars night after night - and loved it. You never know what seed might be planted in a child's heart.

Unfortunately, we now face a perfect storm when it comes to the future of conservation.

On one front, we have the ever-increasing urbanization of America. Growing numbers of citizens no longer have day-to-day contact with nature and the great outdoors. The Fish and Wildlife Service recently reported that the number of hunters 16 and older declined by 10 percent between 1996 and 2006.

On a second front, we have the loss of access to hunting areas that is occurring in many places due to development and loss of habitat.

On a third front, we have the dawn of the Internet age. Vast numbers of children spend much of their lives in windowless rooms playing games on-line - games in which the hunted are often human. They are being swept up by the technological revolution - with its instant access, its lightning pace, its amazing graphics - and they lose something vital to the human soul.

I was out deer hunting a few years ago on a ranch in Owyhee County in Southwest Idaho, and I had a moment of reflection about what many children are missing.

I have a collection of Civil War era replica black powder firearms and I was using a .69 caliber rifle-barreled musket. It was the same model of musket my great-grandfather, Charles Kempthorne, used at the Battle of Antietam when he fought as part of the Third Wisconsin infantry.

I didn't shoot anything that day. But as you know, you don't have to shoot your firearm to have a successful day of hunting. Simply enjoying being out in the field makes it a successful day.

As dusk fell over the farm, I hiked back through the cornfields. A beautiful sunset filled the sky. My clothes and musket brushed against the cornstalks. It struck me that this was exactly the sound my great-grandfather would have made as he moved through the cornfields at Antietam.

The .69 caliber musket cannot be unloaded once you load it. The only way I could clear the gun was to fire it. So I shot a round into a ditch. The smoke of the black powder and the dust of the cornfield rose into the air with the setting sun as a backdrop. It was a mystical sight as the sunlight reflected off the particles in the air. I realized that this was what so many children are missing. Those moments when the fragrance of the field and forest, the beauty of the setting sun, and the sounds of the outdoors meld together to conjure up a sense of awe in your heart.

If we want the next generation to care about conservation, we must help plant that sense of awe in their hearts. We need to get them out of cyberspace and into open spaces. To put down their Blackberries and go pick blackberries. To stop channel surfing and go wind surfing. To shut off the web casts and cast a line for a trout. To get out from behind closed blinds and out into duck blinds.

Fortunately, we have an avid sportsman in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As you know, last year President Bush signed an Executive Order to promote our nation's hunting heritage.

The order directs coordination among federal agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, to work directly with the Sporting Conservation Council, our federally chartered advisory committee, to promote expansion and enhancement of hunting opportunities and the management of game species and their habitat.

The order also directs us to develop a 10-year Hunting and Wildlife Conservation Plan and to hold a White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy. I'm pleased to report that the Sporting Conservation Council is making great progress on the 10-year plan and that the White House conference will take place this fall.

I can't tell you what the final plan will include, but we are looking at steps such as:

  • More mentoring programs to provide hunting opportunities to young people and their parents who come from non-hunting backgrounds.

  • Programs to help disadvantaged and disabled citizens, and returning veterans go hunting. Media and hunting safety campaigns that make hunting "cool" for kids in the same way the movie "A River Runs through It" made fly fishing cool.

  • Incentives to farmers and ranchers to enroll in state access programs.

  • Increased cooperation with state agencies to provide technical assistance to improve habitat and access on enrolled lands.

  • Working with Congress and the states to create tax incentives for the donation of hunting easements.

  • Continuing our efforts to expand hunting programs on public lands, which includes working with the Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to utilize hunting and volunteer culling as a wildlife management tool.

  • Ensuring that sportsmen conservationists play an appropriate and meaningful role in shaping climate change policy without losing sight of on the ground habitat conservation.

My hope is that 100 years from now, those who come after us will look back on what we are doing this year and conclude that this was a time when the nation's sportsmen once again rose to the challenge of conserving our land and wildlife for all Americans.

I hope that across this great land, mothers and fathers will be waking their children up before dawn on a crisp autumn morning to continue the tradition that we hold in our hearts so dearly. That the passion for hunting and conservation will live on generation after generation.

And I hope that Ducks Unlimited will continue to be a shining light of conservation in America.

God bless you and God bless the United States of America.