Harold Benson and his wife, Betty, had just bought a house near Washington, DC, when Harold said, “we’re going to North Dakota.”


“There’s no trees out there, are there?” she asked.


“No, this is an opportunity for a new employee to go out and see if he can do anything,” he replied. And so, in 1958, Benson began building the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, which uses Duck Stamp proceeds and conservation easements to protect migratory bird and waterfowl habitat, mainly in the Prairie Pothole Region.


“Back in those early years,” Benson recalled in an oral history interview at the National Conservation Training Center, “we spent all the money we could spend, and I know, myself, I had taken almost 200 agreements the first year.” Benson was born in Minneapolis in 1929. He graduated with a degree in forestry from the University of Minnesota before serving in the Korean War and beginning a 30–year career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1958.


He was an early leader in two other major conservation efforts—the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan of 1986. He became the first assistant regional director for federal aid and endangered species, writing the first biological opinion on the Everglade kite. Later, as chief of refuges in the Southeast Region, Benson worked on the joint ventures that were critical to the success of the North American Plan. Charles Baxter, the first joint venture coordinator for the Lower Mississippi Valley, says Benson “had a personal interest in the success of the plan. And his management style was such that he came to basically every meeting … so I always had a supervisor that understood what I was doing.”


Benson received the Department of the Interior Distinguished Service Award in 1995. His pioneering leadership in the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program (SWAP) was recognized in 2008 when the Harold W. Benson Memorial Waterfowl Production Area was re–named in his honor at Chase Lake Wetland Management District in North Dakota.


SWAP colleague Paul Hartmann says of Benson: “There were but a few who saw every obstacle as an opportunity … he was the leader who inspired the rest of us to go out and ‘save the dirt.’ ”