Conservation's Sixth Director Retires

By Tom Cwynar | June 2, 2002
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 2002

Jerry Conley's administration of the Conservation Department only lasted five and a half years, but in that relatively short time he reorganized the agency, putting in place a foundation that will allow the agency to better respond to public needs and to better protect Missouri's forests, fish and wildlife for a long time to come.

"It was a complete pleasure to come here before I retired," Conley said. "Although I grew up in Missouri, I never thought I'd have the opportunity to work for the Conservation Department at this level. No director since the very first one in 1938 came from outside the Department."

Jerry told the Missouri Conservation Commission when it hired him that he was ready to work hard. He said that he would drive the Department forward and that he didn't want the Conservation Department to be second best.

"I told them that if they felt like they needed to take a look at making changes," he said, "then I was their man."

Change became the hallmark of the Conservation Department under the Conley administration. He established common regional boundaries and formed regional and district coordination teams that included representatives of various divisions within the Department. Parking became easier around the Jefferson City central office complex as employees were relocated from the Department's headquarters to field positions, where they could better serve the public.

Jerry also created a new division, Private Land Services, whose employees work one on one with landowners to enhance wildlife habitat and help protect against erosion and stream pollution. The division's employees have directly helped 6,300 landowners and improved conservation practices on more than 300,000 privately owned acres.

Throughout his administration, Jerry emphasized teamwork, partnerships and communication. "We started out having divisional meetings, getting people to work as a team," he said. "We then let that approach filter down to the point that, now, our employees are more concerned about what the Department is doing than what their division is doing."

Jerry never dodged the public eye. Through his Conservationist editorials and his weekly radio call-in show, he sought out public opinion. He not only told people, "I want to talk to you," he gave out his phone number and his e-mail address.

Readers of the Conservationist may recall that all photos accompanying his editorials included his yellow Labrador retriever, Boise Valley Ripple. More casually known as "Rip."

"Having the dog in the picture was one of the most fun things I've done since I've been here," Jerry said. "I get lots of letters and calls from people who like my dog. Some have even wanted to breed their dogs with mine! We begin talking, and it's not long before I find out what's on their mind. Dog's have a special place in people's hearts. People trust someone brave enough to share their column with his dog."

Jerry may have come from outside the Conservation Department, but he's a Missourian through and through. He grew up in Cape Girardeau, and he credits the Conservation Department with getting him started on an outdoor career.

"I always loved hunting and fishing," he said, "but I couldn't imagine how to make a living with my love, but then I saw the Conservation slide shows and the programs they were doing, and I realized that I really belonged in this field."

After high school, he found himself seeking outdoor work experience. He took a job with the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho, fighting white pine blister rust and forest fire.

"It was a good experience, even if the blister rust eventually won the war," he recalled. "It paid enough to allow me to go to college, and the best part about it was that I was assigned to a camp to which Janet, my future wife, was also assigned."

Jerry and Janet returned to Cape Girardeau so he could pursue a master's degree in fisheries management. He spent a lot of time at Duck Creek Conservation Area and Mingo National Wildlife Refuge studying fliers, a small sunfish unique to Missouri's Bootheel region.

During his research, Jerry and Janet stayed with Hamlet B. Clark, the manager of the Duck Creek area. It was the first time he'd had the opportunity to work with anyone from the Conservation Department, and he said the experience helped him throughout his career.

"As we talked during the evenings," he recalled, "I got a lot of ideas from Hamm about supervision, salary and support. Hamm said the formula for successful supervision is to always give credit to the people who give you ideas. People trust you then, and they know you're their best opportunity to get pet projects done."

When he graduated, Jerry declined an opportunity to work for the Conservation Departmen, preferring to work at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Not long after- at the age of 29-he became state fisheries division chief in Iowa.

"I never anticipated going into administration so early in my career," he said. "It was pretty much a mix of good timing and my willingness to take on new challenges. Nobody else wanted to move to a Midwestern state and work for a difficult supervisor, but I was willing to step into a bad situation and make the changes necessary to improve it."

By the time he was 35, he was director of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. He was 38 when he became the director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Jerry stayed in the Idaho position for 16 years before coming to the Missouri Conservation Department in late 1996.

Jerry said he was happy to have the opportunity to apply everything he's learned in his career to conservation efforts in a state that has the kind of constitutional and public backing that the Conservation Department enjoys in Missouri.

"It was really different coming from a public land state like Idaho to a private land state like Missouri," Jerry said. "The job there seemed to be consumed with conflict resolution among many users, including cattlemen, irrigators, hunters and loggers, and they all had reasons to dislike the Fish and Game Department. In Missouri, the Conservation Department is a white-hat agency. We've got the kind of public support other states would kill for."

Although he's leaving the Conservation Department after only five and a half years as director, Jerry feels that he's left his mark in Missouri.

"I served a need," he said. "The Department had to have better teamwork and accept changes. I believe I've helped create conditions that will allow the Department to move forward. This Department is the number one conservation agency in the country, and I didn't do anything to hurt that ranking.

"Overall, that's not bad for a Missouri kid who just liked to fish and hunt!"

In Retirement

Jerry and Janet are moving back to Idaho to be near their daughter and their two young grandchildren.

"I've always believed that it takes a family to raise a kid and not a community," he said. "Some of my fondest memories are of fishing small ponds, streams and the lagoon in the city's park. We'd use a small hook, a cut pole and a line, and we'd catch hundreds of small bluegills, I believe that's why they've always been my favorite fish.

"It will be nice to have the time to introduce my grandchildren and their friends to a variety of outdoor experiences, giving them memories as enduring as mine.

"It'll also be nice to have the luxury of waking up and deciding to go fishing."

Jerry said he won't miss the director's job, but he doesn't intend to abandon conservation labor. He has outlined a book on conservation. "Not an academic one," he said, "but a clear and frank viewpoint from someone who's been in the middle of many important conservation issues, both as a field person and as an administrator.

"I'm going to enjoy watching through the years as the people I've trained or worked with move into leadership positions within the Department. "You get really close to people when you work in conservation. They're so professional and talented and dedicated that it almost makes you cry at times to see them working so hard to put their ideas and beliefs into practice."

Accumulated Wisdom

  • Never be afraid of change. Although change is good for its own sake, it's better to have a clear goal in mind so that you and others you work with can have a shared vision. Remember how inspired and energized you were when you first got out of school? That's the feeling and the dynamic that we seek to accomplish with change.
  • We have nature centers and outreach efforts, but we'll never be able to introduce everyone to the pleasures of the outdoors. If, however, we can maintain a solid core of outdoorspeople, they will spread a conservation message to their friends and neighbors.
  • We can't practice conservation by looking at next year; we have to look far into the future. Our Conservation Commission is not subject to political whims and can, therefore, provide us with the kind of stability we need to embark on long-term programs and research, like those in the 100-year Missouri Forest Ecosystem Project. Conservation agencies in other states do not have the stability for that kind of commitment.
  • "I've been to nearly every state and visited with their conservation people, and they're all watching us. We possess all the ingredients to succeed in conservation. If we fail, they know there is little hope for them, but when we succeed, they succeed."

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Bertha Bainer