I’m not much of a collector, but I do have a small collection of stamps. I purchased the last one in my collection just the other day at the local post office. These are not postal stamps like you’d put on envelopes, even though many philatelists proudly include them in their collections. They are more typically affixed to the back of hunting licenses and are officially known as Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps. These duck stamps, as they’re more commonly known, represent the most successful conservation funding program the nation has ever known.
It was 80 years ago, in the depth of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, when native Iowan, Jay N. "Ding" Darling, conceived the idea of selling a stamp to raise funds for the protection and restoration of rapidly disappearing wetlands and all the wildlife they supported. President Franklin Roosevelt asked him to pen the first stamp’s art. The intaglio print of a pair of landing mallards was printed in blue ink and sold for $1 in 1934. Originals of that stamp are worth as much as $750 today. That original issue raised $635,001, a not insignificant sum in those lean days, when personal and government finances were so strained. The beauty of those dollars was that every one of them was designated by law to go into the acquisition and restoration of wildlife habitat. No money could be siphoned off for administrative costs or, worse yet, be shifted to other needs considered more pressing at the time. Thus, hunter conservationists of the day began putting their money into the protection and management of the wildlife they loved.
At first, selected artists were asked by the federal government to submit designs for each year’s stamp. It became a contest in 1949 and was opened to wildlife artists across the country. Thousands of artists now compete. Five species of waterfowl are selected as possible subjects for each year’s competition. Artists can select any one of the five for their submission. The winning artist is selected by a panel of experts. Winning artists receive no direct compensation or prize money, but winning the Federal Duck Stamp competition is considered one of the highest honors an artist can receive. Limited edition prints of winning designs are highly valued by art collectors, though. It happens that the reigning king of Duck Stamp artists, with five winning entries, is a living and still actively painting 93-year-old Iowan, Maynard Reece. You can see a display of both Ding Darling’s and Maynard Reece’s art this fall at ISU’s Brunnier Gallery, on the third floor of the Scheman Building. The display includes the only time all five of Reece’s winning Duck Stamp paintings have been displayed together.
Countless other stamp-type fundraising programs have been created across the nation since that first duck stamp in 1934. At one time, Iowa had stamp art competitions for trout, migratory waterfowl and habitat programs, though the beautiful stamps were sadly replaced in 1999 by more cost-effective "privilege fees" that are printed on the face of the license. At least the dedicated dollars for the respective programs are intact. Stamp art programs have raised many hundreds of millions of dollars. The Federal Duck Stamp, alone, has raised over $800 million for habitat work!
The first duck stamp in my collection is for 1983. It cost $7.50. The one I bought last week cost $15. Iowa’s first migratory waterfowl stamp cost $5. The current privilege fee is $10. That’s in addition to the basic $19 hunting license fee. Like sportsmen though the years since 1934, I’m glad to spend the extra money, knowing it will directly support habitat for all kinds of wildlife. My collection has little or no monetary value, but it is rich in memories of dawns on various wetlands. Some were cold and stormy and others were unseasonably warm and sunny. The ducks flew on some and not on others. They may bypass Iowa completely this year unless wetlands refill very shortly. The main thing is that they continue to fly, though. And that’s true in no small part to Ding’s idea of selling stamps.
(Steve Lekwa is retired director of Story County Conservation.)