For 30 years, Joe Duggan has been a major player in efforts to conserve and enhance Minnesota's fish and wildlife habitat, especially its grasslands and wetlands.

He played a key role in the passage of three constitutional amendments, including one guaranteeing residents a right to hunt, fish and trap and another that boosted the state sales tax to fund clean water and restore, protect and enhance wildlife habitat.

And Duggan helped Pheasants Forever, launched in St. Paul in 1982, to grow into an influential national conservation group with 140,000 members in 40 states. He joined the group three years after its founding and became a well-known conservation advocate at rallies, Capitol hearings and other events.

"He's played a leading role in Minnesota conservation," said Dave Zentner, 78, of Duluth, himself a longtime conservationist who headed the Capitol duck rallies. "He's accomplished a lot."

Duggan, 63, of Bloomington, vice president of corporate relations with Pheasants Forever, is leaving his full-time job in July. He declines to call it retirement.

"I call it a transition," he said. "I'm not going on a shelf. I'll continue to be involved in conservation."

Duggan will work occasionally as a consultant for Pheasants Forever, primarily monitoring legislative actions at the Capitol. But he plans to spend more time hunting, fishing and relaxing with his wife, Colleen, at their cabin on Rainy Lake.

About 200 people, including state and federal natural resource officials, conservationists, friends and family, gathered Thursday night in Vadnais Heights to celebrate Duggan's career.

"Joe was a mover and shaker," said Gary Botzek of the Minnesota Conservation Federation, who worked with Duggan on those constitutional amendments. "He's one of the best conservation advocates that I've worked with."

Duggan grew up in Minneapolis.

"My mom and dad both were outdoors-oriented, and we did family camping trips to Gooseberry Falls and Itasca state parks and to Canada," he recalled. At age 20, he went to Alaska and for the next 20 years worked there, springs and summers, as a commercial fisherman.

Duggan, an avid hunter and angler, got a business degree from the University of Minnesota. He was a manufacturer's representative when a friend invited him in 1985 to a Pheasants Forever banquet. He liked what he saw and offered to volunteer.

Soon he was helping PF executive director Jeff Finden grow the fledging organization during the winter, while he commercially fished in Alaska in the summer. He eventually became a full-time public affairs officer for Pheasants Forever — one of its few employees at the time — helping put on banquets and raise funds.

Duggan said he never imagined then that the group would grow to what it is today: An $82 million a year organization with 250 employees, including 150 wildlife biologists.

"It's an amazing story, it just grew and grew. The model, where the money raised locally [by chapters] stays local, was very attractive. And our focus on habitat resonated with people."

Duggan and PF advocated for policies that would boost conservation, including the federal Farm Bill.

"We realized that with a stroke of the pen you can get more done for conservation than all of the fundraising banquets we can put together," he said.

The creation of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in 1986, which paid farmers to idle marginal croplands, was a prime example of how policy can impact wildlife.

Duggan has had his hand in many conservation projects: He helped turn PF's National Pheasant Fest into an annual signature event, developed PF's "build a wildlife area," which has created 35 public wildlife areas covering 11,000 acres, and he generated millions of dollars for habitat through corporate sponsors.

"He was our fire-starter — Joe created fire in people's souls and minds to get things done for conservation," said Howard Vincent, PF president and CEO.

But his efforts to pass the 1998 Right to Hunt and Fish Amendment and the 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment likely will be Duggan's lasting legacy. "He was instrumental in getting those passed, said former state Sen. Bob Lessard, an author of those amendments.

Duggan, in 1998, also successfully pushed for reauthorization of Minnesota's Environmental Trust Fund Amendment, which uses lottery proceeds to fund natural resource projects. He was named Man of the Year by Outdoor News in 1999.

He's leaving his full-time job at a time when pheasants have been hammered by weather and a staggering loss of habitat as more grasslands have been plowed and planted to crops, offsetting years of habitat gains that were made by PF and other conservation groups.

"It's tremendously frustrating,'' Duggan said. "Ironically, we're at a juncture like we were 30 years ago. We have to find a way to integrate conservation into the landscape.

"But I'm optimistic. We have younger people here involved in conservation who have a passion and a drive to continue the successes.

"I'm going to stay engaged. I'm not going away."

Doug Smith •

Twitter: @dougsmithstrib