It’s hard to imagine that even a single one of Ducks Unlimited’s more than 750,000 members isn’t presently ashamed of their affiliation with an organization which has long been widely regarded as a well-respected and incredibly accomplished conservation organization. Over the years, Ducks Unlimited (DU) has built for itself a reputation of credibility based largely on its effective grassroots organization, efficient use of dollars and conservation of almost 14 million acres of North American waterfowl habitat. However, last week’s firing of Don Thomas, a Lewistown, Montana, writer and longtime columnist for the organization’s magazine, has vilified the organization and called its credibility into question.
According to Thomas, he was fired for authoring an article published in another publication — entitled A Rift Runs Through It, which appeared in the Montana quarterly Outside Bozeman — that criticized businessman and media mogul Jim Kennedy, the chairman of Cox Enterprises, for his long-running Montana legal battle to prevent public access to the Ruby River where it flows through his property, in defiance of the state’s stream access law. Kennedy is a major financial supporter of Ducks Unlimited, and Thomas believes that he asked the organization to terminate its affiliation with him. In a statement by Thomas, he acknowledged that the article in question was “not complimentary to Kennedy” but added that “no one has challenged the accuracy of the reporting,”
While DU has denied that Kennedy requested Thomas’s termination, the organization has unabashedly acknowledged that Thomas was let go as a result of his article about Kennedy’s efforts to use lawyers to thumb his nose at Montana law. In a letter authored by DU editorial director Matt Young, the group noted that “We simply cannot condone this type of vitriol directed by one of our contributing editors toward a dedicated DU volunteer, who is among the nation's most ardent and active waterfowl conservationists.”
DU spokesman Matt Coffey also released a statement defending the organization’s right to choose who writes for its publication. In the statement, Coffey noted that "[DU] felt that the article demonstrated a lack of fairness in vilifying a member of the DU family without allowing that person the opportunity to provide his perspective.”
The response to DU’s actions has been overwhelmingly negative, casting DU as an organization that values Kennedy’s dollars over integrity and free speech and Thomas as a respected journalist and “little guy” that’s taking it in the shorts.
DU’s proponents argue that its critics are holding the group — a private conservation organization with a specific mission statement and goals — to the sort of standards that media outlets should be, but rarely are, held to; and that the organization has a greater responsibility to its members, its supporters and the countless hunters and other little guys out there that benefit from DU’s work and from the dollars provided by ardent supporters like Kennedy than they do to a paid contributor like Thomas.
It is true that DU is not a media organization and as such does not have the inbuilt responsibility to present well-balanced points of view in its publication or anywhere else. It is also true that the group has a bottom line to protect — that the loss of potentially millions of dollars from wealthy donors like Kennedy could result in the cutting of conservation programs and the layoff of personnel. Furthermore, DU undeniably has, as the organization has maintained, the right to choose who does and does not work for them.
Unfortunately for DU, it is likely that these legal and black-and-white distinctions are of little interest to most sportsmen — the very folks DU’s efforts are supposed to support. The reality is that the issues facing sportsmen these days are anything but black-and-white and easily segregated. Issues like wetland and other habitat conservation, protection of clean water and air, reduction of fossil fuel usage, protection of wild stocks and native species and preservation of public lands and public access are all inextricably linked.
Given such, even if you are able to stomach DU’s decision to throw basic ethics out the window in defense of its bottom line, it is difficult to defend their decision to rob Peter to pay Paul when it comes to issues that matter to sportsmen.
Do DU’s actions, however distasteful and reproachable, undo any of the organization's incredible accomplishments over its eighty-plus year run? No. Nor does it mean that DU members should revoke their support of the group or its ongoing efforts. However, much like the American citizenship, which has lost its voice in our representative government, DU members and the sportsmen community as a whole need to make their voices heard in sending the message that putting dollars ahead of issues that affect sportsmen everywhere is unacceptable. Whether duck hunters, trout anglers or something else entirely — we’re all in this one together.