The Genesis of Conservation in Missouri

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2005

Last revision: Nov. 17, 2010

What Missouri organization formed in 1935, took politics out of conservation, secured stable, adequate funding for the nation's leading conservation program, and still keeps a watchful eye on the state's wild resources?

If you answered "The Conservation Federation of Missouri," go to the head of your class.

The Conservation Federation originated during the low point of conservation history. The Great Depression gripped America. Unregulated hunting, fishing and trapping, and unrestrained timber harvest, had decimated natural resources. Solutions were elusive.

Across the nation, state legislatures controlled game laws. Instead of protecting wildlife, laws often served the very interests that were responsible for despoiling wildlife resources. Hunters and anglers were disgusted, but their efforts at reform were thwarted in the political arena.

On Sept. 10, 1935, about 75 sportsmen met at a hotel in Columbia to discuss what could be done. They formed the Restoration and Conservation Federation of Missouri and envisioned a solution that was as simple as it was revolutionary.

Newspaper publisher E. Sydney Stephens summed things up this way: "If you get a law passed, what have you got? The next legislature could repeal or amend it, and the politicians take over. By the same token, if you attempt to get a constitutional amendment through the legislature, you won't recognize it when it comes out. But if you write the basic authority exactly as you want it, put it on the ballot through the initiative and let the people vote it into the constitution, then you've got something permanent."

That sentiment inspired the group to draft Amendment 4. If passed, it would create a non-political conservation agency. Sportsmen fanned out across the state and gathered signatures to put the proposal on the ballot. On Nov. 3, 1936, voters approved the measure by a margin of 71 percent to 29 percent. That was the largest margin by which any amendment to the state constitution to that date had passed.

It gave Missouri the nation's first non-political conservation agency. It would be governed by a four-person, bipartisan commission with exclusive authority over fish and wildlife.

Some legislators tried to get the measure overturned. Ultimately, the sportsmen's vision prevailed. Over the next 40 years, the "Missouri plan" allowed the Show-Me State to build what was universally acknowledged to be the nation's top conservation program, with decisions based on science instead of political pressure.

HISTORY OF ACHIEVEMENT

America's brush with ecological disaster kindled a passion for wildlife stewardship. Aldo Leopold, who is known as

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