A Force for Nature
No longer the best kept secret in conservation, Wetlands America Trust is pioneering new approaches to protecting landscapes
By T. Edward Nickens
Some things haven't changed. And they never should. Take a close look—a very close look—at Ducks Unlimited's Coteau Ranch in North Dakota, and it's easy to understand why. The ranch is set across a rolling five-square-mile swath of wheatgrass, needlegrass, and silverberry shrublands amid a mosaic of small prairie pothole wetlands. In the fall, swans and Swainson's hawks soar overhead. In the spring, prairie smoke and prairie clover blaze across the swales, while mallards, blue-winged teal, and gadwalls fret over young ducklings making their first forays through tangles of bluestem and sow thistle.
There's only one way to see the complete picture.
"Get down on your hands and knees," says Jonas Davis, manager of conservation programs with DU's Great Plains office, "and you can see an incredible diversity of grasses and forbs and flowers out there. That community has taken thousands of years to evolve. And it is irreplaceable." Eighty percent of the Coteau Ranch has never been plowed, Davis says. It's a rare feature across all of the Midwest. And its unbroken nature should never change.
The permanent conservation of the Coteau Ranch was made possible through one of DU's most important, yet least-heralded, entities—Wetlands America Trust, or WAT. In many ways, WAT functions as a traditional philanthropic conservation foundation. Governed by a board of trustees, WAT manages DU's endowment fund, land holdings, and conservation easements. Through WAT, significant conservation lands are purchased and wetland restoration projects are planned and completed. When the work is finished, those lands can be sold to conservation-friendly buyers. Proceeds from these sales are leveraged to purchase and protect additional habitat.
WAT holds conservation easements on nearly 450,000 acres of crucial waterfowl habitat across the country, permanently protecting landscapes as varied as prairie potholes, salt marshes, and historic rice fields along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. In fact, WAT is one of the nation's largest repositories of conservation easements, which provide not only habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife but also cherished public access for recreation in some places.
It's been a phenomenally successful paradigm. Many of WAT's successes have been rooted in big ideas—like saving the Coteau Ranch, Canada's Boreal Forest, and the critically imperiled coastlines of Louisiana. Now the trust is thinking in even larger terms— thinking more broadly and strategically as WAT is reimagining itself with a newfound sense of purpose that seeks to expand its reach and footprint across landscapes, industries, and interests.
Over the last six months, WAT trustees and DU staff have been involved in a deeply reflective process to refine WAT's message and strategies for a changing conservation landscape. Even prior to the recent health crisis, new approaches to land stewardship had created new opportunities for working on vast scales and across multiple arenas, including large-scale agricultural production and manufacturing. One of WAT's strengths has always been helping DU recognize the larger opportunities that may be emerging, but it was apparent that working in these new spaces required a new aspiration for conservation engagement. It's a perfect time to build new paradigms of stewardship.
To help manage the process, WAT has engaged Nestlé Purina PetCare to facilitate a strategic rebranding effort. It's an exciting match of entities with shared DNA. The parent company, Nestlé Global, manages more than 2,000 brands worldwide, with a lauded brand-building strategy. And Nestlé Purina's portfolio is situated squarely in the outdoor recreation arena. "We're all hunters," says Steve Maritz, president of WAT and a longtime DU volunteer. "But we recognize that there are significant resources available that can be put to use driving sustainability and nature-based efforts that have huge upsides to traditional waterfowl conservation. We plan to activate the WAT brand as a means to attract conservation funding that may lie outside of DU's core hunting heritage but will support our commitment to landscape-level habitat protection."
It's an approach carefully designed to resonate among new potential supporters, particularly in the corporate and foundation arenas. This newly animated presence will enable DU to broaden its impact across landscapes, deepen its network of partners, and enhance its public policy influence. The rebranding effort is a new chapter for WAT, marked by new opportunities for engagement. Because some things, of course, should change. Especially when thoughtful, proactive change will drive the foundational mission of conserving wetlands, wetland wildlife, and wetland services across North America.
Like the story of any vital organization that seeks to engage with a changing world, WAT's story has always been evolving to take greater advantage of the foundation's strengths. A charitable foundation linked to DU was formed in 1955, and the organization has operated under a number of names, including the Ducks Unlimited Charitable Fund and the Ducks Unlimited Foundation. It's been known as Wetlands America Trust since 1994.
And the recognition that the foundation had untapped resources in its roster of trustees has been evident for years. When Jim Kennedy was first elected president of the foundation in 1994, he knew the organization had potential far beyond its primary fiduciary functions. "I kept hearing a theme," he recalls, "which was ‘How could we use WAT to open doors that previously weren't open to DU despite the fact that DU's work and mission is so beneficial to so many species?'"
By design, the WAT board of trustees is largely made up of individuals who have had either the business success or the good fortune that enables them to help the cause of wetlands conservation financially. The current effort to refine the WAT brand for even greater impact, Kennedy says, recognizes a new kind of opportunity: Leveraging the expertise and contacts of WAT trustees to work in the growing arena of corporate stewardship.
Look around, says Joseph Sivewright, CEO of Nestlé Purina Pet- Care and a WAT trustee, and you'll see an undeniable societal shift toward a more holistic approach to conservation action. "Corporations in particular are now working toward meeting sustainability goals with an energy and focus never before seen," he says. "WAT has an incredible opportunity to help with that process."
That process is broadly termed Corporate Environmental Responsibility and refers to a business's strategic and active reduction of ecologically adverse impacts, as well as active participation in environmentally beneficial activities. In a growing number of businesses, environmental stewardship is no longer an effort to enhance brand reputation, but a core business strategy that recognizes a stewardship responsibility, and acts upon that recognition.
When it comes to heritage and habitat and the heart of the outdoors experience, the strength of DU is unquestioned, says Sivewright. "Now we want to grow a more defined, telegraphic brand with WAT, and build a similar model of identification," he explains. "In the future, when someone thinks of WAT, we want them to think of water quality, sustainability, and natural infrastructure."
In many ways, this is where WAT's focus has always been. Enabling connectivity is in the organization's DNA, and WAT's expanding mission is an evolution, not a departure. Helping fit the larger pieces together has always been one way of looking at WAT's success, whether that looks like a large-scale land conservation deal such as the one that established DU's Coteau Ranch, or the Nestlé Purina–led rebranding effort that will help write a new future for WAT.
"We believe that water quality and water quantity will be the most pressing conservation concerns of the future," Maritz says. "There's a growing understanding that the natural infrastructure of wetlands and the role wetlands play as nature's purifier are the most effective, and cost-effective, means we have of conserving and protecting water and the landscapes that provide clean water for humans and wildlife. We are building a strategy to take advantage of the direction the world is moving, which is focused on sustainability. And we don't want WAT to follow along that path. We want to lead the way."
For more than three decades, DU contributing editor T. Edward Nickens has reported on conservation, the outdoors, and Southern culture for some of the world's most respected publications. He divides his time between homes in Raleigh and Morehead City, North Carolina.
DU AND WAT: A CONSERVATION DREAM TEAM
Look at the footprint of conservation easements and other properties held by WAT across the continent and it's clear that a foundation has been laid for leveraging the skill sets and resources of the committed conservationists who lead the organization. That success is due to the symbiotic relationship between Ducks Unlimited and WAT. During DU's Rescue Our Wetlands campaign of 2012−19, a goal-smashing $2.34 billion was raised from more than 2 million donors. As part of the campaign, the WAT endowment more than doubled to $60 million. In fact, a strategy of leveraging WAT to generate support from a broader array of corporate, individual, and social interests and enhancing DU's public policy influence was recently enshrined as one of DU's "Five Pillars for Success."
As WAT moves into its future of ever more expansive ideas and an ambition for conservation unmatched in modern times, its success is inextricably linked to the dedication of all who share the DU mission. "Whether you're working on behalf of DU or WAT," says former WAT President Jim Kennedy, "you're riding for the brand."
A Solid Foundation for Wetlands
South Carolina's Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto (ACE) Basin is one of the largest wetland ecosystems along the Atlantic Coast and home to a variety of waterfowl and other wildlife. In the 1980s, determined that this beautiful landscape be protected, Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley donated half of their 20,000-acre hunting retreat in Green Pond, South Carolina, for conservation. They placed the other half under a conservation easement, protecting its wildlife habitat value in perpetuity. These actions were the impetus for new conservation efforts in the region. To date, 300,000 acres have been protected in the ACE Basin and 1.4 million acres have been protected across South Carolina's coastal counties.
Three decades later, the Chicago-based Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation (GDDF) continues to partner with Ducks Unlimited to restore waterfowl habitats in South Carolina and Illinois. The GDDF also helps educate the public about important public policy issues and programs, including the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the Farm Bill. "While support for place-based acquisition in our two regions is important, educating the public about the importance of federal, state, and local funding programs ultimately provides even more conservation bang for the buck," says David Farren, GDDF's executive director.
Though a new decade has begun, the challenges for conservation remain the same: urban sprawl, pollution, a dynamic climate, and more. However, with partners like the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation leading the way, the future remains bright for the protection of our natural resources.
CORPORATIONS for Continental Conservation
Ducks Unlimited and Bass Pro Shops share a passion for the outdoors and wildlife. That's why the organizations are partnering to protect our outdoor heritage and further DU's conservation mission. For decades, Bass Pro Shops has supported DU by generously donating millions of dollars for wetlands and waterfowl conservation. In 2015, Bass Pro Shops donated space for DU to build the 4,500-square-foot Waterfowling Heritage Center inside the Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee. Since then, more than one million visitors have learned about DU and its conservation mission while visiting the center.