The local chapter of Ducks Unlimited, a conservation nonprofit dedicated to preserving habitat, hosted its 34th annual dinner last Saturday at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown. And though turnout may have been the smallest in the organization’s long Island history, the group felt good about the evening, according to chairman Cliff Meehan.
“The ducks are the main idea,” Mr. Meehan said. Ducks Unlimited was formed in 1934 by a group of hunters concerned that ducks were losing much-needed habitat. Since then, the nonprofit organization has saved 6.6 million acres in Canada, 1.8 million acres in Mexico and 4.1 million acres in the United States. The club has 780,000 members in the United States.
Mr. Meehan said the local chapter in its best years raised as much as $40,000 in a single night. This year’s dinner is likely to raise $20,000 based on early numbers, down from $25,000 a year ago. There were 75 who attended the Saturday dinner, down from about 100 last year.
“I think it’s a pretty good turnout, considering the state of the economy,” Mr. Meehan said.
Duck hunting has a rich history on the Vineyard. Many years ago, when much of the Island was wild and undeveloped, hunting waterfowl was both a recreational and commercial activity. And while it is a fraction of what it was, the hunting culture remains strong on the Island. And the strong and loyal participation in Ducks Unlimited is one example. Mr. Meehan said hunting and habitat conservation go hand in hand, and today many members of Ducks Unlimited are not hunters but are conservationists.
He said all members share a strong philosophy of the need to protect wetlands, not just as places where ducks congregate, but as an important element of the coastal ecosystem. Wetlands provide a buffer area for storm surges during extreme high tides and hurricanes, and they also act as small, natural sewage treatment systems that filter out pollutants. And they have become severely threatened by coastal development in the last three decades.
Through the national organization of Ducks Unlimited, the money collected is used to purchase wetlands, both fresh and saltwater. The organization prides itself in recently leveraging an average of six additional dollars for every net unrestricted dollar raised, according to their fact sheet.
Philip J. (Jeff) Norton Jr., an Edgartown attorney, was a member of the Ducks Unlimited local chapter from the start; for many of the early years he worked as chairman and top auctioneer. He has since passed the leadership to Mr. Meehan, while Rick Mello has taken over as auctioneer and vice chairman in recent years.
Recalling the early days of the local chapter, Mr. Norton said when it was formed in the late 1970s, many Islanders were already members of the national organization. He said some of the first members included Richard Steigelman, Ralph Packer, Dick Burt and Ed Belisle.
They had their first dinners at the Ocean View, Mr. Norton recalled. “The Ocean View didn’t have the capacity. One year they had over 400 people show up for the dinner,” he said. The annual event has been held at the Harbor View Hotel ever since.
The format of the dinner hasn’t changed much. The evening begins with a cocktail hour and an opportunity to purchase raffle tickets and bid on items of interest. Saturday’s collection included duck prints, wooden crafted duck items, a kayak and an old-fashioned popcorn stand. There also were hunting rifles and a silent auction. The dinner followed the reception and Mr. Mello ran the auction.
Ray Long, a longtime Edgartown member and colleague with Mr. Meehan in woodworking, said he likes to participate for many reasons. He has fond memories of early active members such as the late Ed Tyra of Edgartown and Cooper A. Gilkes 2nd of Oak Bluffs. Mr. Tyra was a well-respected Island hunter who lived off the land the way many Islanders did in his day.
Mr. Gilkes was a wood-carver who made duck decoys and other bird sculptures. Mr. Long said the annual dinner serves as a prelude of sorts to the Island’s outdoor season.
“I like doing this. Any time you can get together in the middle of the winter when there aren’t that many activities going along is good. Plus you get to look at some pretty amazing wildlife prints and dream about next season,” Mr. Long said.