"During the years when the leadership of the U.S. Department of the Interior seemed to be much more interested in pleasing the hunters than it was in carrying out its major responsibility of maintaining the waterfowl resource, John [Baker]'s voice was consistently and clearly heard against this policy.
His persistent attention to the declining population of waterfowl and his efforts to get the department to see the importance of preserving and maintaining the resource, had much to do with the final awakening of the high command to the necessity of getting things put back on a more solid basis."
Ira N. Gabrielson, Former Director
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 1959
The National Audubon Society has been an activist organization from its infancy, though its continuing search for sensible solutions to environmental problems has prompted the occasional brickbat from disgruntled observers. Sometimes lumped with "commies and crackpots" by thwarted exploiters or characterized as "the gray lady of the conservation movement" by untrammeled eco-freaks, the Society has held to its course.
Shortly after winning the fierce legislative battles to stop the killing of wild birds in the millinery and food markets early in this century, Audubon waded into the even more bitter controversies over waterfowl conservation. Vast areas of wetlands were being lost to agriculture by the late 1920s. Hunters could legally harvest 25 ducks a day. The federal government had no money to hire wardens, or even to buy refuge sites. With Prohibition in full swing, a government biologist told Congress that "the same men who are bootlegging liquor bootleg ducks."
by Tupper Blake
Audubon president T. Gilbert Pearson, as a member of a federal advisory board on waterfowl, became one of the leaders pressing for reduced bag limits and higher funding for land acquisition. Out of this campaign emerged the Norbeck-Andresen Bill. Pearson rounded up support for the legislation among both Audubon members and professional wildlife managers. When Congress finally passed the bill in 1929, Pearson encouraged the Bureau of the Biological Survey (precursor of the Fish and Wildlife Service) to lower bag limits to 15 ducks and four geese a day. During the following five years of the Great Depression, the federal government bought more than a million acres of wetlands.
A new Audubon president, John Baker, carried on the fight for sound waterfowl management in the 1930s and '40s. Among Baker's targets were such age-old practices as the use of live decoys, baiting, and sink-boxes. He and his colleagues in the conservation wars had the satisfaction of seeing those harmful holdovers from another age properly banned, and waterfowl populations rose to levels in the 1950s they may never reach again.
by Tupper Blake
Today there is still no disposition within Audubon to become an "issue neuter" organization. Past experience in almost every legislature in the land, gained both in Audubon's Public Policy Division in Washington, D.C., and among its regional and state offices, has proved that endurance counts as strongly as eloquence or cunning in effecting laws that are good for wildlife. Such struggles often take years to bring to a close.
A case in point is the long campaign over the Garrison Diversion Unit, planned for North Dakota by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and authorized by Congress in 1965. The original proposal was to move water from the Missouri River to irrigate farms (perhaps as many as 1,300, perhaps fewer than 300) at a cost of well over a billion dollars. Its design called for some 3,000 miles of canals, pipelines, drains, and regulating reservoirs in the heart of the prairie pothole country -- America's "duck factory." This region produces 50 percent of North America's ducks even though it accounts for only ten percent of the entire duck breeding area.
"Some water projects are good, some are poor," former Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus once remarked, "but the Garrison project is the dog of all."
As the leader in the fight to end funding for this enormous boondoggle, Audubon has found itself embroiled in Congressional lobbying ever since. Opponents have apparently beaten or restricted the project several times, but it keeps coming back to life in different versions. The idea that took hold was that North Dakota was somehow "owed" a major irrigation project, though the obligation was based on Dust Bowl conditions that had prevailed in the 1930s. Audubon lobbyists raising money and buttonholing members of Congress, have grown old fighting Garrison.
Audubon's regional offices and state councils have carried on the struggle for wetlands in their own regions for many years. For instance, the West Central Regional Office has been fighting its own long-term war to save the Platte River. Water interests all the way to Denver have proposed dams along the river that would prove ruinous to waterfowl conservation.
Fortunately, Audubon's Annette and Lillian Rowe Sanctuary at a pivotal point along the river has served as a showplace for its glories. The arrival of the cranes there in spring has drawn national attention, often overshadowing the fact that at the same time the Platte is visited by anywhere from five to nine million migrating ducks and geese.
The state of Minnesota has recently seen a great tugging back and forth by competing interests over its Wetlands Conservation Act. During the dark environmental days of 1995 and 1996, wetlands supporters saw some of their hard-won gains go down the drain.
At present the Minnesota Audubon Council and the state office are trying to reform the state's "Ditch Law." Like many other states, Minnesota's legislators in the nineteenth century came under the prevailing wisdom that wetlands were bad for public health. A state drainage system effectively took away prime waterfowl habitat and, in the process, often added to local flooding problems as the drainage moved downstream. Today, outmoded drainage projects undermine the state's already battered Wetlands Conservation Act.
A high Audubon priority in Minnesota is to defend the Wetlands Act while bringing the Ditch Law into the twenty-first century.