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On Its 75th Birthday: The Untold Story Of the 'Real' Father of the Duck Stamp

The story of how Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper cartoonist Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling became the father of the federal duck stamp has been repeated so often it's become an urban legend.

While the colorful Darling may have been many things, father of the federal duck stamp wasn't necessarily one of them, according to an article in the spring issue of Delta Waterfowl magazine.

"Ding Darling was a conservation giant," says Delta editor Dan Nelson, whose article commemorates the 75th birthday of the duck stamp. "He designed the first stamp, picked President Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket for $6 million to fund the program and was responsible for numerous conservation initiatives for which every duck hunter should be grateful.

"But contrary to what many wildlife historians have written, Darling didn't conceive of the idea for the duck stamp, he didn't draft the bill or lead the fight to get it passed in Congress—all that was done before he even arrived in Washington."

The Delta article, titled "The Missing Years", examines the 23-year struggle that took place before Darling accepted FDR's appointment as director of the Bureau of Biological Survey, the forerunner of today's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"There are many unsung heroes in the duck stamp story," says Nelson, "and the birthday of the wildly successful program is a good time to recognize their contributions to the early conservation movement."

The story begins in 1911 when a consortium of arms and ammunition manufacturers represented by Harry S. Leonard of Winchester Repeating Firearms offered New York lawyer William B. Haskell $125,000 for the establishment of an organization to preserve wildlife.

The American Game Protective and Propagation Association (AGPPA) was incorporated on Sept. 25, 1911, and John B. Burnham was named president. ("Propagation" was dropped from the name in 1913, and in 1931 the name was shortened to American Game Association.)

The AGPA breathed new life into efforts to protect migratory birds, and in 1918, after years of political wrangling, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act banning market hunting and spring shooting, became law. Thanks to the act's protections and a series of wet springs, duck numbers quickly improved.

Still, many conservationists were concerned about accelerating losses of waterfowl habitat. In 1921 Frederic C. Walcott of Connecticut, one of the founders of the AGPA, wrote a powerful article for the association's Bulletin advocating a $1 hunter stamp with the proceeds used to secure waterfowl habitat and public hunting grounds. The article was illustrated with a stamp-like sketch of Canada geese by noted wildlife artist Belmore Brown.

"Walcott's article, which was inspired by an idea from U.S. Game Warden George A. Lawyer, was the first recorded effort to establish a hunting stamp," says Nelson.

Walcott convinced allies in Congress to introduce hunting stamp bills in the 67th, 68th and 69th sessions, but despite overwhelming support across the country, none managed to pass. Fierce opposition from outspoken protectionist Dr. William Hornady, who Nelson calls one of the nation's first anti-hunters, was a major impediment to passage.

The legislation made its fourth appearance in 1929, and this time a watered down version of the bill—the public shooting grounds and self-financing provisions replaced by a meager $8,000 Congressional appropriation—was approved. Some conservationists believed the act was better than nothing, but duck populations were plummeting, and without adequate funding the Migratory Bird Conservation Act was powerless to break the fall.

In 1930 Walcott, who had been elected to the Senate in 1928, and Sen. Harry B. Hawes of Missouri introduced a resolution to establish a Senate Special Committee on the Conservation of Wildlife Resources. The resolution was approved and Walcott was named chairman of a committee that in years to come would be responsible for many far-reaching conservation initiatives.

Walcott later sponsored the duck stamp bill in the Senate and, according to an article in the New York Times, urged FDR to sign it and provide funding. The duck stamp bill passed both houses of Congress and was signed by FDR on March 16, 1934, just days after Darling was announced as the BBS director.

"Darling was a clever and tenacious conservationist who accomplished much during his 18 months on the job," says Nelson, "but calling him the father of the duck stamp diminishes the tireless efforts of the men who laid the foundation of the waterfowl conservation movement.

"If we had to single out one person worthy of being called the father of the duck stamp, it would Frederic Walcott, the man who introduced the concept of a hunting stamp to the public, fought for the duck stamp for 23 years, sponsored the bill and shepherded it to passage."

The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act ultimately became the most successful waterfowl conservation program ever, raising more than $700 million and conserving more than 5 million acres of waterfowl habitat. Duck stamp dollars are responsible for 90 percent of the permanently protected waterfowl habitat, some 2.7 million acres, across the all-important prairie breeding grounds.