In 1967, Aretha Franklin recorded her signature rocker, “Respect.” The same year, United Auto Workers kingpin Jimmy Hoffa began serving an eight-year sentence for attempting to bribe a jury. And Muhammad Ali politely declined the government’s offer for employment with the U.S. Army.
Also in 1967, Ray Hangge and Dick Lindell, both of Albert Lea, as well as Tom Tubbs and Bob Head, cooked up a harebrained idea: They’d start a duck group called the Southern Minnesota Waterfowl Lake Impovement Association, with a goal of restoring a shallow-lake habitat corridor from the Iowa border north to U.S. Hwy. 212, which runs east to west from the Twin Cities to the South Dakota border.
“This must be done fast and intense,’’ Hangge wrote at the time. “No longer one lake per year or slightly more!”
For about half of the past 52 years, Hangge and his buddies fueled that idea with heavyweight contributions of time, money and sweat. Then, as they aged, they watched others join the effort.
In the process, the organization morphed into a statewide group called the Minnesota Waterfowl Association (MWA), which, through its chapters, undertook some of the habitat projects Hangge et al. envisioned.
“There was a need for a group like ours,”’ Hangge, 90, said the other day, noting that at the time, Ducks Unlimited’s primary habitat work was in prairie Canada.
In the 52 years since, MWA has had many successes.
Minnesota has a duck stamp that is required to be purchased by state waterfowlers, thanks to MWA. The group also supported establishment of Minnesota’s Migratory Waterfowl Feeding and Resting Areas, as well as the state’s wetland protection act. And the support of MWA members was critical to passage in 2008 of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.
As importantly, in 1989, MWA established “Woodie Camp.’’ Held each summer at Prairie Wetland Learning Center near Fergus Falls, Woodie Camp — whose name references wood ducks — hosts boys and girls ages 13 to 15 from around the state. Students attend tuition-free to learn about environmental protection, hunting ethics, duck and goose identification, retriever training, and game care and preparation, among other topics.
Successes like these were recalled last week, but for the wrong reason: MWA is folding. With too few members (approximately 2,500) and too-little cash (about $20,000) the group’s board voted unanimously recently to shutter its rental office in Hopkins, effective Sept. 30.
“It’s a sad day,” said John Schroers, MWA board chair whose adult life has been dedicated to the group. Brad Nylon, MWA’s executive director the past 17 years, Schroers said, was furloughed Aug. 15.
“Due to an aging and declining user base in waterfowl hunting and conservation,” MWA said in a news release, “a trend has developed over the last decade or so which points to the reality of the time. Declining duck populations, duck stamp sales, access and declining membership are all indicators which contributed to this decision.”
Other societal changes also played roles in the group’s demise, including a seemingly growing aversion among many Americans to join groups.
Competition for conservationists’ time, support and money also is far more intense today than it was in 1967. With 666,000 members nationwide, Ducks Unlimited cuts a wide swath among habitat-minded scattergunners, as does Minnesota-based Pheasants Forever, with 143,000 members.
In the past decade or so, as MWA began stumbling, some of its leaders, including those of its largest chapter, Scott-Le Sueur, wondered why they were sending 65 percent of money they raised at fundraising banquets to the state office, while keeping only 35 percent for local habitat projects.
Absent a glossy magazine like those published by Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, or a lobbyist at the state Capitol, Myron Tietz, Scott-Le Sueur chapter president, said his group wasn’t getting enough bang for its buck.
“I have mixed emotions about leaving MWA,” Tietz said. “But our chapter voted to leave, and the vote wasn’t close.’’
Tietz, 68, helped form the Scott-Le Sueur MWA chapter more than 40 years ago.
“With MWA gone, we’ll reorganize and keep doing what we’ve been doing, making habitat in our area,” he said. “We have a strong banquet volunteer committee of about 20 members, and we get about 280 people at our [fundraising] banquet.”
A timeworn adage suggests that success has a thousand fathers, while failure is an orphan. True enough — and certainly some finger pointing will accompany MWA’s closing.
Yet the group’s achievements shouldn’t be forgotten.
Those southern Minnesota habitat corridors that were first envisioned in 1967?
They are indeed coming to pass — however belatedly — thanks to the Department of Natural Resources and Ducks Unlimited’s Living Lakes Initiative, which has conserved more than 100,000 acres of Minnesota habitat, including enhancement of 2,222-acre Freeborn Lake near Albert Lea.
Ironically, perhaps, the Living Lakes Initiative has been underwritten by millions of dollars raised by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment — and the first two people to put their shoulders to the wheel when the final “guns and greens’’ push was made to place the amendment on the 2008 statewide ballot were Schroers and past MWA president Lance Ness. Both earned their conservation confidence and credibility by joining and leading the group founded in Albert Lea 52 years ago.
So perhaps Hangge, Tubbs, Lindell and Head succeeded, after all. Just not the way they thought they might.
“Now,” as Tietz said, “it’s time to move on.”