In 1991, the average price for a gallon of gas was $1.23; a gallon of milk was just $2.36; and a loaf of bread a mere $1.25.
But while inflation has doubled and even tripled the prices of such commodities, we plop down the same amount for a duck stamp in 2014 as we did 23 years ago: $15.
Therefore, as waterfowl hunter-conservationists, it's time to ask ourselves an important question: If we truly believe in the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps program — and I believe most do — isn't it time to pay a little more?
The latest push to do just that comes in the form of U.S. Senate Bill 1865, which would raise the price of stamps to $25. On Feb. 6 the bill was marked up by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, making it eligible for a vote. Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl and Pheasants Forever all support its passage.
"We appreciate the introduction of a federal duck stamp increase bill by Senators Begich, Baucus, Coons and Tester to meet very real on-the-ground wetland habitat conservation needs," said Dale Hall, CEO of Ducks Unlimited, who has vocally supported a price increase for several years. "We are committed to seeing this legislation signed into law."
The argument in favor is essentially two-fold: First, funds generated by stamp sales are vital to wetlands conservation. Since the program's enactment in 1934 — thanks largely to the efforts of sportsmen concerned by dwindling waterfowl populations — stamp sales have conserved 6 million acres through direct purchases and leases.
Of these, 2.5 million acres are in the critical Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), including 7,000 public-hunting access "waterfowl production areas." PPR grassland is unquestionably some of North America's most important waterfowl nesting habitat — a crucial, stabilizing element of healthy overall populations.
Second, while the price per stamp has not increased, land values have skyrocketed since 1991. In Minnesota, for instance, the average price for an acre of land in 1998 was $400 — today it's $1,400, a 250-percent jump. Though 98 cents of every dollar spent on stamps goes to conservation, a dollar simply doesn't have the buying power it did more than twenty years ago.
Given these numbers, the stamp has lost about 40 percent of its buying power since 1991. Though the cost per stamp has increased seven times since 1934, this is the longest stretch ever at the same rate — many hunters in their 30s have never known another price. It's no exaggeration then that one of history's most successful hunter-funded conservation programs has never been weaker.
"The cost of conservation in 2014 frankly isn't even in the same hemisphere as 1991," said John Devney, vice president of U.S. policy for Delta Waterfowl. "If the price per stamp is not moderately increased, we risk retarding the progress of arguably the greatest conservation legacy in North America.
"The [duck stamp] program has conserved 30 percent of the vulnerable wetlands in the United States Prairie Pothole Region — it's the reason why the Dakotas continue to produce more and more ducks and prairie Canada continues to struggle. Canada doesn't have the pool of resources and dedicated efforts to producing ducks that the United States has achieved."
During the past five years, several U.S. Congressional bills have sought to increase the cost per stamp. All have failed. Given the weight of the sportsmen vote, could it be that our own apathy or even outright divisions in our ranks are to blame?
Certainly there are hunters who decry the rising costs of our sport, arguing that an extra $10 is too great a burden — an attitude that's especially interesting when espoused by men clutching high-end auto-loaders.
But I understand the sentiment. As an advocate for the future of ducks as well as duck hunting, I am suspicious of barriers to participation. I don't believe a $25 duck stamp is one of them.
"I spend my whole life ensuring the average guy has access to duck hunting," Devney said. "If we're down to the ten-dollar margin on that, we have some real problems."