Ducks Unlimited and civic renewal

I had the pleasure today of interviewing Paul Schmidt, the Chief Conservation Officer for Ducks Unlimited, Inc. While Americans are joining traditional associations at lower rates, Ducks Unlimited has a steadily growing base of roughly one million supporters and volunteers, including an increasing number of younger people, some of whom enter through Facebook. (Ducks Unlimited has more than 1 million Facebook “likes”.)

Schmidt explained that civic engagement is crucial to the conservation movement. Ducks Unlimited does not own or manage much land on which waterfowl live. Instead, the organization tries to influence landowners to be good stewards of their land. These owners may be agencies but often are regular citizens. Influencing them is “not a manipulation,” Schmidt added; it is genuine engagement that changes behavior.

In general, Schmidt thought, the “need and desire for affiliation has eroded.” This trend (documented in “Bowling Alone”) is bad for the conservation movement because “belonging and partnering are key elements … to conservation.”

But duck hunters form strong bonds. It is a “unique recreational pursuit” in that sense, different from deer hunting. I asked what turns the social bond of hunting into associational membership, since the social bond of bowling doesn’t seem to produce bowling leagues any more. Schmidt was not sure, but he thought that for many hunters, the real goal is to appreciate nature together. A classic experience is watching the dawn break over a pond with friends. “We capitalize on the experience,” Schmidt told me. People who appreciate nature together can be activated to protect it, whether that is through their stewardship of their private land, voluntary cooperation and collaboration, influencing other people, or supporting policies. “They will do what it takes to make sure [the view] doesn’t get bulldozed.”

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • My father was a longtime president of Ducks Unlimited when I was a child and young adult. So I’m familiar with the organization and some of the motivations for association. A big one is the desire to protect wetlands and hunting habitats. This is where civic engagement and bonding over sport intersects for many hunters I’ve known.