Ducks convene in Natchez

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 23, 2008

NATCHEZ — A large group of ducks settled into the Natchez Convention Center Thursday night.

But rather than bobbing their heads underwater for food and flapping their wings, these ducks were much more interested in eating a steak dinner and raising money for habitats.

The annual Ducks Unlimited banquet featured a meal of steak, baked potato, baked beans and salad, and items located around the room were auctioned off to the highest bidders.

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Ducks Unlimited President Bruce Lewis, who is from Natchez, said the crowd was better than he had seen in the past few years, and they looked eager to donate, despite recent economic troubles.

“Nationally some areas are up and some areas are down,” Lewis said of donations. “We’re more concerned about the major donors. At the end of the year a lot of people make donations to charities from appreciated stocks because they don’t pay taxes on it. But there may not be any appreciated stock at the end of this year.”

The organization’s grassroots events were down 9 percent in October 2008 from the same month in 2007.

Still, Ducks Unlimited, a conservation organization dedicated to preserving and restoring duck and waterfowl habitats in North America, is far from hurting.

The organization is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise $1.7 billion dollars — of which they have already raised $1.3 billion. It usually raises $40 million annually through the more than 4,000 dinner events like the one held Thursday night.

“We use that money to help fund conservation programs in Canada and Mexico as well as the U.S.,” Lewis said. “We have a lot of major donors and supporters as well as the members who come to events like this, and we partner with the government quite a bit.

“We raise a lot of money — our budget’s over $250 million a year — but a lot of that is just doing habitat work. We do a lot of restoration work.”

Even if Ducks Unlimited were not flourishing, it would be nothing new.

The organization was started in 1937, right in the middle of the Great Depression.

“We’re one of the oldest conservation organizations in the United States,” Lewis said. “We’ve been through depressions and recessions, and we’ve always come out stronger.”

Ducks Unlimited’s first marsh project started in Canada in 1938, and the organization began projects in the United States in 1984.

Now there are projects in all 50 states and in every Canadian province, along with some in Mexico.

“We spend our money a lot of it in the northern part of the United States and in Canada,” Lewis said. “Most people understand that’s where the ducks breed and that’s their nesting grounds.”

Lewis said that area, especially North and South Dakota, is under attack right now because many people have gone back to planting corn in the wake of the ethanol boom.

The farmers are using land that was designated native prairie and displacing the local wildlife.

So Ducks Unlimited is now working on a $120 million project to buy up 300,000 acres of prairie land to keep the animals and the 650 cattle ranchers who live there safe.

“If we can raise $40 million, we can get the other $80 million matched,” he said. “We’ll ensure that those ranchers will stay right there forever, for perpetuity.”

Locally, Lewis has big plans for Natchez in the future. He will step down as president in May 2009 and hopes to be elected chairman of the board of directors after that.

“We have a board meeting in New Orleans coming up in February, and the chairman of the board has a voice in where the board of directors convenes,” Lewis said. “So we will hopefully be convening in Natchez in February 2010.”

He said another member may bring the Wetlands America Trust board, which includes 26 leaders of business and industry, to Natchez as well.

Originally from Woodville, Lewis has been in Natchez since 1975 and has been in Ducks Unlimited since he moved here.

Many of his friends have been involved in the organization, but the face of Ducks Unlimited, which has over 655,000 worldwide members, he said, is changing.

“It’s good to see all the young guys coming in here because they’re a different group from when I started,” Lewis said. “I was part of that young group 30 years ago here. A lot of people who came in here tonight have worked on the committee. They’ve got grey hair now, and they’ve passed it on to their sons.”