I’M guessing that many of us thought a global pandemic and canceled fundraising banquets were going to cripple the wetlands and waterfowl conservation work of Ducks Unlimited (DU), and the good news is that any such speculation was dead wrong.

Team DU celebrated a monumental conservation milestone last month when it topped 15 million acres for the amount of habitat restored or protected in North America since its founding nearly 85 years ago.

Adam Putnam, CEO of the world’s largest and most effective private, nonprofit wetland conservation group, put that feat into perspective: “That’s more than 23,000 square miles, an area the size of West Virginia! And we’re accelerating our efforts to ensure that we reach 16 million acres in record time.”

Despite the threatening pandemic, DU generated record revenues of $340 million in fiscal year 2021. More than 52,000 volunteers hosted more than 400,000 attendees at 4,500 in-person and virtual events, raising $61 million across the United States.

“None of this would be possible without mud, money and members,” wrote Putnam to DU members. “The past two years remind us how important we are to each other and how much we miss our DU family when we cannot be together. We are humbled by your passion, tenacity and creativity.”

One of the highest ranked charitable organizations in the world, more than 83 cents of every dollar raised last year went to the mission of wetlands conservation.

DU is lean and mean at the top, with only 3% of the revenues being spent on administration and human resources. The board of directors is composed entirely of volunteers who pay for all their travel, including six to 10 national meetings each year.

Ducks Unlimited got its start in 1937 during the Dust Bowl when North America’s drought-plagued waterfowl population had plunged to unprecedented lows, almost beyond recovery.

Their mission hasn’t wavered: “The vision of Ducks Unlimited is wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever.”

There’s no hiding 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 to conserve wetland habitats 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.

For the scribbler, who’s trapped furbearers on and off for decades, the marshes of Wisconsin are home to muskrats, mink, raccoons, beavers, otters and even fishers. They’ve been a great place to photograph wildlife of all kinds, including the great blue heron, bald eagles, ospreys, loons, turtles and of course, waterfowl.

Waterfowl production and the opportunity to win guns and other great prizes still remain the key to filling rooms for chapter fundraising banquets in most communities here and across the country.

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.

A sizable chunk of the money raised over the years has been spent in the boreal forest and prairie pothole regions of western states and Canada, where seven out of every 10 ducks, and most geese, come from.

But DU has spent more than $32 million to conserve more than 118,000 acres of wetlands in Wisconsin.

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

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 they spend is leveraged three or four times with the help of public and private funding sources.

What’s not counted in the 15 million acres that have been restored or preserved are millions of acres that are indirectly benefited from DU’s work. Examples include policy work that leads to more Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres that help wetlands and waterfowl. DU Canada has more than 10 million acres of land that is protected in long-term conservation agreements with mining and forestry interests that are not included as conserved acres.

Waterfowl are the big beneficiaries, evidenced by booming populations that have led to 20 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.

Fundraising events focus mostly on member and sponsor banquets, but volunteers also coordinate shooting competitions, fishing tournament and golf outings.

Unfortunately, the United States alone has lost more than half of its original wetlands, and tens of thousands of wetland acres continue to be lost — at an accelerating rate — each year.

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 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.