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The Ducks Unlimited Story

Over the past 75 years, generations of DU supporters have worked together to safeguard the future of North America's wetlands and waterfowl.

By Michael Furtman

A walk across the prairie in the spring, if your eyes are open and your passion is for ducks, will reveal a complex and beautiful ecosystem.

Top a rise and a wetland will glisten, surrounded by not only grass, but flowers and lichen-covered stones, some polished smooth by the now absent bison that once rubbed their gritty hides against the granite. Along the wetland edges, cattails rattle in the wind and bulrushes wave and bend in the breeze. From the marsh comes the booming of bitterns, the eerie whinnying of a hidden sora rail.

The very air is alive. Marbled godwits, upland sandpipers, and other shorebirds, ever the cohorts of prairie-nesting waterfowl, spiral skyward, loudly proclaiming their territories. Herons and egrets glide low over the land, while hawks soar high above it.


And then there are the ducks. Canvasbacks and redheads streak back and forth from pothole to pothole, tracing the hilltops, driven at impossible speeds by prairie winds. Mallards and pintails drop from great heights, parachuting on cupped wings, landing with flair and grace on splayed webbed feet. Spectacular courtship flights are etched against sapphire skies, and the lucky will see randy gadwall drakes battle midair, fighting in flight, each desperate to defend or find a hen.

To see this place, to walk this landscape, is to have it capture your soul. It is the same scene that inspired DU founders Joseph Knapp and Arthur Bartley. It has thrilled every DU field crew toiling in its midst. It has motivated generations of biologists and researchers. And it is the place that, in turn, stirs the soul of DU members and volunteers, the men, women, and children waiting in marshes throughout each flyway, their eyes trained above bobbing decoys for the arrival of the ducks that must, by need, migrate across this continent. Such is the magic wetlands can produce.

Water on the Ground, Ducks in the Air

If it were not for three-quarters of a century of dedication and work by DU volunteers, staff, and partners, the magic that the prairie—and wetlands elsewhere—can produce would be greatly diminished. DU's work on the prairies began in 1938, shortly after the trustees of its Canadian affiliate, Ducks Unlimited Canada, met on April 1 and 2 at the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg. The temporary trustees then elected a full slate of officers. The eight-man board of directors consisted of four Canadians and four Americans, as required by the bylaws. Among the four Americans was Arthur Bartley, DU Inc.'s first executive director.

With a desire to produce ducks in all four flyways—and to recruit American members from the Atlantic to the Pacific—Bartley, other DU staff, and the board of directors believed it would be critical to undertake a major project in each of Canada's three prairie provinces: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. They did not set the bar of success low. Instead, they decided that in their very first year of operations they would restore and manage at least 100,000 acres of former wetland habitat.

On April 21, 1938, engineer Don Stephens, naturalist Bert Cartwright, and General Manager Tom Main inspected the Big Grass Marsh site, which would be DU's first wetland restoration project. Crews were in the field within days, and the first water was put back on the land in May. They pursued their goals with an almost religious fervor. At the end of 1938, DU's first year (really only eight months) of field operations, Main and his team had not only met Bartley's goal of 100,000 acres restored, but had exceeded it by 55,000 acres.

Over the next few decades, DU Canada made steady progress protecting or restoring habitat across the prairie provinces. As the sophistication of their techniques increased, so did their positive impact on the landscape. By 1965, DU had completed more than 800 conservation projects encompassing more than 1 million acres of prime waterfowl habitat. But increasing DU Canada's influence on the landscape, and its positive impact on waterfowl, came with a price tag, and DU Inc., in the United States, needed to grow to pay the tab.


Fundraising Takes Flight

Just as it had at the inception of Ducks Unlimited, drought once again hit the prairie nesting grounds with a vengeance during the early 1960s. As waterfowl populations plummeted to the lowest levels since the Dirty Thirties, severe regulatory restrictions hit waterfowlers in America. Duck stamp sales tumbled to a low not seen in 24 years, dropping to 1,140,987, which barely surpassed the total sold back in 1938.

Duck numbers weren't the only thing on the decline. In 1963, DU saw its revenues drop for the first time. DU leaders worried that if the restrictive seasons continued, it would erode support and funding for habitat work. It was clear that all of these trends needed to be reversed. As they had in the beginning, DU's leaders resolved to roll up their sleeves and invent something new.

In 1965, DU hired Dale Whitesell as executive vice president. He was the first person to hold this title; Arthur Bartley had served as DU's executive director from 1938 until 1962, when he retired and was replaced by William Thorn. In addition, a new headquarters had been found outside Chicago, centralizing operations east to west and putting the organization near states that had strong waterfowl hunting traditions, and thus enormous potential for new membership. Ben Anderson was hired as regional director (RD) for the Midwest, the first of many RDs to be hired by DU to seek out conservation supporters and organize them into chapters. Together, Whitesell and his staff would soon conceive and then implement a bold campaign that would put DU chapters in virtually every town of any size in the United States.

The key to Ducks Unlimited's success has always been, and always will be, the volunteers who give so much of their time and effort to make sure its conservation work is funded. Before RDs were hired, though, state chairmen and their committee members saw to the development of chapters and organized fundraising events. While DU's growth had been steady under the guidance of these volunteers, it was inconsistent.

Under Whitesell's leadership, new staff oversaw and organized DU's fundraising efforts in partnership with the volunteers. The year after Dale Whitesell was hired, DU had its first $1 million year. Two years later it broke $2 million. Helping the cause was the welcome recovery of duck populations during the early 1970s, when wet weather returned to the prairies. During this heyday, DU grew at an astounding rate of more than 20 percent a year. Regional directors soon covered every state in each of the four flyways. By 1976, DU would pass the $50 million income milestone. Membership soared. By the end of 1985 DU had nearly 580,000 members and 3,700 committees across the nation.

A New Era in Conservation

Given Ducks Unlimited's phenomenal growth during the 1970s and 1980s, it was almost inevitable that its mission would also expand in scope, and DU had the financial wherewithal to do it. There was a growing movement in the United States for an increase in habitat work to benefit ducks locally, especially in those states that contributed significant numbers of ducks to the continental population, such as AlaskaMinnesota, Montana, and the Dakotas. DU had already launched Ducks Unlimited de Mexico in 1970 to conserve important waterfowl wintering habitat south of the border. In 1984 DU launched its U.S. habitat program, which was a logical extension of DU's longstanding efforts to conserve and enhance the most important wetlands to waterfowl in Canada and Mexico.


Now that DU was working on a continental scale, it was no longer feasible to administer its U.S. operations solely out of its national headquarters in Illinois. Regional offices had to be formed, and the first was established in Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1984. DU's Western Regional Office in Sacramento, California, was opened in 1987. DU opened its Governmental Affairs Office in Washington, D.C., in 1989.

The Southern Regional Office, located in Ridgeland, Mississippi, was established in 1990. And lastly, the Great Lakes/Atlantic Regional Office, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was established in 1998.

As Ducks Unlimited moved fully into working in the United States, a host of forces came together at the same time that would provide new challenges, opportunities, and focus. A drought of record proportions seared the Prairie Pothole Region from Alberta to Iowa, and it would last nearly a decade. At the same time, wetland loss and conversion to agriculture on both sides of the border had reached a point that many feared the ducks would never be able to rebound to healthy levels, even if a wet weather cycle returned to the prairies. By 1985, duck populations in the traditional survey area had declined to almost an all-time low. Daily bag limits and hunting seasons were curtailed to the most restrictive levels since the 1960s.

Recognizing the importance of waterfowl and wetlands to all North Americans and the need for international cooperation to help support the recovery of a shared resource, the Canadian and United States governments developed a strategy to restore waterfowl populations through habitat protection, restoration, and enhancement. This bold new vision culminated in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP), signed in 1986 by the Canadian Minister of the Environment and the United States Secretary of the Interior. NAWMP was the foundation upon which hundreds of other conservation partnerships would soon be built on behalf of waterfowl and their habitats. And Ducks Unlimited, which celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 1987, would become a major partner.

If it were not for three-quarters of a century of dedication and work by DU volunteers, staff, and partners, the magic that the prairie—and wetlands elsewhere—can produce would be greatly diminished.

In 1987, Matthew B. Connolly Jr. became the second executive vice president in DU's history. Not long after he took the helm, Connolly was selected to serve on a group charged with implementing NAWMP. This group of conservationists fleshed out how the plan would be delivered on the ground, as well as how much funding would be required to meet its objectives. That was the easy part. NAWMP then needed a reliable source of funding sponsorship. This much-needed financial backing would ultimately come from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), visionary legislation that was passed with bipartisan support in Congress.

NAWCA received another powerful endorsement from President George H. W. Bush, who was the keynote speaker at DU's 6th International Waterfowl Symposium in Washington, D.C., on June 8, 1989. During his speech, President Bush reiterated his administration's policy of achieving a "no net less" of wetlands in the United States. He also announced his support for NAWCA, which he would sign into law more than six months later, on December 13. Since NAWCA's inception, more than 4,500 partners have collaborated on over 2,000 conservation projects and conserved upward of 26 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.


The Ducks Bounce Back

The prairie drought finally broke in the spring of 1994. Formerly arid potholes, sloughs, and marshes filled with snowmelt and stayed brimful well into summer. And the ducks responded. Mallard numbers were up 22 percent over the previous year's estimate, and the pintail breeding population soared 45 percent. In fact, of the 10 most abundant species in the spring survey all showed significant breeding population increases. If there was ever any doubt that DU's philosophy of restoring waterfowl populations via habitat conservation was sound, the remarkable duck comeback of the mid-1990s offered living proof. Provide a healthy landscape, as DU had so often stated throughout its history, and ducks would flourish.

The impressive recovery of most waterfowl populations helped Ducks Unlimited soar to new heights during the 1990s. DU was also revitalized by a timely move of its national headquarters. Unable to expand its Long Grove facility to accommodate future growth, DU's board of directors established a search committee to survey a number of potential headquarters sites located in the Central and Mississippi flyways.

After an extensive site selection process and the generosity of prominent businessman William B. Dunavant Jr., the DU board made the decision to construct the new headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee.

In 1994, just two years after its move to Memphis, DU launched Habitat 2000, its first comprehensive capital campaign. The campaign's goals were both straightforward and remarkably ambitious—to raise more money for the ducks than the organization had raised since its inception, and to reach record levels of membership. DU members, volunteers, and staff were quick to raise their sights on the Habitat 2000 target. By the time Habitat 2000 ended, DU had conserved more than 10 million acres of waterfowl habitat, raised an astounding $902 million, and grew the membership to over 757,000 strong.

Not long before the campaign ended, Connolly retired after 12 years of service. Succeeding Connolly was Don Young, who had served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of DU Canada since 1995.

A New Millennium, New Threats

At the turn of the 21st century, DU was at the top of its game. From the boreal forest to the estuaries of both coasts and the bottomlands and coastal marshes of the South, DU carried out its mission with fervor and efficiency. Its regional offices hummed with activity as DU collaborated with its many NAWMP partners to conserve key breeding, migration, and wintering habitats.

Then, on September 11, 2001, terrorists struck on American soil, and like the rest of the nation, DU was powerfully moved by this attack on our homeland. The November/December issue of Ducks Unlimited depicted a beautiful pintail drake soaring against the backdrop of an American flag, and DU placed a full-page message on an interior page, quoting Thomas Jefferson: "A nation united can never be conquered."

Other challenges arose during this period. A steady, disturbing decline in the scaup population, the causes of which stumped biologists, raised concerns about the health of Canada's western boreal forest, where the majority of lesser scaup are raised. Timber harvests, agricultural expansion, petroleum production, oil sands mining, and hydroelectric development had increased dramatically in this formerly untrammeled region, threatening wetlands and other wildlife habitats.

In response to these emerging threats, DU launched its boreal forest program in 1997, and with The Pew Charitable Trusts and other partners began working with natural resource managers to ensure that these activities are conducted in a sustainable manner that will not adversely affect wetland systems and waterfowl populations. The scale of this ongoing conservation effort is unlike any other in the world, with tens of millions of acres of boreal habitat having already received interim or permanent protection. Sustainable development plans are crafted with industry, most notably the forestry sector. DU biologists work closely with local communities, governments, and other partners in making these conservation achievements possible. Key leadership and financial support for this work is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which has committed more than $60 million to DU in support of the boreal forest initiative.

In 2006, DU launched the public phase of its second major fundraising campaign, Wetlands for Tomorrow, at its 69th national convention in Phoenix, Arizona. Wetlands for Tomorrow had a four-year goal of raising $1.7 billion—nearly twice the amount raised during Habitat 2000. Two years later, under the banner of Wetlands for Tomorrow, DU launched the Rescue the Duck Factory initiative to accelerate the protection of threatened native prairie in the Dakotas by purchasing conservation easements from cooperating landowners.

In May 2010, several months after the resignation of Don Young, DU hired Dale Hall, a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2005–2009), as its new chief executive officer. Hall became DU's second CEO, following longtime DU Chief Financial Officer Randy Graves, who held the position on an interim basis while a successor was being selected.

A year after Hall took the helm, Wetlands for Tomorrow closed with a bang. Surpassing its original $1.7 billion goal, the campaign raised an astounding $1.88 billion and conserved some 2 million acres of wetlands on more than 4,800 DU projects across North America. The campaign's Rescue the Duck Factory initiative was also a huge success, raising more than $40 million and protecting nearly 150,000 acres of wetlands and grasslands through perpetual easements. As always, DU's volunteer leaders led by example, none more so than past Wetlands America Trust President and campaign co-chairman Jim Kennedy, who made a transformational $21 million gift in support of DU's conservation work on the prairies.

Looking back 75 years, DU's founders would be amazed at all their organization has accomplished. Since 1937, DU has raised more than $3.5 billion, which has contributed to the conservation of nearly 13 million acres of wetlands and other prime wildlife habitat in all 50 states, each of the Canadian provinces, and key areas of Mexico. And yet, as DU moves into the fourth quarter-century of existence, it will require even more dedication, more work, and more money to meet the challenges of the future. Rising commodity prices, weakened wetland protections, and budget cuts to NAWCA and Farm Bill conservation programs threaten waterfowl populations on the prairies and in other high-priority areas. Saving the "best of the best" of North America's remaining waterfowl habitat, especially on the prairies where DU's work all began, won't be easy.

Looking Forward

Our challenges pale in comparison to those faced daily by the splendid birds that inspire this grand organization—the magnificent migrations across a continent twice a year, the struggle to remain healthy while winging those thousands of miles so that when they return to their breeding grounds, they are fit to reproduce. And yet they persist. Ducks do not have it in them to give up.

Nor does Ducks Unlimited.

DU will not give up because those who belong to it and work for it cannot imagine a world—will not allow a world—in which autumn skies are not filled with skeins of waterfowl. They will not allow a time in which the human soul has no place to be renewed by a dawn in the marsh, or by the sound of wings in the growing light and the whimper of an anxious retriever. They will never give up preserving a world where they can experience the excitement of a youngster's first day in a blind, or the warmth and smell of a plump bird in their hand. They will not tolerate the end of such magic that wetlands can produce.

This is the work, passion, and promise of DU. It is its remarkable past. It is its shining present. And it's Ducks Unlimited's bright future.

Michael Furtman has written more than a dozen books, including The Ducks Unlimited Story, from which this excerpt is taken. To order a copy, visit www.ducks.org/75book or call 800-453-8257. Furtman lives in Duluth, Minnesota, with his wife, Mary Jo, and their Labrador retriever, Bella.