DID YOU ever wonder why there’s an army of volunteers in this country, more than 50,000 strong, who donate countless hours as chapter committee members for Ducks Unlimited?

As a former committee member, the scribbler can testify to the fact that it’s not just die-hard duck hunters who’ve stepped forward the past 82 years for the cause.

I spent 25 years on a committee and did some occasional duck hunting, so the passion for supporting the organization was far stronger than the passion for harvesting birds.

And it went beyond just raising funds, because the committee work included some challenges, camaraderie and a sense of community pride that is hard to explain. It was actually fun.

It’s true that Ducks Unlimited (DU) got its start in 1937 during the Dust Bowl when North America’s drought-plagued waterfowl populations had plunged to unprecedented lows, almost beyond recovery.

It’s also true that 97% of the members are waterfowl hunters who want to ensure that ducks and geese will always fill the flyways in fall. America’s love for ducks and duck hunting has much to do with the enthusiasm.

Yet the organization’s mission of conserving wetlands habitat has become the greater cause, as wetlands improve the overall health of our environment by recharging and purifying groundwater, moderating floods and reducing soil erosion.

Wetlands support more than 900 species of wildlife. They are North America’s most productive ecosystems.

“I’m working with some volunteers who are going on 50 years with DU, and not all of them hunt ducks,” said Steve Kresl of Eagle River, DU’s senior regional director for northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the past 23 years.

“DU has experienced eight straight years of unprecedented growth, and nobody gets more credit than an army of passionate volunteers,” he said. “I’m proud and grateful for what they’ve done, and continue to do every year, for wetlands habitat conservation.”

That’s the greater story of DU, which has preserved more than 14.1 million acres of marshlands and grasslands in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Waterfowl production and the opportunity to win guns and other great prizes still remain the key to filling rooms for chapter fundraising banquets, which are held in virtually every community in the North Woods.

From Eagle River and Sugar Camp to Sayner, Land O’ Lakes and Boulder Junction, there are hundreds of local residents who work and/or attend fundraising banquets for this international organization. That includes a Ladies Chapter in the Three Lakes-Eagle River area.

Kresl said the latest numbers show Wisconsin has 35,298 members and 150 chapters who raise more than $3 million each year for the ducks. There are nearly 2,300 committee volunteers in Wisconsin alone.

Most of the money has been spent in the boreal forest and prairie pothold regions of western states and Canada, where seven out of every 10 ducks, and most geese, come from.

But DU has spent almost $30 million to conserve 116,250 acres of wetlands in Wisconsin.

Projects nearest to this area in­clude Thunder Lake Marsh, Briss Lake Impoundment, Alvin Creek Impoundment, Scott Creek Impoundment, the Hiles Millpond project and others between Three Lakes and Crandon.

Much has changed over the years, but DU has remained up to the challenges — one of the few nonprofit groups that puts 85% of its revenues directly into habitat projects.

“We’re lean and mean at the top with only 3% of our revenues being spent on administration and human resources,” said Kresl. “Our board of directors is composed entirely of volunteers who pay for all their travel to six to 10 national meetings each year.”

DU has its own engineers and biologists, and the organization only commits to projects that bring the biggest impact for the least amount invested.

“Every dollar we spend is leveraged at least three to four times with the help of public and private funding sources,” said Kresl.

Waterfowl are the big beneficiaries, evidenced by booming populations that have led to 17 years of 60-day duck seasons, a six-duck daily bag limit and more than 100 days of Canada goose hunting in most years.

That’s the highest combined Wisconsin waterfowl hunting opportunity in more than 60 years.

If you are a duck hunter and you don’t belong to DU, then shame on you. It’s time you gained a little appreciation for the enormous efforts made on your behalf and that of the sport, despite your ignorance or indifference.

Why would any duck hunter not support their own cause? The cost for a membership isn’t much more than a couple boxes of steel shot.

The simple, well-stated vision of DU is “wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever.”

After decades of sticking with the same mission, DU has created a conservation legacy like no other in the world. It’s called wetland habitat conservation and anyone can be a part of it.

The group’s supporters come from every walk of life and they don’t all hunt ducks. Anyone can join the cause.