Column: Diary of a Duck Stamp judgeWhat’s the first rule of being a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Federal Duck Stamp judge? Tell no one you’re a Federal Duck Stamp judge.
By: Dudley Edmondson, For the Budgeteer News
OGDEN, Utah — What’s the first rule of being a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Federal Duck Stamp judge?
Tell no one you’re a Federal Duck Stamp judge.
I learned that quickly after being invited out to Utah last week to judge the prestigious national contest.
Artists are in the audience, I was told, and they’ve been known to try to influence judges — even though they’re not allowed to talk to us during the event.
Enforcing that was Larry Mellenger, a lawyer from the U.S Department of the Interior. The contest is the nation’s only Congressionally mandated art competition, and Mellenger’s penetrating gaze and no-nonsense expression made it clear he takes his job very seriously.
So do the artists.
“Wildlife artists have called it the ‘million dollar stamp,’” Laurie Shaffer, chief of the Federal Duck Stamp program, told me.
“The artist owns the copyright on the art, so they can produce and sell prints. The art collectors are as passionate about owning every print as the stamp collectors are about owning every year’s stamp.”
As judges, our job was to whittle down the 192 entries to just one winner.
Judging was more than just looking at paint on canvas — it’s all in the details. Would this art hold up in miniature on a stamp? Is the plumage correct? Is the head shape accurate?
Or, in the case of one entry, why are both wings painted on one side of its body?
“It’s a great picture but the duck can only fly in circles,” said Paul Higgins, another judge who’s also a wildlife photographer. Needless to say, we eliminated that one.
I was the first of five judges on the stage, which meant nothing moved on until I gave it my nod. Mellenger and two college students held up each work Vanna White-style. I stared nervously at the first piece, trying to look official and staring over my glasses, as the entire auditorium sat in silence.
“Thank you,” I said, and it passed on to the judge next to me. The contest rules prevent judges from knowing how the others are voting and cardboard partitions were placed between us.
We cut the field down to just 70 and broke for the day. The next day it took less than an hour to reduce it to just 17. Now the real work began, and we headed to a room closed to the public for final scrutiny. At our disposal were several biology experts, advisors and a plethora of reference material.
It felt like an episode of “Survivor.” I favored certain pieces but judges were not allowed to work in tandem to promote a particular entry. To get the works I wanted to the final selections, I had to give them the highest score possible — effectively voting the others off the proverbial art island.
When we returned to the stage, I noticed the audience had grown considerably, which was a bit intimidating. The whole world seemed to want to know which one would be the winner.
“Please take your seats,” Mellenger said over the PA. The chatter quickly fell to total silence. The stage lights seemed hotter than they were an hour ago — at least to me. The presenter stepped in front of me to show me the first of 17 finalists. After we’d seen them all, Mellenger was back on the PA.
“Well judges, you’re almost done. You’ve created a tie for second place.”
That meant a tiebreaker vote. There can be only one Federal Duck Stamp winner.
San Francisco artist Robert Steiner’s male Common Goldeneye took the prize. Paul Bridgeford of Des Moines placed second with a pair of Northern Shovelers and Gerald Mobley of Claremore, Okla., took third with the same species pair. In the end, my favorite came in fourth, which is a true testament to the fairness of the competition.
Would I do it again? I can’t. Judges can serve only one term. But I can still participate in the program by buying a stamp each year. If you’re a birdwatcher, nature photographer or novice nature enthusiast, buying a duck stamp just makes sense. Duck Stamps give you free entry into all National Wildlife Refuge System fee areas. It’s worth it.
Dudley Edmondson of Duluth is an author and internationally published nature and wildlife photographer.
About the federal Duck Stamp program
The Duck Stamp goes back to 1934, when Congress passed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, signed by Franklin Roosevelt. Since then, Duck Stamps have generated over $750 million used to purchase 5.3 million acres of wetlands managed by the National Wildlife Refuge System, according to the Fish & Wildlife Service’s website. The areas protect all forms of wildlife, plants and watersheds from coast to coast. On average Duck Stamps sales raises more than $25 million each year.