Saturday, December 18, 2010

You Don't Have to be a Biologist to Make a Difference - Ding Darling and the Duck Stamp


At some point, it's hard to talk about the philosophical "drainage wars" in the United States - let alone Florida - without invoking editorial cartoonist and legendary conservationist Ding Darling.  A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Ding was pre-eminent among early 20th Century Americans in his concern about the legacy of human land use. It's important to remember that in that era, environmental costs or impacts were generally not considered when planning a highway, city, or even a state park.  Like nearly all conservationists of the era, he was an avid hunter and angler. The cartoon above, from Ding's 1944 article "The Story of the Ground Water Table" parodies the Army Corps of Engineers' desire to drain as much American acreage as possible for agriculture and suburban expansion in the south, midwest, and west.  The caption, "Our Engineers Plan Water Uses for Everything Except Nature's Objectives" tells you everything you need to know about what was a pretty unpopular opinion at the time. Ding Darling was ruthless in his exhumation of poor human assumptions about land use - and water use.

Even fellow conservationists found Darling to be a persistent cynic - politicians considered him to be a gigantic pest. In fact, Franklin D. Roosevelt finally had enough in 1934 and appointed Darling as the chief of the new "Bureau of Biological Survey" in 1934. Ding - hardly a biologist but obviously a well-known artist - conceived the Federal Waterfowl Stamp (Duck Stamp) program and actually painted the first design, released in August, 1934. It was an additive tax for the hunters of migratory birds - largely supported by bird hunters.  Ding even purchased Stamp #1 and signed it for his own hunting use.  It sold recently on the internet and I saw this picture for the first time:

Ding Darling, owner of Federal Waterfowl Stamp Year 1, #1, and designer of said stamp.

Like many good acts in government, the Duck Stamp Program merely enabled the US Government to do what they had promised to do when it passed an earlier law - specifically, when Herbert Hoover signed the North American Migratory Bird Treaty Act into policy in 1929 - to set aside money to protect and restore habitat for migratory birds in the United States.  The 1929 act did not provide any funding to actually accomplish that.  The Duck Stamp was America's first attempt to do so - to mandate conservation fees to users who are not on-site at a specific National Park or Wildlife Refuge.  Was there a protest by birdwatchers or kayak manufacturers or hunters?

In 1934, the US Government sold about 600,000 of the $1 stamps according to USFWS data.  In 1945, over 1.5 million stamps were sold (still $1).  Meanwhile, in 1940,  Ding's little Bureau of Biological Survey received a new name and a Federal promotion as the US Fish and Wildlife Service.   The program hit its zenith around 1972, with nearly 2.5 million stamps sold (the price was increased to $3 per stamp).  Nowadays, about 1.5 million stamps are sold per year at $15 a piece. Over this time, over $670 million has been raised specifically for the purpose of migratory bird habitat protection and restoration.
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You are probably asking, "But how much of it was wasted?" Two percent.  That's right. 98% of Federal Waterfowl Stamp funds are used directly on the ground to build habitat for ducks, geese, swans, snipe, and other migratory birds.   Given the general ineffectiveness of so many other Federal programs, this is astonishing.  Even compare it to your favorite migratory bird nonprofit - Ducks Unlimited (88%), Delta Waterfowl (70% - not good), Quail Unlimited (83%), Waterfowl USA (does not participate in rating), or California Waterfowl Association (70% - ouch). Wow.  98% looks pretty good all of a sudden. And all this, from the mind of a cartoonist who probably never had more than a introductory biology course in college.
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There are a lot of great lessons here, including "buy a duck stamp," and "buy a second duck stamp for conservation."  But the most important one, perhaps, is that you needn't be the smartest biologist or even possess a high-value MBA in nonprofit management to make a meaningful contribution.  Don't let anyone, especially the older generations, tell you that it cannot be done.  It's more than "there's room at the table."  No.  We must have you at the table.  We need leaders for tomorrow to save habitat for wildlife and for people.  We need a thousand, or ten thousand, Ding Darlings.  Will you be one?

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