The 2014–2015 federal duck stamp was titled “Canvasback Duck.” ©Adam Grimm

If you’ve got a wildlife and nature enthusiast on your holiday shopping list—and I’m sure you do if you’re reading this article—I have the perfect gift idea for you. It isn’t expensive, it’s beautiful, it’s easy to purchase and send, and it quite probably helps conserve your best-loved wild place and/or favorite wildlife species.

Although usually considered as a required part of the hunter’s world, the Federal Duck Stamp could be the most important investment you make in wilderness and wildlife all year.

But to my mind, a duck stamp represents even more than that: at a time when so much divides us, a duck stamp, within its few inches of frame, creates a bridge between hunters and nonconsumptive wildlife fans.

Artist Mark Anderson created “Hooded Mergansers” for the 2005–2006 federal duck stamp. ©Mark Anderson

Conserving water, wetlands and wildlife

Every year, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-sponsored contest is held, in which one image of a duck or ducks is chosen to be put on the annual duck stamp. This contest is the only federally mandated, judged art competition Although the winning artist receives no prize money, winners retain the right to sell their original paintings, market limited-edition prints and otherwise license their work.

Waterfowl hunters 16 years of age and older must annually purchase a duck stamp and are required to affix this self-adhesive, $15.00 stamp to their hunting licenses in order to legally harvest migratory waterfowl. Birders, however, often purchase a duck stamp in order to gain free entry for a vehicle full of people for an entire year into any fee-collecting U.S. national wildlife refuge. Collectors, on the other hand, purchase the stamps as keepsakes. There are 336 active, dues-paying members of the National Duck Stamp Collectors Society.

But for you and me, duck stamps are an awesome holiday gift. That’s because approximately 98 cents of every duck stamp dollar goes directly into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund to purchase wetlands and wildlife habitat for inclusion into the National Wildlife Refuge System, ensuring that there will be protected lands for wildlife, for us and for future generations to enjoy.

Long-legged waders, such as sandhill cranes, are dependent on habitat derived from duck stamp purchases. ©John T. Andrews

In fact, since 1934, with the passage of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, sales of duck stamps have generated more than $800 million to purchase or lease more than six million acres of waterfowl habitat in the United States.

For example, national wildlife refuges and their percentages paid for by duck stamp purchases include: Bombay Hook in Delaware: 95.1 percent; Bosque del Apache in New Mexico: 99.2 percent; Horicon in Wisconsin: 98.7 percent; Muscatatuck in Indiana: 98.9 percent; Ottawa in Ohio: 86.4 percent; Santa Ana in Texas: 94.9 percent; and 99.8 percent of all Waterfowl Production Areas in Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Duck stamp revenues have also been used to buy wetland and grassland habitats within the Prairie Pothole Region of the Upper Midwest and Northern Great Plains and grassland easements to conserve existing habitat for prairie nesting birds. Scores of other bird species (grassland and wetland songbirds, long-legged waders and shorebirds) are dependent on habitat derived from stamp purchases. Amphibians, butterflies, fish and reptiles also flourish through stamp investments, and water quality is improved.

“Mallards,” 1934–1935, was the first federal duck stamp. ©J.N. “Ding” Darling

Bringing together outdoor factions

This gift might be perfect for the season in yet another way. On average, the government has sold about 1.5 million duck stamps per year for the past 10 years; but in the 1970s and 1980s, that average was higher: 2 million. A decline in the number of hunters in recent decades—coupled with rising land prices—has hunters and nonhunting environmentalists alike worried about dwindling dollars for wetland conservation. More birders, hikers, walkers, wildlife photographers, outdoor aficionados and nature travelers, like you, need to be duck stamp purchasers. A fondness and appreciation for the art of duck stamps and support for the power they have to save wildlife species and habitats could—and should—transcend the hunter/nonhunter divide.

We know art can help save our favorite places. For a mere $15.00, it can also help save wildlife. My brother, an avid outdoorsman, has wanted me to write about federal duck stamps for years. He’s right: buying a federal duck stamp is the most conservation bang you can get for your buck and unites all of us who enjoy the outdoors.

That may be the best gift of all, in the truest spirit of the season.

This 1982 federal duck stamp was painted by David Maass, a self-taught wildlife illustrator and an art director at Jostens, a manufacturer of high-school and college jewelry. The stamp was selected from more than 2,000 entries for that year’s contest.

Duck stamps can be purchased on line at at your nearest post office or at some sporting goods stores.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,