The Seven-Year Night

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Published on: Sep. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 29, 2010

It was the longest night of my life. It lasted seven years. In the small hours of the morning, when even the best news doesn’t seem that great, we waited for final election results. Talk had dwindled to a minimum, mostly discouraged.

“I thought we’d lost it,” said Ed Stegner, who then was the executive secretary of the Conservation Federation of Missouri. He was one of the many who had given their heart and soul to the 1976 Conservation Sales Tax Campaign that began in 1969.

For me, passage of the Design for Conservation (the name of the program that the tax would pay for) was the end of the toughest halfdozen years of what would be more than 20 years with the Department of Conservation.

The pressure began almost the day I started working at the Conservation Department in 1969. I had joined what then was the Information Section.“Have you heard about the Leopold Report?” asked fellow writer and editor Mark Sullivan. “You’d better bone up on it—you’ll be involved.”

That was an understatement. In the next halfdecade, along with many others in and outside of the Department, the campaign to realize a new conservation program would become almost an obsession with us. It was not a job; it was a calling.

Where we were

The Department had been studied for a year by three consultants, with the fee paid by the Edward K. Love Foundation of St. Louis. The consultants were Starker Leopold, Irving Fox and Charley Callison.

Starker Leopold was the son of Aldo Leopold, often considered the greatest philosopher/conservationist ever. Starker had deep ties to the Department. He’d been a graduate wildlife student in Missouri and had done turkey research on Caney Mountain Conservation Area. Irving Fox was a water resources expert from Wisconsin. The third team member, Charley Callison, was the executive vice president of the National Audubon Society and one of Missouri’s own. They looked at what the Department was doing in fish, wildlife and forestry conservation—and, more importantly, what it should be doing.

The trio concluded that while the Department had done an exemplary job of providing for hunters and anglers, it had neglected the majority of Missourians who didn’t hunt or fish. It was, the study concluded, a lack of money, not a lack of desire. And the flip side was that hunting and fishing areas were being used for many activities other than those two things, but the people doing the using were paying none of the upkeep.

The Leopold team concluded there was an obligation to provide and manage areas for everyone, but no money to do it. So, a conservation program for the future needed to find a funding source and then develop a program that offered something for everyone. It sounded like pie in the sky.

But there still were pioneers of the 1930s petition campaign that had given Missouri conservation its constitutional protection. There was also a new breed of younger, but no less dedicated conservationists. They believed that Missourians had faith in the program they’d created in the Depression days and would support a giant leap forward.

Where we wanted to be

Director Carl Noren recognized that conservation in Missouri was stalled without additional funding. Every division and section wanted to do far more but had no money or staff to do it. The education program was small. A Natural History Division didn’t even exist. Compared to other outdoor states, Missouri was public land-poor.

Conservation agents literally qualified for food stamps. Missouri, with a history of cherishing conservation, dating to the 1936 constitutional amendment, was running way behind.

But you can’t just ask people to trust you with their money. You have to tell them where the money will go. That’s where the dreamers became planners. My boss, Jim Keefe, was among the handful of thinkers and wordsmiths. He’d been editor of the Conservationist since 1957, and his monthly column was the essence of the Department’s direction and philosophy.

The September 1971 issue of the Conservationist contained the text of the Leopold Report and the Department’s proposals in response. We called it “Challenge and Response.” The Leopold study provided guidelines, which were that people, especially urban people, needed places to go and Missouri didn’t have enough public land.

The dreamers, as inventive as they were, ran smack into hardheaded realists among citizen conservationists. “Yes,” they said. “all well and good, but we want dollar signs attached to these ideas.”

The result was The Citizens’ Committee for Conservation, an invaluable group that provided the feedback necessary to learn not just what the Leopold study experts thought the Department should be doing, but also what the people of Missouri thought should be done. We put figures to the ideas and called it the Design for Conservation. But it all depended on money.

Funding the Design

The first try was in 1972, a petition for a soft drink tax. The petition drive gathered the most signatures ever on a citizen initiative. But none counted because conservationists proved better at taking care of outdoor resources than they did at drafting a petition. The proposal lost a court challenge because it lacked the simple words, “Be it hereby enacted….”

It was like being Santa Claus and getting stuck in a narrow chimney, managing to struggle free, then dropping the gifts down the chimney… only to see them burn up because someone forgot to put out the fire. The Citizens’ Committee, both young and old, took a deep breath and decided to try it again, this time with a valid petition and a different funding source— a general sales tax.

No one person deserves more credit than Doris “Dink” Keefe, Jim Keefe’s wife. Mother and homemaker her entire life, she decided that someone needed to organize the petition drive. It was light years from anything she’d ever done, but she volunteered full time, unpaid, for a year at the Conservation Federation office, organizing petitions. There were thousands of signatures to check in nine congressional districts.

We traveled to shopping centers on weekends, carrying a clipboard with nine petitions, one each for a different congressional district. I made one talk in a rural school and the audience was polite…but every single one rushed out at the end without signing. Thankfully, that was rare. Most people signed. I can’t recall anyone being rude, although some said they’d rather not sign anything. It was daunting to ask strangers to sign a petition to tax themselves, but we all got braver as we went along.

After the first debacle—leaving out four words—the second try had to be meticulously checked, and Dink was the checker. There were no phony signatures, nor mistakes. She made sure.

Charlie and Libby Schwartz put pictures and sound to my script for a movie called Design for Conservation that showed to groups all over the state. Carl Noren and Ed Stegner traveled many miles together, speaking to any group of any size. Carl would outline the plan, the design, and Stegner would explain that a vote for the tax would ensure the plan.

The long wait

We traveled the state talking about the Design.Everyone knows now that the one-eighth cent sales tax for conservation passed, but until those wee hours in early November 1976, we didn’t. We stirred restlessly at the Ramada Inn in Jefferson City, a television set 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.

Promises Kept

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 pubstaff@mdc.mo.gov.

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