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A Giant Voice for Conservation

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

The Conservation Federation of Missouri has been speaking up for forests, fish and wildlife for 60 years.

The Conservation Federation of Missouri forms a body of 35,000 birders, farmers, anglers, hunters, hikers and bikers in the state and gives that body a unified voice. When politicians hear a conservation message from such a giant, they can't help but listen.

Next year marks the 60th birthday of the Conservation Federation of Missouri. Since 1936, this robust alliance of outdoorspeople has been working to protect wildlife, wild lands and water resources in the State of Missouri.

Now don't mistakenly send birthday cards to the Conservation Department. The Conservation Federation of Missouri is not the Conservation Department of Missouri. Nor are they twins - identical or fraternal.

The two, however, share a common value and a common goal.

"We're separate and distinct," Conservation Department Director Jerry Presley said, "but both organizations are helping people recognize the connections between natural resources and wildlife and the human soul or spirit."

The Conservation Federation of Missouri is an affiliation of more than 185 local and statewide conservation clubs and their members. The clubs, as wide ranging as South Fork Turkey Hunters, the Ozark Wilderness Waterways, The Greenway Network and the Trappers of Starved Rock, have banded together to amplify their voices and enlarge their influence in Missouri politics.

People not associated with a local club add their voices to the Federation by becoming sustaining members.

Such a coalition is possible because these groups and individuals share a common interest. All of them - anglers in Salem, birdwatchers in St. Louis, trappers in Kirksville, hunters in Kansas City - want to ensure that Missouri politicians and legislators pass laws and make decisions that support a healthy and bountiful natural environment.

In fact, the Conservation Federation was formed in 1936 because a group of citizens, mostly hunters and anglers, wanted better management of the state's natural resources.

Back then, fish and game management was much less than a scientific endeavor. The old Fish and Game Department, which was established in 1909, could best be described as a political checkerboard. Party leaders moved their friends - who sometimes couldn't tell a turkey from a terrapin - to prominent positions in the Department. Each new election mussed the board and brought in another round of patronage.

At the same time, fish and wildlife in Missouri were in calamitous decline, thanks to a combination of the 1930s drought and a history of unregulated harvest, much of it for the market. The Fish and Game Department lacked the expertise, the means and the leadership to restore fish and game to the state.

The newly formed Federation of Missouri Sportsmen (the name changed twice, before settling on the Conservation Federation of Missouri) had two main goals: to separate fish and game management from politics and to establish a non-political Conservation Commission that had sufficient clout to enforce and manage forests, fish and wildlife.

Working statewide, the group gathered enough petition signatures to force a 1936 vote on a constitutional amendment that would authorize the formation of a four-member, bipartisan Conservation Commission. That commission would have full power to "take over the control and regulation of the restoration and conservation of birds, fish, game, forests and all wildlife resources of the state."

Prior to the vote, the Federation popularized the slogan "Bring 'em back to Missouri" ("em" meaning wildlife and fish) by displaying it on billboards, bumper stickers and cafe napkins, as well as in newspaper and magazine advertisements.

The message found a home in the hearts of Missourians, who voted overwhelmingly (71 percent) in support of Proposition 4, which created the Conservation Department. It was fine irony: a political action group giving birth to a non-political agency.

It is fitting that the first president of the Federation, Columbia publisher E. Sydney Stephens, was named chairman of the first Conservation Commission, which he had worked so hard to create.

That giant voice of the Conservation Federation has reverberated around the state many times in the last 60 years, particularly when the Conservation Department's existence, autonomy and power were being challenged by legislators.

The Federation also guided and helped the Citizens Committee for Conservation when that group was formed to find a way to finance Design for Conservation, a three-part plan that included acquiring more lands, expanding public services and increasing research and development.

Thanks in large part to the tireless work of former Conservation Federation Executive Ed Stegner and the Federation staff, voters finally approved a constitutional amendment - the one-eighth cent conservation sales tax - that became effective in July 1977. The Conservation Department finally had a reliable source of funding for its programs.

The achievements made possible by the sales tax amendment made it possible for the Missouri Conservation Department to become one of the top conservation agencies in the country.

Those who appreciate the beauty of the Ozarks and its clear, free-flowing streams also owe a great deal to the Conservation Federation.

When the Corps of Engineers in 1939 announced plans to build 30 flood control structures on Missouri rivers, the Federation mobilized and fought tooth and nail against every dam. The battles for public support, authorizations and appropriations lasted into the late 1970s.

A few dams were built, on the White, St. Francis, Black, Osage and Salt rivers for example, but the Current, Meramec, Gasconade, Big Piney, Eleven Point and Jack's Fork, which were originally scheduled for four or five dams, still run free.

The Federation continues to fight for clean, free-flowing water. Along with the Conservation Department and the Department of Natural Resources, the Federation cosponsors the amazing Stream Team Program.

Stream Teams allow citizens and groups to "adopt" local waterways. These volunteer workers learn about streams and how to speak out in behalf of them against harmful development.

Stream Teams clean up litter, plant trees, build fish shelters, monitor for pollutants, try to raise the public's knowledge about streams and collaborate with private property owners to improve stream conditions.

"In the past few years, we've added about 200 more Stream Teams," said Deirdre Hirner, executive director the Federation since 1993. "This clearly shows that water resources are very important to Missourians and that they will work hard to protect them."

The Federation also was the impetus and remains the driving force behind Operation Game Thief and Operation Forest Arson. Both programs provide rewards for information on lawbreakers. The Conservation Department administers the programs and investigates the reports, but the Federation raises all the funds for the rewards and makes sure the payments are made.

"The Federation and the Conservation Department have a real good working relationship," Protection Division Program Supervisor Dave Beffa said. "We have nothing but good things to say about them. Simply put, Operation Game Thief wouldn't work without the Federation."

The central and only office of the Conservation Federation is in Jefferson City, the nucleus of state government.

From that office, the Federation handles administrative business, furnishes information and aid to local clubs and individual members and publishes Missouri Wildlife, a tabloid magazine. The office also prepares a newsletter and a weekly conservation legislative report that follows the status of bills before the Missouri General Assembly

Hirner meets frequently with legislators to determine where they stand on issues, to answer questions and to help them understand the ramifications of some of their laws. Until she intervened, for example, the language used in a recent cockfighting bill might have had a negative effect on coon hunters. "That was not their legislative intent," Hirner said of the legislators. "They just didn't know."

Hirner also testifies at hearings, provides help in drafting bills and procures sponsorships for bills. "We are citizen advocates," Hirner said. "On behalf of our membership, we will promote bills, or work to change or kill them."

Much of the the Federation's agenda is set at an annual meeting of members and delegates in Jefferson City. Members can submit resolutions, which are then hashed out in committees before being brought to a general vote.

The policy directives are then passed on to legislators and elected officials.

At the ripe old age of 60 many folks are laying down their work tools and planning to spend their remaining days crappie fishing, birdwatching or traveling, but the Conservation Federation is leaping like a teenager into a new round of projects that promise to keep it spry and vital.

"We're lucky here in Missouri," Hirner said, "because the people in this state have a solid interest in conservation and in protecting the quality of the environment.

"But we're worried that as people become more urbanized and removed from the natural resource base, they will disassociate from it. We want to keep conservation in the minds of urban people."

One way to accomplish this is to get urban people outdoors for a little one on-one with trees and trails, lakes and bluffs.

The Federation's Nature Link Program brings inner city families, often single parent families, to outdoor camp for a weekend, during which they are exposed to fishing, walking in the woods and campfires.

The families are guided through their weekend by volunteers, and the exposure to nature doesn't end when they return home.

"Our volunteers make a commitment to stay in touch with the families for three years, sharing time and outdoor experiences," Hirner said.

"They cut Christmas trees together, visit conservation areas, have potluck dinners. They share their lives, learn one another's perspectives. It's really kind of a friendship program."

The Federation is also involved in the Natural Resources Career Camp. Working with state and federal resource agencies and two state universities, the Federation is promising the same long term commitment to minority high school students. The selected students attend camp for three weeks for three consecutive summers, learning about career opportunities in the outdoors.

Long term is the key to lasting improvements in conservation.

Whether it is establishing greenways for future generations, protecting water supplies, advocating the preservation of the sporting heritage or ensuring a steady source of funding for natural resource agencies, such as the Conservation Department and Department of Natural Resources, the Conservation Federation of Missouri has tenaciously worked in our behalf for 60 years.

Let's pause briefly to sing happy birthday to this giant of conservation and applaud its work, before the Conservation Federation settles down to the work of the next 60 years

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