Episode 52: Best Wishes to Sara Parker Pauley Transcript


Nature Boost  
Episode 52  

[Music playing.]    

>>   Hey there, and welcome back to Nature Boost.   I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation.   MDC's director, Sara Parker Pauley, is putting away her signature wear and embarking on her next adventure - retirement!   Sara has served as director for more than seven years.   She made history as the first female director of the MDC.   She oversaw many achievements, including a partnership with Columbia Public Schools to create the Boone County Nature School, and working with the University of Missouri and other partners to create the Johnny Morris Institute of Fisheries, Wetlands, and Aquatic Systems.    

Before she updated her calendar with "permanently out of office," I sat down with her to look back on her career and time with MDC.    

>>   Perfect.   I just have to give credit to this idea to Larry Archer.   Yes.   After you announced your retirement he reached out to me.   He is an avid Nature Boost listener.   I always appreciate his support.   He reached out to me and said, "I think interviewing SPP would be a really good idea for the podcast."   I thought, "Yeah, I agree!"    

>>   Aw, very nice.   I appreciate that.    

>>   Yes.    

>>    I appreciate that.   I love the show.   Hopefully I can do it justice.    

>>   Oh, do you have a favorite episode?    

>>   Now you're going to put me on the spot.   And one of your early ones . . . give me a couple of your first three that you did.   I don't know.   Didn't you do one with Sherry Fischer too?    

>>   Yes I did.    

>>   That one was really nice.   I liked the Sherry Fischer one.    

>>   We talked about water.    


>>   You talked about water and what water meant to you.   That one kind of touched me.   Let me come back to you with my list of the top three later this week.    

>>   No pressure at all.    

First off, I would like to start off the episode with congratulations!    

>>   Thank you so much.   It seems a little surreal.   I mean I've been in some form of public service for most of my 30+ years.   It seems surreal then.   This is likely the closing of the public service chapter.   Wow.    

>>   It's going to be a few weeks, right?   Just a matter of weeks.    

>>   Yes, the first of June.    

>>   Has your scheduled slowed down at all or is it busier than ever?    

>>   No, that's interesting.   I am leaving the day after tomorrow for my last out of state . . . I do a lot of out of state keynote talks or meetings or whatever.   This is my last out-of-state trip.   It will be kind of nice to have that out-of-state travel wrapping up.    

>>   Where are you going?    

>>   Cape Cod.   Not a bad place to go for my last.   For the Northeast Association of Fishing and Wildlife   . . .    

>>   Oooooh!   Absolutely!    

>>   So that will be a lot of fun.   Yeah, there are certain things that I'm obviously, as you know your time is short you begin delegating and empowering.   I will use the word empowering others.   Certainly that has been under way for a bit of time.   In some ways, it is busy busy, and just trying to wrap some things up.   But yeah, you can certainly say it is feeling like a different rhythm right now.    

>>   I guess it is too late for me to apply?    

>>   I think it is.   I think the announcement is about to go out.   It might be a little late.   You should keep that in mind for the future.    

>>   Exciting times here at the agency.   Bittersweet, definitely.    

>>   Yeah.    

>>   Well I would like you to tell me, was conservation always a goal for you career-wise?   Was there always an interest in conservation?   Tell me about that.    

>>   There was always an interest in the outdoors and an interest in figuring out this connection between finding a purpose and kind of this nexus between purpose and passion kind of aptitude.   What am I good at?   What are my skill sets?   Early on I had experiences where I had jobs where I would think if I have to do this for the rest of my life, it's going to be a long life.    

>>   Like what?    

>>   Oh, I shouldn't.   I interned for a law firm.   I clearly will not use the name of the law firm or what they focused on, but their specialty was not natural resource law.   It was very administrative in nature and I mean, boy, those were some long days for me.   It was not what I was interested or excited about.    


>>   Sure.    

>>   I thought if this is the practice of law I am in trouble.   This will be painful.   Is this what a career is like?   Then I just started doing some more research.   This was during law school.   I love the outdoors.   Even when I was in journalism school, I thought, I wondered if I could write for the Missouri Conservationist magazine.   Wouldn't that be cool?    

>>   No way, you actually thought about that?    

>>   I did!   Of course, I got my own column for the last 7.5 years which was such a treat and special to me.   It is kind of neat to think I sort of did work for the Missouri Conservationist magazine!   But yeah, I did think about the Missouri Conservationist magazine in J-School.   I wanted to connect this love of the outdoors and my passion for the outdoors and my wanting to connect people to that sort of passion.    

For various reasons, I ended up in law school.   After that first experience with the law firm, I started researching wildlife law and I came up with the Center for Wildlife Law in Albuquerque, New Mexico.   I submitted an application to intern there and was accepted.   Boy, was that a different experience.   I loved everything I did.   I loved everything I researched.   I loved everything I was learning and writing about.   What was that Howard Thurman quote, "People need to go find what makes them come alive, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."    

>>   I love that.    


>>   He said, "Find what makes you come alive and go and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."    

I didn't know the quote at the time but I think that is sort of what happened.   I found what made me come alive.   That was close between 30-40 years ago.   You know, every chapter has been different.   I have worked mostly on the government side which has been such a privilege to be a public servant.   I just think there is no better career in the world than being a public servant.   I so strongly believe in that.   I believe it is a calling of sorts.    

I have also worked in the for-profit and the not for profit natural resource world.   It has been such a wonderful privilege.    

>>   Looking back as a leader here at MDC, do you have a most rewarding time?   You have been here for a lot of changes and a lot of accomplishments.    

>>   There have been a lot of changes internally and externally.    I could say on the one hand, boy, we did some good things for the agency internally and externally.   I say "we" because it is all as a team.   It has all been a very collaborative effort.   Thinking about the future and thinking what does a 21st-century fish & wildlife & forestry agency needs to look like?   What skill sets?   What capacity do we need?   Really creating this vision of preparing a way for a 21st-century conservation organization.   That has been very rewarding.   Really focusing on leadership development internally and performance and compensation.   That has been rewarding.   Externally looking at everything we have done from the partner's round table and focusing on community conservation and relevancy, introducing new audiences to nature.   All of that has been so rewarding.   At the end of the day, you miss the people.   At the end of the day, you miss the people.   You miss the mission absolutely.   I have just been so inspired by the staff here at the Missouri Department of Conservation.   There is a reason it has the lowest turnover rate of any state agency here in Missouri.    


People tend to come here because they are drawn by the mission.   When they arrive, they see a very passionate group of people who care a lot about taking care of nature and connecting people with nature.   It is a little bit contagious.   You miss that passion and that energy for sure.   I know I will miss that.    

>>   Talking about the dedication of the staff and how passionate they are and you know, I love that quote.   Find what makes you come alive.   I feel like I have been exposed to a lot of people who work here who have followed that quote a little bit.   How lucky Missouri is to have people like that working for them, who care so much, and wildlife and conservation makes them come alive.   They are truly following that passion project.   How much do you think that relates to . . . we often hear the Missouri Model of Conservation.   Do you think that staff passion falls into the Missouri Model?    

>>   You know, when I think of the Missouri Model of Conservation, I think of several different pillars.   Of course, one is this construct of an independent commission that is apolitical and has the authority that the people have entrusted to them, setting regulations, hiring and firing the director, setting a budget, and setting up policies and that sort of thing.   Then of course this amazing constitutional funding that allows us to carry out our mission.   Then this pillar of an agency that is very professional.   They are trusted professionals.   They apply the science, both the biological and the social sciences.   They maintain that public trust through that integrity.    


This pillar that really supersedes all the other pillars is this public support.   It was the public who founded the agency, the public who funded us, and the public who ensured that we continued.   This is not a quote of mine, but an old quote, "Government is but a reflection of the public will."   Our job is to sustain that public will.   It was Charles Callison who was one of the very first editors of the Missouri Conservationist magazine who talked about the job one of the conservation commission was to sustain the public will, or he said we would dry up like a cucumber in the Saraha.   You know?   It is that beautiful picture that unlike any other state agency here in Missouri we are citizen-founded, citizen-funded, and citizen-supported.   Just ensuring that we continue to maintain that public trust is such a beautiful picture.    


To get to your question.   To me, the Missouri Model is a reflection of a passionate public.   Is a subset of that our passionate staff?   Yes.   But it is a passionate public.   You know this so well.   We've got members of the public that will never agree with everything, right?   They might have a disagreement on how we manage deer, or turkey, or a disagreement on the water fowl framework.   I have said throughout my time, I would rather have a passionate public that doesn't always agree with us than a disinterested public.    

>>   Absolutely.    

>>   Right?   So that passionate public that care about this department, that care about its mission has been absolutely an aspect of the Missouri Model.    

>>   Following your departure, in addition to maintaining public trust, what else do you hope the agency continues with?    

>>   What I hope is that the agency continues to celebrate this high level of public support we just talked about.   That the staff continues and I know they will, what I want to see is just an agency that continues to be forward looking.   We have a mission that allows us to be forward-looking.   We have authority and a supportive commission that allows us to be forward-looking.   Because other state conservation agencies across the country may have a very limited mission or restricted funding structure or legislative control in some way.   They really are put in a position of having to respond to the pressure of the day or the crisis of the day, whatever that may be.   Or this very limited mission.    


We have been given this opportunity to really model innovation and responding to adaptative challenges.   Modeling what it looks like to lead out on these new challenges and crisis that face conservation today.   New ones that will face us in the future.   It has really allowed us to model adaptive leadership at the natal level, to innovate, to collaborate with our partners and our public and to do our best to respond to the challenges with the same mission that we have had for a very long time.   But how do we lead in vastly different times than when we were founded 85+ years ago.   I hope that we just continue to use the authority given to us by the people, to maintain that trust, and continue to lead in this critically important conservation space.   Nature has never been more important.   There are more challenges facing nature.   People have never needed nature more than they need it today.   The agency is needed as it has never been needed before.   I just hope they just keep powering on.    

>>   I would like to talk about your time as a woman, as a female director.   I think that is so inspiring.   I think it is great for other women to see women in those types of positions.   Conservation has been a sort of male-dominated field to work in.   For other women wanting to work in conservation or wildlife management, or other male-dominated fields, do you have any advice to give them?    

>>   I think the advice would be, first of all, be excellent at what you do.   Oprah has some quotes too of just "be excellent at what you do so that people can't help but notice you," right?   People can't help but notice the excellent work you are doing.   Start with the competence that should be expected of every employee or every person in this field of having the competence.   But also, I think that the voice that whether you are a woman, or all the things that diversity brings, just as our natural communities need diversity to thrive and flourish the conservation community needs that diversity, too.   That certainly means gender and it means diversity of perspective, and diversity of backgrounds.   We need your voice.   We need your skill sets.   We need your perspective on things because again, our natural communities continue to adapt and change and need that diversity to thrive.   The broader community needs it too.    

This is the time.   Your voice is needed.   If you are passionate about this area, there should be nothing that stops you.   You know.   Time is now.    

>>   Don't let that deter you.    

>>   Never.   Don't let that deter you.   My goodness, no.    

>>   What I have loved about conservation is there were   . . . I will tell you, Sara, can I call you Sara?   I will call you Sara.   I will tell you, Sara, I did not come from a hunting family or a fishing family.   We would go camping.   I have always appreciated the outdoors.   But it was quite a shock for me to start working here.   I felt like a fish out of water for sure.    


What I really appreciated about the agency was that there were so many women that I could look to for guidance and look to to be mentors.   I was so grateful for that.   Did you ever have a mentor in your early days?    

>>   I have had mentors for a very long time and will continue to probably until the day that I move on from this world.   I do think that mentors are so key.   I have had mentors of men and women mentors.   I have had women mentors older and younger.   I have had them in the field, and outside the conservation field.   I find people whose opinions I respect and where they can bring something a little different than the perspective I have.   Or they have different skill sets or different experiences.   But they have, in my mind, earned their right to their place.   I am always on the lookout for people I admire for a particular reason.   I try to surround myself with those folks so you've got a cabinet of mentors that can help you through all the challenges in life, whether they be professional or personal.    

My goodness, there is a gentleman, who long since retired from the Missouri Department of Conservation and went on to work for Ducks Unlimited, and has been a volunteer for many different conservation causes.   They range in age.   They may span several decades.   He is one of many examples where if I've got a particular issue I can pick up the phone and ask him what he would do about this.   The list is long.    


Boy, am I a strong supporter of finding mentors?   It can be for the most narrow of topics or broader topics.   I like how that person leads, I like how that person collaborates, I like how that person focuses on the execution of more operational things.   Whatever the topic might be, always be on the lookout for people you admire.   Absolutely.   People are usually very flattered when you come back to say, "Hey, can we go for a cup of coffee and talk about something."    

>>   Whenever I think of a mentor, I think of a younger person just starting out and needing someone older.   I love having mentors as you move forward in age.   There is no age requirement to stop having a mentor.    

>>   No.   I never want to stop learning.    

>>   Yes.    

>>    I learn best by watching others.    

>>   What would you like staff to remember about your time as director?    

>>   Oh my goodness.   Wow.    

>>   We can come back to that if you like.    

>>   We can come back.   You know, I hope what staff remember.   I mean, the agency has been through a lot of change.   We powered on through a pandemic, we powered on through big gnarly issues like chronic wasting disease.   Again, new structure and new programs and a new outlook.    


But what I hope staff remember is how much I cared about the people working here.   I hope that is what I am remembered for.   Whether it was through just conservations, whether it is through trying to provide the resources and tools that staff needed, I hope that is what they remember me for.   That I sure thought the world of the people who worked here.    

>>   I don't think you will be disappointed.   I hear good things.   I think everyone is pretty sad you are leaving, honestly.   At least down in communications.    

What are you looking forward to in retirement?   Tell me about that.    

>>   You know what, I mean, there is a list of things.   My husband and I have a trip planned to Alaska and Oregon.   We are going to Mexico turkey hunting.   This year and next year.   I am trying to finish my world slam of hunting on the subspecies of wild turkeys.   We've got some great trips planned.    

I can't wait to spend more time in the garden.   I know my husband is looking forward to me spending more time pulling weeds.   I don't blame him.   Certainly more time with family.    

There is also this aspect to which you know, I am a pretty hard charger.   For the last 30 years, you give me a mission, and that is what I am going to do.   I think that I'm looking forward to maybe just a little quiet and stillness and space to consider what is my next mission.   You know?   What is my next mission?   It might be to do just what I am doing.   Caring for family and friends, and adventuring in the out of doors and taking care of my neighbors and all those things.   If that's it, that will be fabulous.   Maybe there is another mission too.   But, sometimes I think you need that stillness to really hear what that next chapter might look like.   I think right now I am going to finish strong 'til the last day.   Then I have to say I am ready for a little stillness.   We will see what comes after that.    

>>   Well I would say you've earned it!    


Gosh, I can't imagine!   I can't imagine.   You know, I did hear that you are a pretty avid reader and a big podcast listener.   What are you reading?   What are you listening to these days?   Any suggestions?    

>>   I think I've got 12 different books on my nightstand right now that range from nature-based books to conservation history to classical poetry.   I mean, my goodness, it depends on my mood and what I am looking for.    

But podcasts, besides yours of course, Nature Boost, that is at the very top.   Besides that, I love just a diversity of podcasts, too.   I will listen to a lot of hunting and outdoor podcasts.   I listen to a lot of podcasts on generational differences.   I listen to a lot of leadership podcasts.   It is a pretty diverse portfolio of stuff.   It depends on what I think I am in the mood for and what I need at the moment.   But I think that is reflective of a mindset which is we should never stop learning.    


>>   Never stop learning.   I love that.   I would preach that all day long, too.    

You mentioned you are a big turkey hunter.   Have you been out turkey hunting here in Missouri yet?   Spring season just started.    

>>   I have.   It's just started.   I had a wonderful start to the turkey season.   I guided a friend on opening day.   Then the second day I had the opportunity to go out and hunt a little myself.   I was successful.   I tried to call one out for my sweet husband and got a bird within 15 yards.   That bird came in a little too quickly.   We are going to go back again.   There is no such thing as a bad day in the woods, especially during turkey season.   Things can change so quickly, either to your demise or to the turkey's demise.   Something happens that opening day.   I hear that first gobble and back to what makes you come alive.   That is certainly something that makes me come alive.    

>>   I love that.   Did you turkey hunt whenever you were younger?   Or is this a newer hobby?    

>>   You know, newer as in the last 35 years.    

>>   Gotcha.   Yeah.   New.    

>>   I water fowl hunted before that, certainly fished before that, then quail hunted.   I didn't become a turkey hunter until really I came to work for the Department of Conservation.    

>>   That inspired you to get out there?    

>>   Yes it did.    


I had some colleagues who were avid turkey hunters.   I kept saying, what is it that they are so enthralled with where they are coming in late morning and day after day and their little bags under their eyes would get bigger and the circles would get darker, and it would be hard for them to stay awake.   Once again they would be back at it the next day guiding or whatever.   I thought what is it that makes people want to do something so very much?   One of my colleagues here at the Missouri Department of Conservation introduced me to turkey hunting and that was that.    

>>   From what I hear, I have never eaten wild turkey, but there is a difference from what you buy in store, right?    

>>   I had that for dinner last night.   My fabulous husband had little wild turkey nuggets from my turkey and some fried morels.    

>>   Oh my gosh.    

>>   Maybe not the most nutritious.    

>>   That is a spring feast for you.   Man, lucky woman!    

>>   I am very lucky.   Sadly, I think I will have to start picking more when I retire.   He is a pretty darn good cook.   Anyway.   It is just so mild.   Wild turkey is delicious.   It is such a mild flavor.   Some wild game people may say you can taste the game.   I don't think you can with wild turkey.   I have fed it to many an urban city person that is not used to eating game and they think it is delicious.   We grill it, we fry it, I make stroganoff, paprikash, I have a lot of different recipes.   Sometimes I make a turkey paprikash.   It is Hungarian with paprika, and cream, and rice, and mushrooms.   Oh, it's delicious.   It's delicious!    

>>   It sounds delicious.    

>>   A lot of different recipes.   We have a marinade we do that is ginger, and garlic and olive oil and brown sugar and a little bit of brandy.   It is probably the brandy that makes it taste so good.   And some different ingredients.   Marinate that and grill it.   Boy, that's yummy too.    

>>   Barefoot contessa over here.   That sounds amazing.   Other than turkey hunting, do you have any other outdoor hobbies or things you like to do?    


>>   My husband is a professional tournament fisherman.    

>>   I remember that.    

>>   He is a guide, too, right?   Isn't he a fishing guide?    

>>   He guides me.    

>>   Oh okay.    

>>   He is my personal guide.   He will guide on occasion.   He is a retired state trooper.   He has been a tournament bass fisherman for close to 40 years now.   That is his passion.   He thinks I am going to tournament fish with him.   I'm not sure about that.   But I do hope that in retirement we will get on the water a lot more together.   I am looking forward to that.   I am looking forward to more time in the deer woods.   Just starting to get my bow out and do a little more archery hunting.   You bet.   I am ready just to   . . . I don't care what the season is.   Just be out there.    

>>   I love that.   Do you have a favorite conservation area in Missouri or a favorite natural area?    

>>   This one is tricky.   When I was the director at DNR people would say what is your favorite state park?   I can't tell you a favorite state park.   It will hurt someone's feelings.   Look, we have over a thousand conservation areas.   If you think of the fact that each region of the state is so special.   There is some amazing prairies we have in the northwest and the western part of the state.   In the southwest, there is some amazing remnant and restored prairies.   You think of areas in the Ozarks that have these unique natural features including caves and glades.   They are so special.   I was just at Steeple Mountain last weekend with those spectacular glades.   Gosh, that is such a gorgeous area.   You know, part of Peck Ranch.   There are areas like Peck Ranch and Caney Mountain that have this amazing conservation history associated with them that are so special.    


We've got this amazing portfolio.   One of the things again in retirement, I hope I get to every state park.   That's a little easier to do than getting to every conservation area in the state.   I will try to make a dent in it in retirement.    

>>   That is a good goal to have.   It wasn't until I started working for MDC that I learned just how many different landscapes there are in Missouri.   There are waterfowl, and caves, like you said.   I didn't know we had all this in Missouri.   It is a variety.    

>>   I just went by Rocky Falls again on the way to and from Peck.   That's gorgeous falls.   There is something for everyone.   This state and its natural features are just remarkable.   Certainly a destination.   It should be for everyone.    

>>   Do you have any final thoughts on the agency or your time here?    

>>   It seemed like it went so quickly.   You know, sometimes, what is the old saying?   Sometimes the days are long but the years are short.   You think about the long days.   When you are dealing with the pandemic and how do we pivot as an agency and still provide programming to the public we serve, and still get our people out there with the resources they need to do all their work habitat-wise and in our hatcheries and forestry folks and all the amazing work.   There were a lot of long days during that period of time.   A lot of long days dealing with chronic wasting disease.   A lot of long days dealing with different tough issues.    

But the years were short.   And I go back to the fact that this Missouri Model, this agency, because of that model and because of the amazing support we have it really is a treasure for this state.   I don't ever want us to take it for granted.   It was just such a privilege, Jill, it was such a privilege to serve in this role.    


>>   Did you ever imagine that you would be the director?    

>>   No.   No.    

>>   What did little Sara want to do?    

>>   Little Sara wanted to go to work and feel like she contributed something.   And that she would come home being excited about whatever she did that day and excited for the contribution.   When I first started working for the Department of Conservation, so many years ago, I really did think there is so many fascinating people that work in this agency.   They have all these remarkable backgrounds.   What could I bring to the table?    

At the time I was just out of law school, so I applied my trade there.   But then, not meaning to, I thought I would spend my career there.   Other opportunities presented themselves, that in the end I could not say no to.   I just remember that choice of I don't want to leave the department.   Will I ever get the opportunity to come back?   I knew I couldn't say no to an opportunity that would really add to my skill sets and experience.   I took that.   But there was great trepidation that maybe I wouldn't find my way back.    

That was really I think at the heart.   I never knew if it would happen.   I worked for different organizations.   I worked for different agencies.   The fact that twenty years later, the commission really asked me then to come back and lead the agency.   I


In the rearview mirror, I can see that every step I took in between and every opportunity I had to grow my leadership skills and to grow that portfolio of business experience and operational experience leading to supervisory experience.   It all made sense twenty-some years later when I came back.   But the path was not linear and I certainly could not have envisioned that I would have that great opportunity, especially to come back as director.    

>>   It sounds like it was meant to be.   It was written in the stars, maybe.    

>>   I would like to think so.    

>>   Well, Sara, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to me today.   I think I speak for many people at the department wishing you well and saying that you definitely will be missed.   As a young woman in the department, I've always appreciated your leadership.   You are definitely one of many people I look up to and strive to emanate in ways.   I wish you nothing but the best in retirement.    


>>   Thank you so much.    

>>   Thank you.    

[Music playing.]      

>>   Thank you to Sara for taking the time to speak with me.   Again, I wish you nothing but the best in retirement.    

One day after my interview with Sara, the Conservation Commission announced the next director.   Congratulations to Jason Sumners.   Jason currently serves as MDC's Deputy Director of Resource Management.   He will begin his new role as director on June 1st.    

Thanks to Pat Craft for producing Nature Boost and thank you for tuning in.    

I am Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation, encouraging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.    


[Music playing.]      

[End podcast.]