A Conversation with Adam Putnam, the New CEO of Ducks Unlimited

The new head of the conservation organization discusses his vision for DU, the challenges ahead for waterfowl hunters, and his plans to preach the “gospel of ducks”

adam putnam, the ceo of ducks unlimited, aiming a shotgun
Meet Adam Putnam—the new CEO of Ducks Unlimited.Ducks Unlimited

Recently, I had the chance to have a conversation with the new CEO of Ducks Unlimited, Adam Putnam. Before we get to the interview, I wanted to begin with a short rundown about the kind of organization DU is, where it came from, and the great conservation work they do.

In 1937, Ducks Unlimited was founded as an offshoot of the venerable big-game conservation group, the Boone and Crockett Club. This was during America’s darkest decade for wildlife and hunting, as the true costs of market hunting and the unbridled destruction of habitat became painfully obvious. It was a time of ecological crisis brought on by our most grandiose exhibitions of hubris—homesteading deserts, plowing arid plains, draining every wetland and swamp, and exterminating whatever wildlife had escaped the great extinctions marked by the passing of the passenger pigeon: the Carolina parakeet, the bison, the wolf and grizzly bear, and very nearly the pronghorn, elk, deer, and turkey. Instead of vast flocks of waterfowl blotting out the sun as the earlier pioneers had recorded, huge walls of dust darkened the skies from the Great Plains to Washington, D.C.

Something had to be done, and America's sportsmen, as they always have, proved equal to the challenge. In the ensuing decades, what began as a small group of sportsmen who understood that the key to conserving and restoring waterfowl lay not in simply trying to somehow artificially increase numbers of birds to hunt, but in protecting and conserving habitat, such as wetlands and swamps, prairie potholes, flooded hardwood forests, and fresh- and saltwater marshes. It was a vision that stretched from the Canadian border of the northern plains to the Gulf of Mexico, and would, in time, expand to both coasts, to Mexico, and as far north as the Canadian Arctic. The vision would catch on like wildfire, fueled by a growing awareness that what was good for waterfowl—wetlands and healthy floodplains—was also good for human beings, reducing flooding and losses to agriculture, filtering pollutants and other runoff from whole watersheds, recharging aquifers, providing habitat for as many as 900 other species of wildlife other than waterfowl, and ensuring healthy and productive fisheries.

Eighty-two years after its founding, Ducks Unlimited has 700,000 members and has helped to protect more than 14 million acres of wetlands in North America, making it, hands-down, the most powerful and effective wetlands-protection organization on the planet. Ducks Unlimited works across the board, with private landowners as well as state and federal agencies, using land purchases and conservation easements on working landscapes to protect places that some of the best waterfowl and wetlands scientists in the world have identified as crucial to migrating, breeding, and resting waterfowl. The group has also become one of conservation's most important voices in advising and educating both the public and elected policy makers on the science of wetlands, waterfowl, and what DU calls the "human element," that is: how conservation that benefits ducks is equally crucial to the basics of healthy economics.

Of course, it would be wrong to give the false impression that all is well. Although much has been accomplished, we as Americans are fast losing ground again. Wetlands losses have increased over 140 percent since 2004; waterfowl numbers appear to be falling; and the number of waterfowl hunters has declined every year since 1997. On the policy side of things, perhaps related to the decline in hunters, the challenges are many, and some are grim: Current proposed changes to the Clean Water Act will remove legal protections for much of the prairie pothole region, as well as other wetlands and streams that are either dry part of the year or lack a "significant nexus" with a navigable waterway, which removes protections from 96 percent of the streams in Arizona, and from an estimated 50 percent of the wetlands we have left. Rollbacks of the 1918 Migratory Bird Act and a decline in enforcement bodes ill for the future of waterfowl. Also, the Renewable Fuels Standard, which has basically become a taxpayer-funded incentive to convert millions of acres of former wildlife and waterfowl habitat into corn for ethanol, keeps getting approved by Congress, even after its terrible effects have been understood for a decade.

Stepping into this formidable arena, as the new CEO of Ducks Unlimited, is Adam Putnam, a youthful 44 years old, who will be moving to DU's headquarters in Memphis from his home in Bartow, Florida. (Putnam steps into the seat vacated by Dale Hall, who took over in 2010 after a 31-year stint at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.) Putnam brings an entirely new skillset to the CEO position, one that may be exactly right for the challenges of our time—when the entire notion of conservation, that most un-political, pragmatic of issues—has become a political football. A lifelong Republican, Putnam served five terms in the U.S. Congress as a representative of Florida's 12th District. Before that, in 1996, at age 22, he became the youngest person ever elected to the Florida Legislature. He won another term in 1998, and served as the chair of the Agriculture Committee. In 2010, he was elected to be the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Putnam launched an unsuccessful campaign to be Florida's Governor in 2018.

I spoke with Putnam on the telephone from his new office at DU’s headquarters in Memphis during his first week on the job as CEO.

HH: Thanks for talking with me. I'm a huge fan of DU, and I'm really interested in what you have planned. Are you the first Congressman to ever serve as CEO?

AP: I don't know about that, but I hope that the connections I've built and the knowledge I've gained about Washington, D.C. over all those years will be valuable in this new work. We've got to get NAWCA (North Americans Wetlands Conservation Act) funded and make sure we have the Farm Bill worked out. I know that the number of things that will make it to the red zone in Congress will be few. NAWCA will be one of them; it has bi-partisan support. The fact is that there is a consensus around common-sense conservation right now. Look at the LWCF being permanently re-authorized. That is huge! And this is the 30th anniversary of NAWCA. This is the time to commemorate one of the truly enormous success stories in conservation.

HH: Back to your journey to DU, how did you get here?

AP: I'm a fifth generation farmer and rancher in Florida, and I've been a fisherman and hunter all my life. My all-time favorite fishing is for snook, but I love redfish too. Agriculture and wildlife are so connected—agriculture so often is the common denominator for wildlife—and so much of what we do at DU is in partnership with landowners and agriculture. I went to my first DU banquets when I was really young—I had not even hunted ducks or anything else yet. And now here I am. This is my dream job. They are going to have to carry me out of here in a casket.

“We’ve got to get people to understand the connections between waterfowl, wetlands, and all the rest—the floods, the water quality, all of it. That is the secret sauce, really. We have to get the farmers and all the water users together to understand what effects we are having on the natural resources that we want to leave behind for our children.”

- Adam Putnam

HH: Are you relocating to Memphis for good?

AP: I am. I have four kids—three girls and a son in middle school. My eldest is in high-school and understandably wants to finish with her class and her friends. So we have a few things to work out, but we'll get there.

HH: There is so much in play right now, just on the ground. We have the epic floods in the midwest—a lot of them tied to the loss of the wetlands that would absorb all this water. It seems like a time when real change could be made.

AP: As we assess the damages and the response to these recent floods, I hope that will allow us to have the conversation about how to go forward. DU has always been huge believers in using common-sense voluntary projects and partnerships to solve big problems like this. And we have the science—we invest a lot in the research—and we are going to be educating our policy makers on the importance of playa lakes, prairie potholes, wetlands, and the connections they have with our wildlife and water. We've got to get people to understand the connections between waterfowl, wetlands, and all the rest—the floods, the water quality, all of it. That is the secret sauce, really. We have to get the farmers and all the water users together to understand what effects we are having on the natural resources that we want to leave behind for our children.

HH: Although probably not many hunters recognize it, the Farm Bill is crucial to funding and working on these kinds of problems, and on conservation at a large scale. I know DU spends a lot of time advocating for wildlife and waterfowl projects in the Farm Bill. How is that going?

AP: The Farm Bill recognizes that there is an economic benefit to conservation. There is an entire alphabet soup of programs dedicated to that in the Bill. DU feels pretty good about what was accomplished in this last one.

HH: Did we gain?

AP: Our folks would say we gained a little bit from the previous one.

HH: It seems as if DU has been hesitant to speak up about some of these major policy issues. We're seeing all of this reversal of the Clean Water Act, the Waters of the U.S. Rule, all of that. Will DU make a stand?

AP: We put out a statement that expressed our concerns with portions of the new rule. And we'll be submitting our comments on the proposed changes. Again, we recognize that this is the opportunity to educate our policy makers on how all of these things—waterfowl, alluvial soils, prairie potholes, the wetlands, the floods, and water quality, the quality of human life—are connected.

HH: You are coming from Florida, where one of the nation's biggest water pollution disasters is still happening. We reported on this extensively a year or so ago here and here, and it has just gotten worse and worse. What happened there?

AP: Everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong. There is no magic pixie dust that will suddenly fix it. But there is tremendous incentive now. There is investment. We have to fix the problems north of Lake Okeechobee too. The energy and the commitment is there now to fix it, because it is clear that water is Florida's golden goose. Water is America's golden goose. Water is the world's golden goose.

HH: Well said. What would you say the number one challenge is right now—for DU, for conservation, and for the future of waterfowl hunting?

AP: The number-one challenge is that fewer and fewer people are connected to the land, be that farming, hunting, fishing, or other outdoor activities—anything. If we raise a generation of kids without those connections, well, it will make it much harder to build support for conservation, to have support from voters and politicians, support for funding all these programs in the Farm Bill. There is this cultural shift hanging over us, and these connections are being lost. Every generation seems to think that the generation coming up has less connection to nature than they do. We have to address that.

HH: Would you say you came to this job with an overarching goal, or vision? If so, what is it?

AP: When I went to my first DU banquets—this was in Florida when I was really young—I got to understand that the money being raised was to accomplish things far away. It was not just for us. I knew about charity events that raised money for your own backyard, but this was money for the prairie pothole region and for waterfowl habitat in Canada. I realized we were thinking about things that were far away from us, and there was a unique selflessness in that—and that connected us to the hunters who were doing that way back in 1937, working with passion and conserving places that they might never see.

We’ve got 700,000 members now. Most are hunters, some are not. And we’ve harnessed that same energy and passion to build the premier conservation organization in America. We are going to buck all the trends and defy all the odds and make it bigger and stronger than ever before.

HH: What is your role as CEO in that vision?

AP: I'm going to go all over the place preaching the gospel of ducks. I'll be the circuit preacher and the revival preacher at the heifer shows, the bake sales, the banquets. I'll be all over the place turning up like a bad penny. I'll be preaching the gospel of ducks and helping people to make those connections. That is what I am going to be doing.

HH: I wish you the best of luck. It is important work.

AP: Thank you. Come see us.