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At Issue: Greenbacks for Greenheads (and Other Game)

Last year alone, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act was responsible for $100 million in funding to benefit game, fish and other wildlife in the United States.

At Issue: Greenbacks for Greenheads (and Other Game)

Since 1989, NAWCA grants totaling more than $1.6 billion dollars have conserved nearly 30 million acres of wetland habitat. (Shutterstock image)

Think of all the good ideas that have their expression in our conservation heritage. There’s the good idea that in order to have wildlife to hunt and fish for, the "users"—hunters and anglers—should help pay for game and fisheries management. That user-pay idea culminated in the creation of state wildlife agencies, and the mechanism of hunting and fishing licenses.

There’s the good idea that wildlife should be owned by everyone in general and nobody in particular. That’s the public-trust idea behind our very democratic arrangement in which we all have a stake in the fate of our ducks and deer and doves, whether we hunt for them or not.

Then there’s the good idea that public wildlife isn’t really public unless hunters and anglers can set foot in the places where game and fish species live. That public-access idea is responsible for the multitude of public- and private-sector access programs, and the expectation that our public lands will be open to hunters and anglers unless otherwise noted.

Here’s another good idea: because wild geese and ducks migrate up and down the continent, and because they cross international borders without a passport, each country along that flyway should have a voice in their management. That’s the idea behind our migratory bird treaties with Canada and Mexico, and it’s also the idea that led to one of the most effective conservation funds you’ve probably never heard of. It’s called the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, or NAWCA for short. Folks who know more about it than I do call it “Nawka,” like it is an old friend or uncle, or a cherished hometown.


If you have a wetland in your neighborhood, or a river that chronically floods, or even a prairie stream that feeds a slough or a pothole, there’s a good chance it’s been improved or enhanced with funds distributed by the NAWCA. The source of the funds is another very good idea in the history of our conservation tradition.


The NAWCA was passed into law in 1989, and it converts the Pittman-Robertson account into a trust fund. (If you’re an astute reader of this column, you’ll recall we discussed the P-R fund previously. It’s the checkbook, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, that distributes funds from the excise tax we pay on guns, ammunition and archery gear.) Interest from the fund is available to be granted to eligible wetland projects through a process established by the NAWCA.

Just how large is this fund? Well, in 2019 alone—the 30th year of NAWCA grants—the fund distributed $28 million for various wetland projects in the United States. That’s a lot of greenbacks, but it doesn’t get at the second excellent idea of the NAWCA. Every project must have matching donors, the more the better in the competitive grant-awarding process, which means that the $28 million in NAWCA grants was matched by more than $72 million in partner funds.

And here’s the rest of the good idea: the improvements funded by the NAWCA don’t just benefit mallards and swans. Wetlands filter and store water, helping recharge aquifers in arid landscapes, serving as a critical (and inexpensive) water filter for communities in agricultural areas, and providing vital habitat for a wide variety of species.Wetlands provide many ecological, economic and social benefits such as habitat for fish, wildlife and a variety of plants, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which administers the grants. Grants awarded through the NAWCA conserve bird populations and wetland habitat, Fish & Wildlife notes, while supporting local economies and American traditions such as hunting, fishing, birdwatching, family farming and cattle ranching.

Recall that the good idea of migratory waterfowl management is that all three countries in the continent participate in providing places for ducks and geese to thrive. One of the tenants of the NAWCA is that, when it comes to enhancing habitat for migratory birds, international borders are not an impediment to funding. The 2019 round of NAWCA grants included $33.6 million for 17 projects in Canada and Mexico.


Those international projects all are earmarked to benefit some aspect of migratory birds. Whether they’re the waterfowl species that we Americans love to hunt or non-game birds that spend much of their life cycles in the United States, Uncle Nawka ensures they have hospitable habitats, no matter where they fly for the winter or spring.

And that’s a very good idea, indeed.

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