Every couple of years, rumors begin circulating that Ducks Unlimited is taking federal agricultural subsidies away from farmers. This time, the driving force behind the rumors is a headache farmers have also faced for several years: the on-line Environmental Working Group (EWG) database of farm subsidy payments. EWG (www.ewg.org) says DU, having banked nearly $6 million in 2002 (the latest year data are available), is sixth in total money received.
“If we're able to explain ourselves to people, everything turns out okay,” says Craig Hilburn, DU director of conservation programs in Arkansas. “Farmers and landowners who are concerned understand what's going on if we have a chance to explain. But getting the message out to everyone is often difficult.”
DU works closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to deliver the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) in the state, says Hilburn. The two organizations deliver restoration work on thousands of acres annually. The DU subsidy payments listed by EWG stem from that.
“In terms of federal programs, WRP is the best ever,” says Hilburn. “Many people want it, and there's a long waiting list. When someone gets in, they receive an easement payment. If they decide to do the restoration work themselves to the satisfaction of the NRCS standards, they'll get a payment.”
But that payment isn't made until the work is completed. DU steps in, often fronting the money in order to get the projects done.
“We do that because of our mission to restore wetlands. Remember, the government won't pay until the project is completed. We come in and pay up front for surveys, contractors, whatever. Once the project is completed, we're reimbursed for the majority of the money we fronted.”
It's that reimbursement that is listed on the EWG site as a subsidy, says Hilburn.
“We don't receive subsidies. We receive repayments for performing WRP. Because WRP is a part of the farm bill and comes out of the conservation title, that's where EWG picks up the numbers without any explanation.
“What we're doing is win-win for everyone and the environment. When it ends up on this Web site database, though, suspicion is aroused.”