Excerpt: The Wild Duck Chase

Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Excerpt: The Wild Duck Chase

A glimpse inside the odd and inspiring Federal Duck Stamp Contest.

By Martin J. Smith
Published: 09/14/2013

Nothing at the corner of Fairfax Drive and Vermont Street in Arlington, Virginia, suggests that the nondescript building at 4401 North Fairfax houses anything extraordinary, much less the three-office suite of one of the best ideas America's federal government has ever had. Even after a four-floor elevator ride, it's tricky to find the headquarters of the Federal Duck Stamp Program in the small labyrinth occupied by the Division of Bird Habitat Conservation, which itself is a thirty-employee subnode of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is part of the Department of the Interior.

In 2010, the $852,000-a-year program would generate about twenty-four million dollars in revenue through the sale of an obscure revenue stamp to a dwindling number of hunters and stamp collectors, and to what the program hopes is a growing number of enlightened birders and other conservationists. Since it began in 1934, the duck stamp program has generated more than $750 million, and ninety-eight cents of each dollar has been used to help purchase or lease 5.3 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the United States, with much of that land now protected within the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The program was started by environmental visionaries in the middle of the Dust Bowl era and the Great Depression, when the need to conserve resources for waterfowl seemed a frivolous pursuit in a nation desperate to simply feed itself. With real and raw emotion in her voice, Duck Stamp Program Chief Pat Fisher said, "I just really respect those people at the creation [of the program], and honor their memories. What they did was amazing to me. Everything worked. It was a tragic time for people, and wildlife. But some amazing things came out of that. Not only the Duck Stamp Program but the federal Works Projects Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, things like that. We have really historic roots, and it all came out of this tragic time." 

Wild Duck Chase. W3 insert
Courtesy of Walker & Company
The Wild Duck Chase, by Martin J. Smith, Bloomsbury USA, $16
 Fisher paused, then peered over the top edge of her rimless eyeglasses. "I don't want all that to go. It would be a terrible thing to lose."


At nine a.m. on October 15, 2010, the doors of the David Brower Center--the self-proclaimed "greenest building in Berkeley [California]"--officially open to the public for the Federal Duck Stamp Contest judging--a dramatic two-day process involving three scheduled elimination rounds to select a contest winner.

Inside the Brower Center--a temple to environmental activism named after one of the twentieth century's greatest conservation pioneers--the one hundred-eighty seat auditorium is beginning to fill. Members of the local Audubon Society branch are mingling with hunters--two groups that some people consider sworn enemies. Most of the artists in the room are avid hunters as well. At one display an aproned wood carver from the Pacific Flyway Decoy Association whittles the head of a decoy eventually intended to lure unsuspecting waterfowl into a shotgun's range.

Although the rest of the world is aggressively ignoring the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, there's no shortage of drama. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staffers and volunteers busy themselves making sure the contest's carefully crafted choreography is ready to be set in motion. The communications coordinator from the Division of Bird Habitat Conservation is at her laptop, preparing the news release that will announce this year's winner. The program staffer who's been tweeting news about the event in recent days attends to final setup details. The five judges--whose identities had been a tightly controlled secret until today--are sequestered in a second-floor briefing room, along with the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who will act as their technical consultant once their deliberations begin. The AV guy is readying the camera for the first-ever worldwide webcast of the contest via live streaming video. Everyone entering the Brower Center this October weekend is greeted by a slotted box at the reception table. After viewing the displayed entries, visitors are invited to write their guess about the probable winner on a piece of paper and drop it into the box for a chance to win a rockin' pair of field binoculars. The voting table is crowded.

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