Excerpt: The Wild Duck Chase

A glimpse inside the odd and inspiring Federal Duck Stamp Contest.

Nothing at the corner of Fairfax Drive and Vermont Street in Arlington, Virginia, suggests that the nondescript building at 4401 North Fairfax houses anything extraordinary, much less the three-office suite of one of the best ideas America’s federal government has ever had. Even after a four-floor elevator ride, it’s tricky to find the headquarters of the Federal Duck Stamp Program in the small labyrinth occupied by the Division of Bird Habitat Conservation, which itself is a thirty-employee subnode of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is part of the Department of the Interior.

In 2010, the $852,000-a-year program would generate about twenty-four million dollars in revenue through the sale of an obscure revenue stamp to a dwindling number of hunters and stamp collectors, and to what the program hopes is a growing number of enlightened birders and other conservationists. Since it began in 1934, the duck stamp program has generated more than $750 million, and ninety-eight cents of each dollar has been used to help purchase or lease 5.3 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the United States, with much of that land now protected within the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The program was started by environmental visionaries in the middle of the Dust Bowl era and the Great Depression, when the need to conserve resources for waterfowl seemed a frivolous pursuit in a nation desperate to simply feed itself. With real and raw emotion in her voice, Duck Stamp Program Chief Pat Fisher said, “I just really respect those people at the creation [of the program], and honor their memories. What they did was amazing to me. Everything worked. It was a tragic time for people, and wildlife. But some amazing things came out of that. Not only the Duck Stamp Program but the federal Works Projects Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, things like that. We have really historic roots, and it all came out of this tragic time.” 

”—officially open to the public for the Federal Duck Stamp Contest judging—a dramatic two-day process involving three scheduled elimination rounds to select a contest winner.

Inside the Brower Center—a temple to environmental activism named after one of the twentieth century’s greatest conservation pioneers—the one hundred-eighty seat auditorium is beginning to fill. Members of the local Audubon Society branch are mingling with hunters—two groups that some people consider sworn enemies. Most of the artists in the room are avid hunters as well. At one display an aproned wood carver from the Pacific Flyway Decoy Association whittles the head of a decoy eventually intended to lure unsuspecting waterfowl into a shotgun’s range.

Although the rest of the world is aggressively ignoring the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, there’s no shortage of drama. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staffers and volunteers busy themselves making sure the contest’s carefully crafted choreography is ready to be set in motion. The communications coordinator from the Division of Bird Habitat Conservation is at her laptop, preparing the news release that will announce this year’s winner. The program staffer who’s been tweeting news about the event in recent days attends to final setup details. The five judges—whose identities had been a tightly controlled secret until today—are sequestered in a second-floor briefing room, along with the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who will act as their technical consultant once their deliberations begin. The AV guy is readying the camera for the first-ever worldwide webcast of the contest via live streaming video. Everyone entering the Brower Center this October weekend is greeted by a slotted box at the reception table. After viewing the displayed entries, visitors are invited to write their guess about the probable winner on a piece of paper and drop it into the box for a chance to win a rockin’ pair of field binoculars. The voting table is crowded.

And of course, there are wildlife artists. Perhaps a dozen of the 235 contestants from around the country have come to witness the fate of their entries. Before the August 15 entry deadlines they had been at their easels—some of them for months—painting, in remarkably creative variations, the five duck and goose species declared eligible this year. Many of the artists had been competing against one another for years in the insular and sometimes quirky world of national pro-am duck painting—what one observer called “a strange, strange little backwater of the art industry”—and they’re greeting one another with the energetic handshakes and lingering hugs of old friends who share a common passion.

Adam Nisbett, just twenty-three and working on a master’s degree in electrical engineering, traveled all the way from his Missouri home to see how his painting of a single brant goose would fare. Robert Steiner, one of only two California artists to have won the prestigious federal contest, came across San Francisco Bay to watch his painting of a ruddy duck compete. Sherrie Russell Meline, the other California winner and one of only two women to have ever held the official title Federal Duck Stamp Artist, drove from Mount Shasta, hoping her Canada goose might prevail. Aerospace engineer Mark Berger, who’d battled intense back pain during the 120 hours he’d spent painting his pair of flying Canada geese, drove up from his home south of Los Angeles. The reigning titleholder, Robert Bealle, flew in from Maryland. He was there for the presentation of his official prize—a framed pane of twenty stamps made from his 2009 winning painting, signed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar—and to watch the selection of his successor. He had no horse in the 2010 race; contest rules prevent him from competing again for three years after his victory.

There’s also a palpable pre-judging buzz about Minnesota’s fabled Hautman brothers, whom Berger once described as “the New York Yankees of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.” Like Bealle, three-time winner Joe Hautman is sitting it out; his duck had graced the 2008-2009 stamp, and he’s ineligible to compete again until the 2011 contest. But his brothers Jim and Robert have entered paintings this year. Combined, the three brothers (whose family name is pronounced HAWTt-man) had won the title an astounding eight times since 1989, and at least one of them has been among the top three finishers sixteen out of the previous twenty-two years. Would the rock stars of wildlife art actually show?

Adding to the Hautman buzz is the usual pre-contest handicapping, which had been going on for weeks. The paintings are judged anonymously, and officials of the Duck Stamp Program keep the artists’ names a secret from the judges and the public until the winner has been chosen. But as it does each year, the program had posted scanned images of each 2010 entry on a program-affiliated website, OutdoorsWeekly.com. As usual, that set off a whirlwind of speculation about the submitted works. Which of the five eligible species predominated this year?  Which paintings look familiar, either as previous entries or as derivative echoes of past entries? Which artists took smart risks? Which took less smart ones? 

There’s an unmistakable sense of anticipation in the air, a feeling that something important is about to happen. The artists know all too well the enormity of the stakes, at least in terms of their careers. For wildlife conservation ange, the stakes are even higher.

But this year in particular there’s a different, less specific tension in the room. Even as the auditorium doors close and the five judges take their seats beneath the giant screen where their judgments soon will be projected, those most familiar with the Duck Stamp program know that its future is suspended, for the moment, in a precarious balance.

The obscure drama of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest has played out for more than six decades now, ever since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that its duck stamp painting would no longer be an invitation-only commission offered to chosen wildlife artists. The 1949 contest began the tradition of an annual competition open to anybody with a paintbrush, the entry fee, and a burning ambition to become the Federal Duck Stamp Artist.

By establishing the Duck Stamp Program, its organizers created an approach to conservation that in 2010 was being emulated in thirty-four U.S. states with their own duck stamp or wildlife art programs, as well as around the world. A similar program was launched in 1946 by the Canadian province of British Columbia, and by the late 1990s government duck stamp programs had been launched by countries as diverse as Australia, Russia, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Mexico, New Zealand, Argentina, Denmark, Israel, Spain, Sweden, Ireland, Croatia, and Italy. The Federal Duck Stamp Contest—the only juried art competition run by the U.S. government—created the improbable enterprise of competitive waterfowl painting, perhaps the narrowest niche in the known art world. 

There’s a Zen-garden quality to the whole enterprise, with the artists each year working within a rigid framework of contest rules that dictate everything from the year’s eligible species, to the seven-by-ten-inch size and type of surface to the appropriate seasonal foliage and plumage that can appear in the painting. Winning entries have featured standing birds, sitting birds, swimming birds, flying birds, fall plumage, spring plumage, birds alone or in pairs or with hatchlings, birds taking off, birds landing, and once, in the now-legendary 1959-1960 stamp, even a limp mallard in the mouth of a national champion Labrador retriever named King Buck.


All this drama has unfolded far off the cultural radar screen. Although many hunters, conservationists, and some birdwatchers know about the Federal Duck Stamp Program, only wildlife artists or fans of filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are likely to have heard of it and its annual Duck Stamp Contest, even though by October 2010 it had been around for seventy-six years.

“You’d figure that if the federal government was going to have one juried art competition, it’d come out of the National Endowment for the Arts, not Fish and Wildlife,” says Fisher. “But there we are.”

The Federal Duck Stamp has nothing to do with postage, even though many people buy duck stamps at their local post office. That misconception was created, in part, by the Coen brothers’ 1996 film Fargo, which features a subplot revolving around Norm Gunderson, the husband of pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson, and his entry in that year’s Federal Duck Stamp Contest. In the movie’s final scene, Norm quietly announces that his mallard painting has been chosen for a three-cent postage stamp, while an unnamed Hautman’s painting of a blue-winged teal will grace the more prestigious first-class stamp.

Actually, the Federal Duck Stamp is the revenue stamp that since 1934 all American waterfowl hunters over the age of sixteen have been required to buy and carry. In recent years about a million-and-a-half hunters, conservationists, and collectors annually have paid for a duck stamp each year, which in 2010 cost fifteen dollars. For that price, not only are they federally certified to hunt, but the duck stamp also entitles them to free admission into all 553 national wildlife refuges. Since passage of the 1934 Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, ninety-eight cents of every dollar spent on the stamps has gone to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, and related reserves to buy wetlands and habitat for inclusion in the 150-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which protects those resources for future generations. By 2010, the amount raised was more than a billion dollars, money that has been used to preserve 3.5 million acres—an area roughly the size of Vermont.

Without those preserves, market hunters and profiteers with increasingly efficient killing methods would have continued to decimate America’s waterfowl populations, as they did through most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since 1989, the U.S. government also has run the Junior Duck Stamp Contest designed to build conservation awareness in a nation of youth drifting away from the natural world. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brochure boasts: “Little wonder the Federal Duck Stamp Program has been called one of the most successful conservation programs ever initiated.”

For both professional and amateur wildlife artists, the Federal Duck Stamp Contest is a chance to claim a measure of artistic immortality. In 1966, organizers began staging the judging process as a public event, at which point the competition moved into an entirely new phase.

“I call it America’s first reality show,” says Fisher. “American Idol for wildlife artists.”

The buildup to the two-day, three-round judging process can be thrilling, or devastating. In the tight-knit, insular world of duck stamp obsessives, pre-contest handicapping is as much a part of the competition as the paintings themselves. As the judging weekend approaches, handicapping unfolds in private conversations, on Internet message boards, in Facebook postings, and in gallery gossip. Almost all of it is pointless, of course, since no one knows what the judges want, or even who they are. But that doesn’t stop artists and collectors from pursuing their guesswork with the zeal of research scientists.

The annual Federal Duck Stamp Contest is one of the biggest and most influential events in the world of conservation, and it has lured generations of artists into the world of wildlife painting. It also has scared a few away.

“Since I was a little fledgling bird artist, maybe fourteen years old or so, friends were urging me to do the duck stamp thing,” recalls David Allen Sibley, author and illustrator of many landmark birding books, including The Sibley Guide to Birds, considered by many bird enthusiasts to be the most comprehensive guide for North American field identification. “They said, ‘You’ve gotta do this! It’s worth millions! You’ll be set for life if you win it once! The Duck Stamp is where it’s at!’ But I’ve never entered. It wasn’t really my thing, and I never got around to getting the entry form and getting organized to be able to enter.”

But, Sibley concedes, it was more than that. “My reluctance to enter was partly because, whenever I looked into it a little bit, I saw how competitive it was. And there are these brothers who win it year after year. So I felt it wasn’t really my strength, and I didn’t feel like I’d have much chance of winning.” 

It’s a startling revelation, considering Sibley’s lofty place in the world of wildlife art. But his reluctance underscores just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Delve far enough into this peculiar American subculture, and you’ll find a fascinating cast of characters arrayed on a stage where legends have been born, dreams have died, and controversies have flared.

Excerpted from The Wild Duck Chase by Martin J. Smith, published in 2013 by Bloomsbury USA, Copyright (c) 2012 Martin J. Smith. All rights reserved.

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