Lekwa: Conservation – A Public/Private Partnership

Steve Lekwa

Wild nature had long been considered a powerful foe to be conquered, or perhaps as a source of resources to exploit for profit. A change began when natural resource conservation started to take root in the national consciousness around 1900. President Teddy Roosevelt used his “bully pulpit” to promote the idea and found a receptive audience. The first wildlife refuges and national parks were created by his executive actions. The first significant federal law to protect wildlife, known as the Lacey Act, was passed in 1900. It prohibited trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that had been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed in 1918, and included the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and the former Soviet Union. That act made it unlawful to take species designated as migratory birds, with the exception of those designated as game birds. Game species could be managed by the enforcement of seasons and bag limits. These federal laws helped bring an end to the era of “market hunting” and began the trend toward scientific management of fish and wildlife.

The Great Depression was a time of global economic collapse that was compounded by one of the worst North American droughts on record in the 1930s. The infamous “Dust Bowl” saw massive dust storms that blew precious topsoil from the Great Plains all the way to Washington, D.C. People suffered, and so did wildlife; especially waterfowl. Native Iowan “Ding” Darling proposed a way to allow hunters to help raise funds for wetland conservation. The Migratory Bird Stamp Act was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 and required waterfowl hunters to purchase what became known as “Duck Stamps” in order to hunt migratory waterfowl. “Ding” drew a pair of mallards for the first duck stamps that cost $1. Duck Stamps have raised many millions of dollars for wetland conservation. Most states have adopted similar programs and raised millions more.

Private citizens began stepping up in those dark times to financially support natural resource conservation because they could see quite clearly that federal and state programs were not going to go far enough to save our natural heritage. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, better known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, followed in 1937. In spite of continuing hard times, the act came about due to strong support from citizen conservationists. It established an excise tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition. Archery, handguns, and hunting accessories were added later. Funds gathered were distributed to the states based on state size and the number of licensed hunters. The Dingle-Johnson Act followed later and used a similar formula to support fishing.

The Izaak Walton League and Ducks Unlimited were early private organizations that allowed citizen members to do even more for fish and wildlife conservation through both fund- raising and advocacy. Pheasants Forever, Whitetails Forever, the American Wild Turkey Federation, The Nature Conservancy, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and dozens more private organizations like them have sprung up across the nation to partner with government agencies on a wide range of natural resource conservation and outdoor recreation efforts. The private sector has clearly demonstrated strong support for our public natural resources. Many states, including several of our neighbors, passed laws years ago to secure sustainable funding for their natural resource programs. Iowans passed a constitutional amendment to more sustainably fund conservation efforts with overwhelming support. Iowa’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund has been on the books for 10 years now, but the legislature has yet to put a single dollar into it. Our state’s conservation agencies remain underfunded, unsure of future funding, and unable to plan as effectively as they should for current or future needs. A large coalition of individuals and organizations is pushing for the 2019 legislature to finally put Iowa on course to move forward with assurance in our efforts on water quality, wildlife habitat, soil conservation, and various outdoor recreation projects. It will cost each of us a little, but polls indicate that Iowans, like most Americans, are ready and willing to support conservation just as they have in the past.