The 2013 Federal Duck Stamp has a local connection.
Duck stamps, as hunters know them, really are waterfowl permits. Congress passed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act in 1934, requiring anybody 16 and older to buy and carry the stamp when hunting.
To select art for the upcoming issue, the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, enlisted the assistance of – among others – Christine Thomas, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP). “It was fun,” she told me.
Every year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a competition, inviting both professional and amateur artists to submit their works. A panel of judges chooses the winning design, which then becomes the subject of the next year’s duck stamp. The artists receive no compensation – the winner settles for a pane of stamps featuring his winning design, and benefits financially by being able to sell prints and reproductions of his winning entry.
This year’s event took place at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, in late September. The judges included art, waterfowl and philatelic experts.
The Fish and Wildlife Service gives judges no criteria on which to base their decisions. “It’s up to you,” Thomas said, adding that during the first round, she judged the submissions by whether she’d like to hang them on her wall.
This wasn’t Thomas’ first foray into the national scenario. In 2010 the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture appointed her vice-chair of the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage and Conservation Council. She also serves as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Board.
On the first day of duck stamp judging, the judges sit on a stage with panels between them as staff passes the paintings before them. That setup helps assure that each judge can’t influence how any of the others think. The first round of voting involves holding up a card that reads “In” or “Out.”
By the end of that round, the judges had winnowed down the competition from 192 to about 65 paintings. Thomas said the judges could change their minds, and even brought back a few they had originally eliminated. Then the panel walked around viewing the remaining paintings, and assigned them scores from one to five – favorites getting a five.
Thomas said when that part of the judging concluded, she’d given six paintings scores of five, and her list included a total of 10. Among all judges, just 17 paintings remained in contention at this point.
Thomas said it happened that all the paintings she favored made it to the top 17.
On the following day, judges – once more sequestered so they couldn’t see what the others were doing – rated the paintings again on the one-to-five scale. The highest scores made it to round three.
Judges repeated the process so that by the end of round three there was a clear winner, with a few others tied for second place. Another vote broke the tie. Thomas said the winning entry – by Robert Steiner – was one of her top two choices.
What helped make her judging experience enjoyable was that she got to see acquaintances in the conservation field. In addition, she said she “met people from all over the country.” “In conservation,” she added, “everyone is connected to everyone else – it’s a really small world.”
“We all take our turn” judging, Thomas said, noting that last year, she served as an alternate before receiving the invitation to become a full-fledged judge this year.
While in Utah Thomas toured the 2002 Olympics ski site just as the fall colors were peaking. She said the foliage of red and gold occurred with a full moon.
Judges don’t receive any payment for their services, but Thomas said the Fish and Wildlife Service gave her a pin to thank her for participating. She also received an invitation to attend the upcoming First Day of Issue ceremony, and will get a First Day cover (the stamp on an engraved envelope with the First Day of Issue cancellation).
Steiner’s painting is his second winning entry in the Duck Stamp competition. He won in 1998 with a barrow’s goldeneye painting.
Some of the proceeds the government collects from the sale of duck stamps go to buy wetlands. Since 1934 the government has collected more than $850 million to buy more than 6 million acres of habitat as a result of the law. When the government acquires wetlands, they become part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. There are 560 refuges.
Some stamp collectors have put together collections of duck stamps. A collector who’d bought each of the stamps in unused condition since 1934 would have a collection worth $7,800 today, according to Scott Publishing, which values postage stamps. The government began selling them in 1934 for $1, raised the price to $2 in 1949, to $3 10 years later, and to $5 in 1972.
Then the price went up to $7.50 in 1979, to $10 in 1987, $12.50 two years later and to the present $15 in 1991.
It’s possible the Duck Stamp competition could come to Stevens Point. Thomas told me she put in a request to host the 2014 event.
The 2013 Federal Duck Stamp will go on sale next June.