The Tilt Toward Conservation
Are Missourians fish hogs? That's what our Arkansas neighbors thought in 1927. The Cotter, Arkansas "Record" reported on October 14:
"Another bunch of Missouri fish hogs landed the other day dragging something like 250 bass behind their boats. ... It is a singular fact that 90 percent of the fish and game hogs that visit this section of White River are from Missouri. ... White and James rivers in Missouri have been so depleted by the fish hog that there is not a fish to the mile, sportsmen say, and now our streams are to be cleaned out by the hogs that have ruined Missouri's waters."
The article didn't help Missouri's reputation, but in fact, Missouri in the 1920s lacked the nationally recognized conservation image it enjoys today. Tennessee, Arkansas, Iowa and many northern states had taken steps to regulate the harvest of fish and game. Missourians took steps, only to be tripped by commercialism and politics.
In 1905 the Missouri legislature passed a law proposed by Representative Harry R. Walmsley of Kansas City. It was so progressive that, had it been consistently enforced, it would have become the standard for fish and game law nationally. It set open and closed seasons for game species and included provisions for protecting non-game birds. And, most drastically by far, it eliminated all commercial sale, trade and transport of wildlife in the state.
Just a year earlier, when the World's Fair was held in St. Louis, fish and game dealers were having a heyday. They set a new record, selling close to four million pounds of venison, waterfowl, quail, grouse, turkeys, squirrels, rabbits and fish. Market hunters didn't take the new restrictions kindly.
When the legislature reconvened, the commercial fish and game lobby held the upper hand. And so began the 20-year see-saw of Missouri conservation laws. The legislature voted to gut Walmsley's law, slashing funds for enforcement, legalizing the sale of fish and wildlife, and diverting proceeds from county by-county license sales to local road funds. Dynamite, 500-foot seines, year round hunting - every weapon in the market hunter's arsenal was used to exploit Missouri resources.
The public revolted against their excesses, and in 1909 urged legislators to reinstate restrictions. But commercial interests challenged the law in 1911 and funds for conservation were slashed again. As conservation laws see-sawed, so too did conditions for wildlife.
A drought in the mid-1930s brought populations to a low ebb. In 1935 there were fewer than 4,000 wild turkeys and only 2,500 deer; beaver, otter and prairie chickens were virtually gone. Under these dire conditions, Missouri sportsmen finally took matters into their own hands. They set out to stop the see-saw once and for all.
There were hunting and fishing clubs scattered around the state. All of them deplored the declines in fish and wildlife, but they were helpless to reverse them. Then, 60 years ago this spring a casual conversation over lunch at the Mayfair Hotel in St. Louis helped bring the groups together in a statewide federation.
Roland Hoerr, a St. Louis industrialist, was lunching with Joseph Pulitzer, Lou Dozier and a Tennessee writer and conservationist, Nash Buckingham. Hoerr asked Buckingham how Tennessee achieved a conservation commission. Buckingham said organization was the key and offered to get things going in Missouri for $500. He was hired.
He traveled to Joplin, Carthage, Sedalia, Excelsior Springs, Columbia, Hannibal and other towns. Sportsmen in Kansas City and St. Louis were recruited and the ranks swelled. From those inauspicious beginnings 60 years ago, the Conservation Federation of Missouri grew to an organization that achieved the highest goals of any other state conservation group in the nation.
Their efforts created a non-political conservation commission based on scientific management of forests and wildlife. The Federation endured and went on to secure funding for conservation through passage of the one-eighth cent sales tax for fish, forests and wildlife, and more recently helped obtain the one-tenth cent sales tax for soil conservation and state parks.
Their lobbying reminds legislators that the health of our state depends on the health of its resources. And the Conservation Federation is pioneering programs to involve city residents as well as sportsmen through programs like the phenomenally successful Stream Team. Missourians' reputations progressed from "fish hogs" to nationally recognized conservationists. And it all started with a federation of fed-up sportsmen.