One of the unsettling truths I discovered during the two years I spent writing “The Wild Duck Chase,” ( my new book about the remarkable Federal Duck Stamp Program, is that what many consider the single greatest conservation initiative in human history now might itself be endangered.
The uninitiated may need context: The Federal Duck Stamp Contest is held each year to choose a design for the Federal Duck Stamp, which is the revenue stamp that all waterfowl hunters in the U.S. over the age of 16 are required to buy before they can hunt. The revenue from the sale of that stamp—more than $750 million and counting since 1934—is used to conserve waterfowl habitat. Since it began, the Duck Stamp Program has protected an area larger than the state of Massachusetts, and much of that critical acreage is now protected within the National Wildlife Refuge System. The $850,000-a-year program reliably generates $24 million in revenue every year for a program that’s stunningly efficient: 98 cents of every dollar collected is spent to acquire waterfowl habitat.
The front story of my book is about the quirky, archaic annual art contest in which artists compete to have their painting on the stamp. Each year, competitors, fans, and collectors disappear down an obscure and uniquely American rabbit hole into a wonderland of talent, ego, art, controversy, big money, and occasional scandal. But the back story is an epic tale of visionary leaders responding to a wildlife crisis in the early part of the last century, and creating a program that I think is one of the best ideas our federal government has ever had.
But there’s a problem. The number of hunters in the U.S. has been declining for years. For that matter, so has the number of stamp collectors. That means fewer people are buying duck stamps, and that less money is being spent to conserve habitat. But the number of birders is on the rise, and their goal is precisely the same as that of hunters: To conserve wildlife as a resource for future generations. So one of the keys to the survival of the Federal Duck Stamp Program may be the seemingly impossible mission of uniting hunters and birders – two groups that ordinarily consider themselves sworn enemies – behind a common cause. Together, they can provide enough revenue to keep this amazing conservation effort going. But unless birders recognize that Duck Stamps aren’t simply “hunting” stamps, the revenue available for habitat conservation will continue to dwindle.
I’d humbly suggest that birders and hunters recognize their common goal – as well as this conservation program with a 78-year record of proven effectiveness – and embrace one another as allies rather than adversaries. Sounds crazy, I know, but it just might work.
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Published on September 17, 2012 21:53 • 540 views
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message 1: by Nathan (new)

Nathan Swick It's not that birders and hunters are "sworn enemies" (they're not really), or that our interests don't intersect frequently (they do), but that birders are tired of hearing that our contributions to conservation are insignificant compared to hunters. In short, we're tired of having to constantly fight the perception that we're freeloading off the largess of the hunting community (who, not incidentally, is *legally required* to purchase the Duck Stamp).

The Duck Stamp is a model program, but there is no way to separate the contributions of hunters and non-consumptive hobbies like birding and photography. And as such, all of the money goes to the management of refuges as game farms as opposed to balanced ecosystems. Now, admittedly there is a lot of overlap there, but so long as the voices of non-hunters are not heard (money talks, after all), our interests are not considered in decisions with regard to habitat management where those practices are not in accordance with each other.

And honestly, it's as much about non-movement of the status quo as anything. It is worth mentioning that birders have long advocated a tax, much like the landmark Pittman-Robertson Act, levied on the purchase of camping/hiking/birding equipment to go towards the acquisition and management of land for non-consumptive hobbies. It was hoped this would give us more clout, but this well-intentioned and self-imposed program was shot down (no pun intended) by hunting interests who did not want to see their own influence in those matters wane.

Birders just want their credit due. The birding market is mature enough to support that. That's not really adversarial, and at that point we will happily join with hunters as allies to be the twin towers of habitat conservation in North America.

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Book Blather and Random Mutterings

Martin J. Smith
Novelist, journalist, and nonfiction author Martin J. Smith blogs about his books, as well as various and sundry obsessions.
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