Sportsmen and environmentalists unite for conservation in Vero Beach

VERO BEACH — An abundance of large, shiny pickup trucks mixed with a few hybrids to fill the parking lot of the Vero Beach Country Club for the Ducks Unlimited Banquet, which annually brings sportsmen and environmentalists together for a common cause.

Ducks Unlimited was founded somewhat incongruously in 1937, as a group of hunters realized that waterfowl populations were dwindling as a result of years of draught.  The small group that banded together to preserve those diminishing habitats, has grown over the years to become the largest private wetlands conservation organization in the world.

“A group of those leaders moved to John’s Island from New York and eventually started a Vero Beach chapter,” explained David Nolte, who joined the local organization in 1981.  “The money raised all goes to conservation.  The wetlands are where life starts.”

More than $3 billion in revenue and support has been raised since 1937, and has been used to conserve almost 13 million acres of wetlands in the United States, Canada and Mexico. In this area, their efforts have helped to protect the Stick Marsh, a 6,500-acre reservoir near Fellsmere, and the 3,870-acre T. M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area and 2,400-acre Broadmoor Marsh Unit, two wetland restoration projects in the upper St. John’s River Basin.

A long-time member, Hazard Campbell first joined the national organization in 1955 and was recruited locally by the late Stirling Adams, a fellow John’s Island resident.

“I’d always had very good luck duck hunting in Buffalo and felt I needed to give some resources back,” said Campbell, who served for two years as president of the national organization.

Derek Arden chaired the banquet, which attracts a decidedly male crowd to what is generally considered a fun night out for the guys.  These days women are allowed at what used to be a stag event, but less than a dozen attended, and most of those were working volunteers.

The event featured a “Hunt Feast” dinner of fried alligator, venison, grilled quail, country pot roast and roast duck, and an extensive lineup of auction items. The auction included a little of everything for the well outfitted hunter, from hunting/cleaning knives and rifles to camo gear, decoys and tackle boxes, but there was also plenty of beautiful artwork, collectibles and even a grandfather clock.

“Most of the group who started Ducks Unlimited have continued; once they get in they stay,” said Tom Lockwood, one of the local chapter founders.  “Some are hunters, some are environmentalists, and some are in the middle; people who just support what Ducks Unlimited stands for.”

A jovial trio of Orchid Islanders, Richard Reittinger, Larry Timmerman and Tait Johnson, spoke enthusiastically about the sport.  The group regularly gets together to shoot quail at J & R Ranch, sporting clays at Windsor and ducks at the stick marsh.  They have also competed in charitable clay shooting events such as those to support Sun Up and the Education Foundation.

“We’re known on Thursdays at Windsor as the irregulars,” laughed Reittinger.  “I’ve even had a logo made up.”

“And we have the best dogs in the world,” said Timmerman referring to his French Brittany Spaniels and Reittinger’s English Cocker Spaniels.

When I commented on Reittinger’s alligator shoes, Timmerman pulled out his alligator wallet.

“I killed this one with a crossbow,” he said with a wink.   I’m still not sure if he was serious.

Throughout the evening, Highwayman artist R.L. (Robert) Lewis, who had donated a piece for the live auction, artfully brought a fabulous Florida landscape to life with a live painting demonstration.  His son noted that Lewis’ goal is to capture Florida on canvas before it disappears.

“I’m not a hunter, but I’m interested in wetlands conservation,” said Tom White, who had invited Lewis to participate in the event.  “The money goes to Florida Ducks Unlimited and they divvy it out after prioritizing where it should go.  We were one of the leading chapters in the state in raising money for DU.” {igallery 361}

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