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Conservation Lands-Past, Present and Future

I interviewed for my first job with the Department of Conservation on Election Day, 1976. That was 25 years ago last month.

The 1/8 percent tax amendment passed that year has since generated $1.32 billion for conservation programs. Today, revenue from the conservation sales tax constitutes 62 percent of the monetary "fuel" used to fire the engines of your conservation programs. Hunting and fishing permit sales, federal funds, including those from excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, and miscellaneous other sources comprise the balance of Conservation Department revenue.

Conservation policy makers decided that the funds from the sales tax would be invested largely in the acquisition of lands and the development of programs into areas not previously served by the agency. This early decision is evident in accompanying charts that summarize capital improvement spending by the Department. Capital improvement budgets include both land purchases and construction and development projects. Although total capital improvement spending has been relatively stable over the long haul, when viewed as individual components, the early emphasis on acquisition is apparent. This priority was driven by policymakers' desires to attain important acquisition objectives in the face of then rapidly escalating land values.

In the early years after creation of the sales tax, as much as 60 percent of revenue went toward land acquisition. As lands were purchased from willing sellers, construction programs naturally followed. The accompanying chart shows how dollars allocated for land purchases declined as more money went toward constructing lakes, wetlands, nature centers, boat launches, shooting ranges and the associated parking lots, trails, restrooms, interpretive signs, roads and other infrastructure the public needs to enjoy these facilities.

The day-to-day management of lands, facilities, buildings and all infrastructure requires the dedication of operating funds to handle ongoing operations. If we don't commit personnel and operating funds to existing facilities and ongoing services, they will inevitably decay. The second chart shows the gradual addition of staff to the Department's personnel ranks and growth of operational spending.

As they celebrate our state's conservation successes, Missourians should expect reduced flexibility in conservation spending during the coming years as the operational costs of managing existing lands, facilities and programs require an ever higher percentage of conservation funds.

We should not expect to see the purchase of entirely new conservation areas on any scale similar to what occurred during the acquisition phase of the late 1970s and 1980s. Future acquisition will emphasize the purchase of key inholdings at existing areas and will be limited in scope. Some opportunities for new areas may surface, but these will be in partnership settings with limited Department land acquisition funds levered with funds from other sources, and even then, the cost of operating areas and facilities after purchase will be a major factor affecting decisions.

Construction programs will also decline, and the construction work that will continue will be primarily associated with repairs, replacement and refurbishment of existing conservation facilities.

Next year will mark a period of celebration of the successes of the state's storied conservation history. I'm proud to have played a small role in seeing Missouri's vision for conservation become reality. I'm also delighted that I'll be involved in the next phase of delivering conservation programs and opportunities to Missouri's citizens.

Dave Erickson, Administrative Services Division Administrator

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