The gathering this weekend in Willmar of the hardest-working among Minnesota’s Ducks Unlimited volunteers is proof that against all odds some people never give up.
Starting in the late 1880s, Little Ag followed by Big Ag followed by Big Metro Development started draining and paving this state’s wetlands and shallow lakes, until what’s left of these waters supports only a fraction of the ducks that once fledged here.
Yet hope beats eternal in the hearts of the DU members who will meet in their annual state convention, their hands calloused from performing the conservation work others won’t, their faces weather-beaten from leaning too long into headwinds that cascade from an otherwise indifferent society.
“The gravity of the ecological situation reveals how deep is the human moral crisis,” Pope John Paul II said in 1990.
Across Minnesota, rainwater and snowmelt that once settled gradually, and cleanly, into aquifers hundreds of feet below the Earth’s surface now instead are rushed through galactic lengths of subsurface drain pipe into ditches and rivers that for all intents and purposes are ditches themselves.
Wildlife is washed out in the process, ducks being among the most noticeable, trailed by a less visible cast of hundreds — stream banks, fish habitat, invertebrates and clean drinking water among them.
Appropriate here is an ecclesiastic’s admonition, because to remain a Minnesota duck hunter — whose numbers have plummeted from about 140,000 in the 1970s to 61,000 in 2016 (three-quarters of whom are DU members) — requires a true believer’s faith that a brighter conservation future lies ahead, if not next year, then the next or the next.
In this state, the very act of rising at 4 a.m. to don a mishmash of timeworn camouflage duds and wade into a marsh hoping that at sunrise a mallard or a perhaps a wood duck will cup its wings over a set of decoys is testament to that faith.
Today’s remaining duck hunters believe, after all, that the future exists not as a predetermined extension of the past, but, as Stephen Hawking once said, as a spectrum of infinite possibilities. Thus, they go afield worrying less about what once was in this state, or about what is, than about what can be — if the dedicated work of waterfowlers such as those meeting in Willmar this weekend were combined with effective conservation leadership.
Such leadership has been lacking for too long in the Minnesota statehouse, as it has in the Legislature and the Department of Natural Resources when the topics are wetlands and wetland wildlife.
Blame this in large part on Minnesota’s political-conservation complex, long in place and no less corrupt than the nation’s oft-derided military-industrial complex.
Intentionally constructed generations ago by Minnesota legislators and other politicos to grease the resource-eating machinery of Big Ag and Big Development, thereby limiting conservation’s reach, the state’s political-conservation complex too often, as collateral damage, imbues in DNR leaders a temerity they too often accommodate, worried as they are about the agency’s budgets, and their jobs.
It doesn’t help that over time too many Minnesota conservation leaders appear to have forgotten that, from the days of Teddy Roosevelt until today, conservation has been, and always will be, a contact sport. Rule No. 1 of which is straightforward:
Win at least as many resource-conserving battles as you lose, or, over time, kiss healthy lands and waters, fish and wildlife goodbye.
In 2007, Gov. Tim Pawlenty formed a Conservation Legacy Council to determine ways that land and water stewardship could be more effectively, and efficiently, delivered in Minnesota.
Made up of 10 citizens and four legislators, and chaired by a university professor, the commission met for months before recommending a total overhaul of the state’s conservation system.
First and foremost, the governor’s group said, a citizen-based Conservation Commission should be formed to lead resource-stewardship efforts in the state.
Second, a Conservation Compact should be developed to establish measurable conservation goals and to identify the conservation strategies required to address the state’s most critical threats to natural resources.
Third, the commission recommended that dedicated conservation funding be appropriated by the Legislature to the Conservation Commission to pay for the priorities of the Conservation Compact.
“Dedicated funding” in this reference means legislators could no longer browbeat the DNR and other conservation leaders by threatening to withhold budget money.
Benefits of such a plan likely would include a culture change among emboldened state conservation leaders. Freed of their shackles, they might actually say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done, to sustain Minnesota resources — and therefore Minnesota — indefinitely.
None of this happened, of course. By action and mostly inaction, the state’s political-conservation complex saw to that.
Perhaps someday, Minnesotans in sufficient numbers will realize how much is being lost, and will demand that the state’s fish and wildlife, forests and prairies, wetlands and aquifers, be better conserved.
Until then, this critical work will remain the charge of Minnesota’s true conservation believers, such as those meeting in Willmar this weekend — their faces weather-beaten from leaning too long into headwinds that cascade from an otherwise indifferent society.