The Seven-Year Night
muttering in the background with election news. Local druggist and hunter Jim Whaley showed me a pair of English double-barreled shotguns that had bluing deep enough to go swimming in. Lovely as they were, I couldn’t concentrate on anything but that television set with its talking heads and updated vote totals.
Hour after hour it looked grim, but this was such a great program and Missouri such a conservation- oriented state that I couldn’t believe what we’d worked so hard for could fail. A political consultant and friend of conservation had told Ed Stegner that the more voters who turned out, the more likely it was our tax would fail. It was a record turnout, and the governor, now Senator Kit Bond, lost his bid for re-election (he would win a second term four years later). He had been a staunch friend of Missouri’s outdoors for his four years in office.
There was so much at stake. The entire future of Missouri’s conservation program rested on what the voters decided that night. I doubt we would have tried a third petition drive, no matter that “third time is a charm” is supposed to be true. It started to turn from dark to daylight, but gradually the votes in favor of the tax climbed, and finally it was over. We had won.
Hard work and happy endings
So many dreams were part of the Design for Conservation; so many now-legendary conservationists had contributed their wisdom. Most have since died, but their names and faces are as close to me as those of my family: Jim and Doris “Dink” Keefe, Mike Milonski, Charlie Schwartz, Carl Noren. All are now gone. They have been named to the Conservation Hall of Fame, along with Ted Scott, chairman of The Citizens’ Committee.
Ed Stegner and Libby Schwartz, now 93, are among the living handful of those who thought it out and made it happen. The effort included folks from every corner of the state. Many carried petitions. Others spoke to any group that would listen. Most important, they voted.
When the word finally came, conservation had won. Missourians had decided to tax themselves to ensure the diversity and health of Missouri’s woods, waters and wildlife. It was and is a landmark effort, envied by every other state agency, and still is unique in its constitutional authority.
The conservation sales tax has endured for 30 years and has brought Missourians an extensive program as well as new places to hunt, fish, hike, birdwatch and whatever else folks do outdoors.
What sold the Design was reaching potential “yes” voters with a twofold message: first, that they should tax themselves to protect Missouri’s natural resources for their children and grandchildren, and second, that they should do it for themselves. It was an appeal both to altruism and self-interest.
It took people with a rare combination of foresight and luck to get it before the public, and it took a voting public with an even more rare confidence in one of its governmental agencies to make it happen.
The sun was coming up when I finally fell asleep. My last thought before I drifted off was We won, we really won…and then I amended it: No—Missouri won. It still is winning, 30 years later.
For more information on how the Department kept the promises made in Design for Conservation, go online or request a copy from Promises Made, Promises Kept, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.