The Southampton-based chapter of Ducks Unlimited has grown over the last decade into one of the national organization’s biggest fundraisers—largely on the back of Water Mill farmer and hunting guide Duane Arnister, who is now the group’s New York State chairman.He has risen through the organization’s ranks since being recruited by former local Ducks Unlimited committeemen Emil Norsic, Perry Delalio and Charlie Corwith. At the same time, the Eastern Suffolk Chapter has risen to a perennial perch and is now included among the organization’s top 100 fundraisers in the country. Last year, the local chapter, which is now led by Mandy Sachtlaben of Water Mill, raised some $110,000 for the organization, mostly with its annual dinner and auction in December.
Together, DU volunteers raise, on average, about $50 million annually to protect North America’s wetlands, according to the organization’s website.
Ruddy-faced, square-jawed and broad-shouldered—and almost always sporting some article of camouflage clothing—Mr. Arnister fits the mold of a rugged hunting guide to a T. On the coldest and rainiest and generally most miserable days of the year, he hauls aluminum boats filled with hundreds of pounds of decoys and lead sinkers through the East End’s marshes of muck. In the off-season, between running his privet nursery, he stretches the skins of geese, which were shot during the previous season, over frames of foam and steel to create the most life-like faux waterfowl possible.
But what separates Mr. Arnister from others in his position—and has won him the respect of the DU leadership—are his willingness to cold-call and cajole individuals, convincing them to donate hard-earned bucks to help protect or restore the region’s wetlands. The thousands of miles of marsh serve as the nurseries for the ducks and geese that group members hope will one day wing their way through the area’s creeks, ponds and cornfields, in which locals hunt.
Since serving as the local chapter chairman for two years in the late 1990s, Mr. Arnister has led a team of particularly dedicated and enthusiastic local hunters who have expanded the outfit’s fundraising operation twofold, through a mix of elbow grease and strategizing, and, perhaps most important, by giving their supporters what they want for their money.
“We became more conscious of what we put into the $5 raffles and the $10 raffles. We’re not cookie-cutter, with a lot of traditional DU merchandise—but what really puts us over the top is the sponsors,” Mr. Arnister said of the $250 annual contribution that earns a donor the chance at winning the most prized of event awards: a new shotgun, often valued at nearly $1,000. “We used to give away one gun, now we give away four or five,” he added.
Last year’s Southampton DU dinner had 120 sponsors, the most of any such event in the state. Organizers raised nearly $100,000 in a single night.
Mr. Arnister took over as the state chairman last February and has spent much of his time since crisscrossing New York, visiting its various chapters. Last month, he spoke to congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., sharing with them his passion for wildlife and preserving the natural wonders of North America, that DU’s millions of waterfowl hunters possess.
“Here on Long Island, if it weren’t for duck hunters, we wouldn’t have a lot of our state parks, which were all duck [hunting] clubs decades ago,” he said. “When Ducks Unlimited puts up $500,000 for Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, the government matches it, and then The Nature Conservancy and Pheasants Forever and all these other organizations that benefit from projects inspired by DU help out.
“We put up $500,000,” he continued, “and the next thing you know, it’s $2 million.”
DU is the largest wetlands conservation organization in the United States, with more than 700,000 members, 40,000 volunteers, and a catalog of more than 12.5 million acres of wetlands protected in the prime waterfowl breeding and over-wintering grounds in the United States and Canada.
Mr. Arnister’s father, Arnold, was a renowned wood carver, whose likenesses of waterfowl are celebrated as among the best ever made, and regularly sell at auction for thousands of dollars. Duane Arnister’s son, Brandon, has also made a name for himself as a carver and serves on the local DU committee.
Duane Arnister noted that there is a strong young generation of Southampton-area people in position to take over the reins of the local DU chapter after his generation steps aside.
As for his own future, following the conclusion of his two-year tour as state chairman, Mr. Arnister said he wasn’t sure whether a post with DU’s national leadership would be in the cards. He noted that most similar posts are held by wealthy businessmen who can afford to jet around the country to attend events.
“We’ll see what the group has to offer in a volunteer position—I’m willing to help however I can,” he said. “This is not just about the ducks. Without clean water, you’ll have no kayaking, no boating, [and] the hotels, the gas station, the delis, they all get hurt. It’s not just for ducks—it’s for the human race also.”