I grew up in Carter County, a place admired for its blue springs, forested Ozark mountains and the beautiful Current River. Although blessed with nature's bounty, the county always struggled to generate funds for roads, schools, ambulance service, law enforcement and fire protection. As a youngster growing up on a farm, I remember the county road grader blading our road each year. No doubt that was just one of many maintenance tasks the county performed with funds from its budget.
I am sometimes asked how the Conservation Department, which holds land in trust for all state residents to use and enjoy, benefits county governments.
It's a fair question.
The Conservation Department owns and manages conservation areas in nearly every Missouri county. These areas, which provide many outdoor opportunities, range in size from one acre to several thousand acres. The Department maintains and manages these areas out of its own revenues, but it does what it can to be a good neighbor and help county governments.
Since 1983, for example, the Conservation Department has helped pay for county roadway maintenance to ensure roads to conservation areas are properly maintained. The amount provided to each county varies, but more than $300,000 was directed to Missouri counties for roadway assistance last year.
In 1980, Missouri voters authorized the use of conservation sales tax revenues to make payments to counties for the unimproved value of acquired lands that were exempted from property taxes. We've also provided special assessments such as levee and drainage fees and payments for forest croplands. Last year, our payments to counties under these agreements totaled $949,398.
At its April meeting, the Conservation Commission adopted a revised approach to value conservation areas based upon the legislature's approved Agricultural Land Value Rule. The new assessment calculation will be compared to the current payment to the county, and the higher of the two will be remitted. This will ensure counties are not harmed by the new in-lieu tax system.
County and local community volunteer fire departments are also vital conservation partners. The Conservation Department provides financial support, training and equipment for Missouri rural fire departments. Small communities are eligible for matching fire department grants.
Statewide, the Department distributed more than $345,000 in state and federal funds last year. It also coordinated the distribution of $10 million worth of Federal Excess Property to volunteer fire departments and rural communities. Today, cooperation and teamwork with local fire departments is one of our best examples of community-based conservation.
Through the decades, Department employees and equipment have come to the aid of county residents when floods, tornadoes, ice storms or other emergencies have called for action. During times of need, we have often placed our staff and equipment at the disposal of a county commission or county sheriff. When the great flood came to the Missouri and Mississippi river valleys in 1993, helping counties and the State Emergency Management Agency was a top Conservation Department priority for months.
Economists tell us that hunting, fishing, wildlife watching and forestry in Missouri generate $7 billion in economic activity each year. We also know that conservation areas bring significant economic value and benefit to nearby rural areas and communities.
I believe Conservation Department lands, programs, employees and activities will always be a boon to Missouri counties. After all, being a good neighbor is one of our highest priorities.
John D. Hoskins, Director
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