U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service



February 17, 1996

Michael Smith 303-236-7905
Sharon Rose 303-236-7905

The Federal Duck Stamp and its Role in the History of Wetlands Conservation

While the reality of the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp--commonly called the Duck Stamp--has been a fixture of waterfowling since 1934, the wetlands conservation initiatives behind the stamp reach back decades earlier.

Much of the credit for promoting the Duck Stamp goes to J.N. "Ding" Darling, an award-winning editorial cartoonist who penned the illustration for the first Duck Stamp while he was Director of the Bureau of Biological Survey (the forerunner agency of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

"There can be no doubt that 'Ding' Darling is a giant of twentieth century conservation," observed Bob Streeter, the Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Director for Refuges and Wildlife, "but despite all 'Ding's' many achievements for waterfowl and wetlands, the history of wetlands conservation and the Duck Stamp itself are more complex than is often portrayed and their historical roots much deeper."

The idea of wetland habitat conservation already was well established in the earliest years of this century. And even the concept of a revenue stamp purchased by waterfowl hunters for wetland acquisition was under way before 1920.

Writing in the July 1984, issue of OUTDOOR LIFE Magazine, Lonnie Williamson of The Wildlife Management Institute noted that, "Legislation to give the Bureau of Biological Survey authority to protect migratory waterfowl was introduced in Congress in 1904." But, as Williamson added, it was 1911 before a strong, effective coalition of sportsmen, private conservation groups, and state wildlife agencies was pulled together by the American Game Protective Association (now The Wildlife Management Institute) to work for the bill's enactment. In 1913, with the passage of the Weeks-McLean Act, Congress provided some of the first Federal protection for migratory birds by establishing guidelines on seasons when birds could be hunted; hence, spring waterfowl gunning was essentially stopped.

A Federal court challenge to the Weeks-McLean Act in 1914 did little to deter conservationists to advance protection of migratory birds and their wetland habitats. With the 1916 signing of a migratory bird conservation treaty with Great Britain on behalf of Canada and the ratification and implementation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, the stage was set for many more waterfowl and wetlands conservation initiatives that continue today.

The initial idea for the Duck Stamp is more difficult to trace. However, in 1919, the chief U.S. game warden, George A. Lawyer, was the first to advance the idea of a Federal revenue stamp for waterfowl hunting to generate funds to acquire wetlands to assure habitat and public hunting areas. Lawyer s duck stamp idea preceded Ding s appointment as chief of the Biological Survey by 15 years.

Lawyer's innovative idea for a Federal waterfowl stamp found favor with the leadership of the American Game Protective Association who sought support from the Bureau of Biological Survey. Congressional support resulted in a bill being introduced in 1921. The proposed legislation called for the creation of a wetland habitat acquisition program; its source of funding: receipts from the sale of "duck stamps."

But sometimes even the best of ideas move slowly. As Williamson noted in his 1984 article, "It took eight years of struggle, but the wetland acquisition authorization bill, known as the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, was finally enacted in 1929." In the process of passage, however, the stipulations for the duck stamp and public hunting areas were winnowed out. The refuges that would be acquired would be financed with general appropriations.

The next important event on the national scene wasn't a government official or political leader, but a drought in the prairie region that by the early 1930s yielded devastation to farming communities and waterfowl alike. By 1934, the accrued effects of drought and the earlier conservation efforts with Congress in the 1920s produced the times and political climate suited for passage of the legislation that created the Federal Duck Stamp. George Lawyer s vision became fact.

"Most waterfowlers today and conservationists familiar with wetlands protection," said Streeter, "recognize that out of the Dust Bowl Era, some of our greatest waterfowl and wetland triumphs eventually emerged. Certainly 'Ding' Darling was the man of the hour in rallying key support in the early 1930s for the plight of ducks and wetlands. But my surmise is that 'Ding' himself would probably be among the very first today to say that those earlier efforts and ideas such as George Lawyer s stamp were critical in formulating this Nation s wetland conservation ethic. Since 1934 revenues from the sales of Duck Stamps have totaled more than $500 million and have helped acquire 4.4 million acres of wetlands.

"It's very important to recognize," said Streeter, "that this country has a record of almost a century of wetlands and waterfowl conservation. Understanding some of the earliest efforts is important to appreciating what has transpired since the 1930s, as well as what we have today. The first proponents of migratory bird conservation and wetland protection faced sharp opposition. It took considerable courage and perseverance for them to achieve what they did."

Today, scientists generally acknowledge that wetlands constitute the most valuable and productive wildlife habitat in North America and provide, via their migratory birds, ecological links to the rest of the world. The conservation advocates at the turn of the century, however, did not enjoy such a degree of scientific certainty. Much of their work relied on a faith that future studies would support their positions and the hope that the public at large would eventually appreciate and support the fruits of their efforts. George Lawyer's original idea for a Federal waterfowl stamp coupled with the pioneering conservation work undertaken in the earliest years of the twentieth century provided critical contributions to the conservation of migratory birds and their habitats-- contributions that can continue to serve conservation in the twenty-first century and beyond.

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