GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Ducks Unlimited marks its 75th anniversary this year, and the conservation group is commemorating the milestone with the release of “The Ducks Unlimited Story.”
Written by Duluth, Minn., author and photographer Michael Furtman, 57, the 200-page hardcover book tells the story of how a small group of avid waterfowl hunters in 1937 decided to take action to restore waterfowl populations devastated by drought and wetland loss.
That early effort blossomed into one of the most successful conservation organizations in history.
Grand Forks Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken interviewed Furtman about the book and the Ducks Unlimited story. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:
QUESTION: How did your involvement with this book come about?
ANSWER: They actually approached me. They knew they were going to do a 75th anniversary book and had a list of writers they thought could handle it. I don’t know if I was the last guy they called or the first guy. I immediately jumped on the chance.
Q: With a project like this, where do you begin?
A: They had cobbled together a pretty basic outline before I met with them and when I flew to Memphis (Ducks Unlimited headquarters), we had a discussion and conference call with members of the 75th anniversary committee, which went on for, like, two hours. And it’s a bit of a funny story because when we got done, if you read the preface of the book, I was like a deer in the highlights. All these guys had different ideas of where this book was going to go, and I threw up my arms and said, “I can’t work with a dozen different bosses. This isn’t going to work with me. Why don’t you find someone else?” They said “No, no, no. We want you to write the book.”
We fleshed out a more detailed outline before I left and determined I would only deal with the editor. It ended up working out really well. There were months and months of research before I started writing.
Q: How did you decide what to leave out of the book?
A: That was a big concern to me. I mostly wanted to focus on how the organization continued to reinvent itself over the decades as conditions changed and as the priorities changed. Every step of the way they had to kind of reshape the organization without losing the vision of their primary goal.
Q: What did you learn about DU that you didn’t previously know during the process of writing this book?
A: I’ve been a member for a long time, so I was pretty familiar with the history, and I’ve written about waterfowl forever; it’s a passion of mine. But I do think the one that strikes me, something I’ve learned, is just how visionary the founders were. Nobody had ever conceived of working on habitat on such a massive scale before — no one. The first aerial surveys of the Prairie Pothole Region were done by DU. The vision and the science both started right at the very beginning. It was not a by-guess-and-by-golly operation, and that’s pretty much a constant theme all the way through their entire history. It’s all science-based.
Q: Are you happy with the book?
A: I am. I think it’s a compelling story. Although I had no involvement in the actual design, I’m really pleased with the efforts of the people at national headquarters that designed the book.
Q: 75 years is a long time for any organization. As someone who’s researched the group, why do you think DU has been so successful?
A: There’s multiple reasons. One is just the passion of the individual members, the volunteers. Without all these local chapters and the passion of those people, the organization would fail. I think two is consistently great leadership down through the decades all the way from the beginning. You have this group of professionals who have the vision and the organization to pull off the habitat work, and then you have this army of just ordinary men and women who are willing to raise the funds and funnel all that fuel to the engine to do the job.
Q: One thing that strikes me about DU is their work isn’t something that’s happening elsewhere. It’s happening right here in North Dakota and Minnesota.
A: It really is. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. Until the ’80s, all of DU’s work was in Canada but eventually, it shifted south of the border as it became more and more clear that habitat issues in the U.S. were also restricting duck production. DU has impacted more land across the continent than any other single organization and probably more than all the organizations combined.
Q: The birth of DU coincided with a pretty bleak period for wetlands and waterfowl habitat. Where do you think North American waterfowl and habitat be today without DU?
A: That’s a really good question. I hesitate to say we wouldn’t have duck hunting today if DU hadn’t been around, but I don’t think it would be a far stretch. It’s an open question. It takes multiple partnerships to do the job today, but they were the only players really in the field for 40 to 50 years, especially in Canada. It would be grim. Ducks would never have gone extinct, but would we continue to have duck hunting seasons? We’ve been pretty close to having to close the season a couple of times in these 75 years. There’s no doubt in my mind their efforts stopped that from happening.
Q: What does DU mean to you personally?
A: The ducks mean a lot to me. The prairies mean a lot to me, and they have all my life. I’ve been a DU member since the late ’70s and ’80s. I’ve never been a passionate DU member, never involved at the chapter level. Interest in this book didn’t grow out of being a DU member. Their interest in me was that I’d written passionately about this resource for so long that I understood it. It’s probably helpful I haven’t been involved at the grassroots level. I’m not an insider so I think that really helped with the perspective in writing the book.
Q: What message would you like people to take away from the book after reading it?
A: That just about anything is possible when we work together. DU is a really shining example of working across political boundaries, international boundaries and getting something good done. Not letting our differences stand in the way of achieving something that is good for the commons. And I think that’s a powerful message.
Q: The book starts by citing widespread drainage and habitat destruction. Is history repeating itself?
A: I think to large degree, it is. There’s enormous pressure being put on the landscape again. We kind of got lulled in the ’90s with CRP on the land and now, there’s certainly a lot of pressure on it. We’ve lost wetland protection, thanks to Supreme Court rulings. We need to decide as a society again what we want. There’s no givens here.
Q: This question isn’t so much related to the book, but as a passionate waterfowl hunter, what would you say to people in North Dakota who might take the resource for granted?
A: I love the Dakota prairies and I spend both spring and fall out there — springtime photographing and birding and wandering around, and in the fall, I come out to hunt. I know it’s easy for people, just as we do here in northern Minnesota, to look out the window and think that’s the way it will always be. They shouldn’t take it for granted. They have such a spectacular resource out there that I hope they want to preserve it for future generations. Because once it’s gone, it’s gone.
(c)2012 the Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, N.D.)
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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): OTD-DUCKSUNLIMITED-QA