The Genesis of Conservation in Missouri

By Jim Low | January 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2005

What Missouri organization formed in 1935, took politics out of conservation, secured stable, adequate funding for the nation's leading conservation program, and still keeps a watchful eye on the state's wild resources?

If you answered "The Conservation Federation of Missouri," go to the head of your class.

The Conservation Federation originated during the low point of conservation history. The Great Depression gripped America. Unregulated hunting, fishing and trapping, and unrestrained timber harvest, had decimated natural resources. Solutions were elusive.

Across the nation, state legislatures controlled game laws. Instead of protecting wildlife, laws often served the very interests that were responsible for despoiling wildlife resources. Hunters and anglers were disgusted, but their efforts at reform were thwarted in the political arena.

On Sept. 10, 1935, about 75 sportsmen met at a hotel in Columbia to discuss what could be done. They formed the Restoration and Conservation Federation of Missouri and envisioned a solution that was as simple as it was revolutionary.

Newspaper publisher E. Sydney Stephens summed things up this way: "If you get a law passed, what have you got? The next legislature could repeal or amend it, and the politicians take over. By the same token, if you attempt to get a constitutional amendment through the legislature, you won't recognize it when it comes out. But if you write the basic authority exactly as you want it, put it on the ballot through the initiative and let the people vote it into the constitution, then you've got something permanent."

That sentiment inspired the group to draft Amendment 4. If passed, it would create a non-political conservation agency. Sportsmen fanned out across the state and gathered signatures to put the proposal on the ballot. On Nov. 3, 1936, voters approved the measure by a margin of 71 percent to 29 percent. That was the largest margin by which any amendment to the state constitution to that date had passed.

It gave Missouri the nation's first non-political conservation agency. It would be governed by a four-person, bipartisan commission with exclusive authority over fish and wildlife.

Some legislators tried to get the measure overturned. Ultimately, the sportsmen's vision prevailed. Over the next 40 years, the "Missouri plan" allowed the Show-Me State to build what was universally acknowledged to be the nation's top conservation program, with decisions based on science instead of political pressure.


America's brush with ecological disaster kindled a passion for wildlife stewardship. Aldo Leopold, who is known as the "father of modern conservation," noted that this zeal seemed to burn most intensely in Missouri.

Speaking at a gathering in 1947, he said: "Conservation, at bottom, rests on the conviction that there are things in this world more important than dollar signs and ciphers. Many of these other things attach to the land, and to the life that is on it and in it. People who know these other things have been growing scarcer, but less so in Missouri than elsewhere. That is why conservation is possible here. If conservation can become a living reality, it can do so in Missouri. This is because Missourians, in my opinion, are not completely industrialized in mind and spirit, and I hope never will be."

The Conservation Federation's growth confirmed Leopold's opinion. From the original 75 members, the Federation's ranks grew to the tens of thousands. It became known as "the strong right arm of conservation."

CFM's Resource Committees

The Conservation Federation maintains standing committees to serve the following interests.

  • Archery & Bow Hunting
  • Environment & Land Use
  • Firearms, Hunter Safety & Sportsmen's Rights
  • Fisheries & Water Resources
  • Furbearers & Small Game
  • Natural History & Wildlands
  • Conservation Education & Youth Activities
  • Deer & Wild Turkey
  • Forestry
  • Rivers & Streams
  • Waterfowl & Wetlands

To learn more about the Conservation Federation, go to or call (800) 575-2322.

Forty years after its initial achievement of locking politics out of conservation, the Federation concluded that a broad, stable financial base was necessary for effective, long-range conservation efforts. Missouri's conservation agency received almost all of its funding from the sale of hunting, fishing and trapping permits. That was enough for minimal forest, fish and wildlife programs, but Federation members saw a need for better, more comprehensive resource management.

They believed Missourians needed a network of publicly owned areas where people could enjoy outdoor activities. Such areas also would preserve representative examples of the state's diverse ecological systems. They envisioned hundreds of public accesses where Missourians could reach the state's lakes and streams. They foresaw nature centers in urban areas where city dwellers could enjoy the natural world. They wanted all people to be stakeholders in nature so that they would want to protect it.

To achieve this bold conservation vision, the Conservation Federation produced another revolutionary idea. They proposed a one-eighth of 1 percent sales tax to be used exclusively by the Conservation Department.

Again, Federation members carried petitions to every corner of the state, and the public put the proposition on the ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment. In 1976, Missouri voters approved Amendment 1, establishing the permanent conservation sales tax.

Results of the sales tax are visible in every county today. Visitors from other states are amazed at the number of road signs marking conservation areas, boating accesses and community lakes.


The Conservation Federation functions as a watchdog to ensure the vitality of conservation in Missouri. It has internal committees to advise government agencies and represent conservation interests in the Missouri Legislature and Congress. Federation committees offer advice and, when necessary, flex conservation's political muscle. In 2004, when the Legislature considered revoting the conservation sales tax, Federation members packed a hearing room and convinced lawmakers it was a misguided idea.

Over the years, the Conservation Federation also has spawned some of the world's most innovative and successful citizen-action programs.

Most impressive about the Conservation Federation is that it has accomplished so much with so little. A paid staff of three serves the group's 30,000 members from a modest office near the State Capitol.

The Federation's strength resides in the passion and dedication of its members. As in 1935, today's Federation members are average citizens. They include blue-collar workers and professionals, industrialists and farmers, Democrats and Republicans, young and old. Differences aside, they all love nature, and they all love Missouri. They have always put aside philosophical disagreements to protect Missouri's natural heritage. People join the Federation to help conservation. Over time they develop friendships that make the group an extended family.

"When I sit in committee meetings, I am always impressed by the respect that people of very opposite backgrounds show for others' ideas and good intentions," said David Murphy, executive director of the Conservation Federation. "This is a unique place of synergy, where service to conservation is the most important thing."


Despite its successes, the Federation has some serious challenges. One is name recognition.

"When most people hear about the Conservation Federation, they think we are the Conservation Department, " Murphy said. "They don't realize that we are separate. That lack of recognition makes it hard to recruit members, and without members we can't do anything."

While 30,000 may sound like a lot of members, it really isn't when you consider the conservation challenges facing Missouri. It is even smaller compared to the number of Missourians who hunt, fish or enjoy other wildlife-based activities. Missouri has more than 400,000 deer hunters and more than 1 million anglers. Millions more hike, camp, feed birds and enjoy other nature-related activities.

"Imagine what we could do if even half those people joined us," Murphy said.

If someone tells you that times are tough, and that we can't afford the world's best conservation program, think back to the depths of the Great Depression. Things were much tougher then, but 75 visionaries decided that the nation's best conservation program was an investment that Missouri most needed.

CFM Successes

  • Missouri Stream Team - After Missouri voters rejected the Natural Streams Act in 1989, the Conservation Federation launched this voluntary, citizen-based effort to achieve the same goals. The program now boasts 2,600 chapters with more than 50,000 individual members. Stream Teams conduct stream cleanups, monitor water quality and conduct other stewardship work on thousands of miles of creeks and rivers.
  • Operation Game Thief - This Federation program operates a toll-free hotline where people can call to report poachers, and provides cash rewards for arrests.
  • Project Forest Arson - This initiative allows citizens to call toll-free and report firebugs who destroy wildlife habitat, commercially valuable timber and private property.
  • Share the Harvest - The Federation administers this program, which channeled 88 tons of venison from concerned hunters to needy Missourians last year alone.
  • The Conservation Leadership Corps - This new initiative aims to mentor the next generation of citizen conservationists to carry on the Federation's proud tradition.

The Federation also helps develop and maintain the Ozark Trail and the Katy Trail, and it has lobbied for the federal State Wildlife Grants program, which in 2004 channeled $73 million of federal money into state conservation programs.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler