When FDR took office in 1933, of the 120 million acres of marsh and wetlands originally found in the US, only 30 million acres remained. The population of waterfowl had reached its lowest point in recorded history—approximately 27 million birds.
Drought had displaced not only many farmers from their land, but also millions of migratory birds. Wetlands, ponds and prairie potholes—critical to the birds’ breeding, feeding and resting—had dried up. Illegal hunting also took a toll.
FDR, an avid birder since childhood, recognized the crisis and responded by appointing three respected conservationists to a blue-ribbon Committee on Wildlife Restoration. He chose Tom Beck, the influential publisher of Colliers Weekly as chair; along with Aldo Leopold, a professor at University of Wisconsin; and Jay “Ding” Darling, a Hoover Republican and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Des Moines Register famous for lampooning politicians (including FDR), and for his passion for conservation.
As Douglas Brinkley writes in his book, “Rightful Heritage,” about FDR’s environmentalism, the three men argued fiercely about how the government should go about saving birds. Beck wanted “duck factories” where birds would be hatched in incubators. Leopold argued for restoring a range of habitats. Darling sided with Leopold. Alluding to Governor Huey Long’s pledge to put a chicken in every pot, Darling called for “a duck for every puddle.”
They released the “Beck Report” at a press conference in 1934. It was science based; conserved wetlands; regulated hunting; forbade meatpackers from selling wild game; focused on acquiring and restoring waterfowl habitat; and called upon Congress to appropriate $50 million to buy abandoned farms for a system of National Wildlife Refuges.
FDR persuaded Darling to head the U.S. Biological Survey (later the Fish & Wildlife Service), but believed that the committee’s recommendations were too ambitious and expensive to win Congressional support.
Darling resurrected the idea of raising funds through a hunting tax. Rather than simply issue a piece of paper as receipt to those paying for a hunting license, FDR, a lifelong stamp collector, hatched the idea of a stamp that would invoke the beauty of the wildlife the tax would be used to protect.
With a funding source assured, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act in 1934. Darling illustrated the first federal Duck Stamp. It was sold at post offices nationwide and cost one dollar. People considered them miniature pieces of art. Nearly 650,000 duck stamps sold within weeks—providing start-up funding for a National Wildlife Refuge System.
The catch was that Congress required that all monies from the Duck Stamp be spent within that year or revert to the WPA.
That year, wildlife biologist John Clark Salyer, whom Darling hired as head of the fledgling Division of Wildlife Refuges, drove 20,000 miles, sleeping in his car, looking for possible refuge sites to buy and restore. With Duck Stamp monies, he managed to secure 323 waterfowl and upland game sites by 1935. Each refuge was created to protect an ecosystem from human destruction and, in some cases, to save individual bird species from extinction.
When Salyer took the job, the nation held 1.5 million acres in refuges. When he retired 27 years later, there were more than 28 million refuge acres. The Beck Report, the Duck Stamp, land acquisition and public awareness campaigns, increased migratory bird numbers from 30 million in 1933 to 100 million by the onset of WWII.