NAWCA: a proven model for saving North America's birds

By Adam Putnam, Opinion Contributor — 02/25/20 09:30 AM EST

The first visitors to encounter the new world described skies filled with birds, rivers and bays teeming with activity and marshes loaded with a diverse array of wildlife. As our nation grew at a furious pace over the course of the centuries, a drastic altering of our natural landscape was taking place. By the 1980s, the continental U.S. had lost about 53 percent of its indigenous wetlands, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wetlands serve as unique and critical habitat for countless species of wildlife, including waterfowl and other migratory birds, but they also provide many other benefits. For example, they improve water quality by removing excess materials, they recharge aquifers and they even help to prevent soil erosion – especially in areas that are prone to flooding. They have been referred to as “nature’s sponges” for good reason.

That’s why, in 1986, the North American Waterfowl Management Plan was adopted as the blueprint for the future of waterfowl in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Shortly after, the North American Wetland Conservation Act (NAWCA) was created as a means to fund this ambitious new plan to conserve and restore wetland habitat. President George H.W. Bush enthusiastically signed it into law in 1989.

The big question is this: 30 years later, what are the results?

NAWCA and its impact and importance to Americans is even more critical today than when first enacted and this cannot be overstated. Since its inception, NAWCA has leveraged $1.6 billion in federal grants into more than $6 billion for conservation when combined with matching non-federal and private partnerships over the last three decades. Each dollar of that $6 billion was used for the explicit purpose of wetland restoration and conservation. As a result, over 2,900 projects have been funded on more than 30 million acres of wetlands and grasslands in all 50 states. NAWCA is the single most successful wetland habitat conservation tool in our toolbox.

Beyond the dollars and the acres, though, the science shows why this policy is working well. In September 2019, the journal Science issued an alarming report detailing the dramatic decline of bird populations in North America – including many well-known and highly regarded species, such as sparrows, finches, warblers and swallows. The report shows that over the last 50 years a net loss of 2.9 billion birds has occurred in North America, or 29 percent of the total bird population.

Amidst this broad decline of bird numbers, webbed-footed exceptions stand out. The report states that over the same period waterfowl populations overall have actually increased by 56 percent. Scientists identified habitat degradation as the largest culprit for the decline in overall bird populations. Thanks to NAWCA and its host of more than 6,000 partners, including Ducks Unlimited, waterfowl habitat is being restored and protected. Unlike nearly every other avian species, waterfowl populations have thrived in recent decades as a result of this collaboration.

The partnership-based approach taken by NAWCA provides a model for effective habitat conservation moving forward. However, while continuing to receive funding, NAWCA hasn’t been reauthorized by Congress since 2012. To ensure its longevity and continued success, we must reauthorize NAWCA and provide some much-needed certainty and stability for the future of wetlands conservation.

Fortunately, progress is being made. As one of its first acts to begin the New Year, the Senate recently passed H.R. 925, America’s Conservation Enhancement (ACE) Act, which reauthorizes a host of important conservation programs, including NAWCA. The next stop is the House of Representatives, and I know they will pass this proven conservation success story.

This legislation is as bipartisan as they come, but if there’s one thing that any policymaker quickly learns, it’s that passage of any legislation through both chambers of Congress is never a sure thing.

The remarkable recovery of waterfowl has been made possible by hunters, conservationists, bird watchers, farmers, ranchers, private landowners and many others whose investments, combined with federal funding through NAWCA, have provided billions for wetland protection and restoration. Congressional leadership can take a big step forward by reauthorizing a program that benefits all 50 states by improving water quality, supporting local communities and economies, and protecting bird populations for future generations to enjoy.

Ultimately, our collective goal as program partners is to enable our grandchildren to have the same opportunities tomorrow that we enjoy today, and that’s why NAWCA really matters. The program has made a proven impact across North America in its first 30 years, now let’s take the next step to ensure it will remain just as impactful for the next 30 years and beyond.

Adam Putnam is CEO of Ducks Unlimited, which focuses on conservation of wetlands and waterfowl. He served in the U.S. House from 2001-2011.

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