Missouri's Unique Conservation Legacy

By Brett Dufur | October 17, 2011
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 2011

A single cannon blast sliced through the silence of a quiet morning on a Missouri River bend on July 4, 1804. The crew of the Lewis & Clark Expedition was celebrating the first official observance of Independence Day in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase territory. The site today is known as Little Bean Marsh Conservation Area, located 30 miles north of Kansas City.

Among the entries in William Clark’s journal that day were observations of extensive prairies, rivers, a great number of goslings, and a clear lake containing vast quantities of fish and geese. He didn’t write about the oppressive July heat and humidity, the “mosquitors” or the hardships endured. Instead, Clark wrote about the abundance and variety of wildlife, which was stunning even to this veteran explorer.

“The Plains of this country are covered with a Green Grass, well calculated for the sweetest and most norushing hay, interspersed with… trees, Spreding ther lofty branchs over Pools Springs or Brooks of fine water… Shrubs covered with the most delicious froot is to be seen in every direction, and nature appears to have exerted herself to butify the Senery by the variety of flours raiseing Delicately and highly… above the Grass, which Strikes & profumes the Sensation, and amuses the mind, throws it into Conjecturing the cause of So magnificent a Senery… in a Country thus Situated far removed from the Sivilised world to be enjoyed by nothing but the Buffalo Elk Deer & Bear in which it abounds.”

His awe of the natural beauty he saw here is a powerful testament to the connection people have always felt for this land. Yet it would take only a generation of early settlers to forge an entirely different Missouri than what Clark had described.

From Wildlife Depletion to Conservation Action

By the 1860s, the insatiable demand for fur, feathers and meat had virtually emptied the forests. Relentless commercial hunting was rampant and unchecked. By the late 1800s, the largest lumber mill in the world came to the Ozarks to feed the booming railroad industry’s thirst for railroad ties and a growing nation’s need for wood products. In 1912 alone, 15 million hand-hewn railroad ties were sold in Missouri. It was also an age when a third of the Ozarks were burned each year in an effort to bring up the grasses for livestock. Missouri’s forests were soon depleted.

By the 1930s, the country was in the grips of the Great Depression. Our national trust of soil, water and wildlife were becoming similarly bankrupt. The existing Missouri Department of Game was largely a token gesture that had been weakened by powerful interests and left under funded. Many Missourians had a deep seated feeling that things could be better—that even though Missouri’s natural resources had been squandered through overuse, proper government regulation could help restore wildlife in Missouri. This ultimately set the stage for Missouri’s citizen-led effort to restore Missouri’s fish, forest and wildlife resources 75 years ago.

Missouri’s Citizen-led Efforts Take Root

On Sept. 10, 1935, nearly 100 sportsmen met at the Tiger Hotel in Columbia to discuss what could be done. They formed the Restoration and Conservation Federation of Missouri and devised a solution that was as simple as it was revolutionary. Columbia newspaper publisher E. Sydney Stephens, who became one of the leaders of the movement and later one of MDC’s first commissioners, summed things up, “If you get a law passed, what have you got?” he asked. “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.”

So they drafted Amendment 4, aimed at creating an apolitical 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 to 29 percent—one of the largest margins by which any amendment to the state constitution had ever passed. The sportsmen’s vision had prevailed.

On July 1, 1937, the constitutional amendment creating the Missouri Conservation Commission took effect, creating an apolitical, science-based conservation agency with exclusive authority over forests, fish and wildlife. Over the next 75 years, the “Missouri plan” allowed the Show-Me State to build what is acknowledged as one of the nation’s top conservation programs. Today that Commission is more commonly referred to as the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).

“Everything was new,” recalls MDC’s first chief of wildlife research, Bill Crawford, who retired after providing leadership in that role for 34 years. “It was an opportunistic time when we could find problems and really start to work on them.”

Since that historic night at the Tiger Hotel, a series of unprecedented conservation and wildlife restoration efforts have been accomplished. “Not in their wildest imaginations could those early sportsmen have imagined what has been achieved,” says Dave Murphy, executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri. “On the same landscape, at the same time that our human population has doubled, we’ve seen the restoration of wild turkey, deer, geese, river otters, raccoons and black bass, and every kind of game species that you can imagine.”

Missouri’s Unique Citizen Led Conservation Legacy

Missouri conservation is unique—unique in its history, unique in the way it derives its authority and funding from citizens, and unique in the passion and commitment of Missourians to perpetuate this legacy. The Show-Me State’s conservation efforts have a broad management base giving consideration to forests, fish and all species of wildlife.

The Conservation Commission serves Missourians by ensuring citizens have healthy forests, fish and wildlife throughout the state. To achieve conservation successes the Commission and Department staff strive to promote cooperation between the Department, landowners and the public through scientific information and mutual understanding. Conservation successes such as stable deer and turkey populations indicate this partnership and approach has worked in Missouri.

The Department’s director is hired by an unpaid, citizen Conservation Commission, rather than being appointed by the governor. This provision provides the Department with a great amount of stability and permanence that benefit citizens and Missouri’s fish, forest and wildlife resources.

Over the past 75 years, the Conservation Department has had only eight directors. The current director of the Department is Robert L. Ziehmer. His predecessors include I. T. Bode, 1937–1957; William Towell, 1957– 1966; Carl Noren, 1967–1979; Larry Gale, 1979–1988; Jerry Presley, 1988–1997; Jerry Conley, 1997–2002; and John Hoskins, 2002–2009.

The Commission is made up of four commissioners, with no more than two from the same political party. The governor appoints commissioners for six-year unpaid terms. The Commission serves as the Department’s policy maker, approves Wildlife Code regulations, and oversees strategic planning, budget development and major expenditures.

The first members of the Commission were E. Sydney Stephens, A. P. Greensfelder, Wilbur C. Buford and John F. Case. Current Commissioners include Don R. Johnson of Festus; James T. Blair, IV of St. Louis; Don C. Bedell of Sikeston; and Becky L. Plattner of Grand Pass.

Design for Conservation

Forty years after their initial achievement, the Conservation Federation of Missouri decided that for conservation to become a permanent reality, it needed a broad, stable financial base. The vision, called the Design for Conservation, was proposed to Missouri citizens in 1970. It was a long-reaching strategic plan for conservation in Missouri. It included a pledge to obtain land for recreation, forestry and protection of critical habitat. Design also called for increased services to the public in the areas of wildlife and forest conservation, and for conservation nature centers throughout Missouri.

To fund the Design for Conservation, citizens petitioned to put another constitutional amendment, Amendment 1, on the ballot in 1975. The petition garnered 208,000 signatures of support, more than double the minimum required to place the proposed amendment on the ballot. The amendment called for a one-eighth of 1 percent sales tax. The vote in November of 1976 allowed for the implementation of Design for Conservation. The conservation sales tax, as it became known, means that for every $8 spent on taxable items, one penny goes to conservation. This dedicated sales tax provides consistent funding for the long-term efforts required for the conservation of forests, fish and wildlife. The Department received $95,818,338 in fiscal year 2011 as a result of the conservation sales tax. This revenue makes up about 58 percent of the Department’s annual operating budget—no money from the state’s general revenue goes to the Department. These numbers sound impressive, yet MDC’s entire budget is comparable to less than 1 percent of the entire state government budget. And conservation pays its way in Missouri—the amount of state sales tax revenue generated from fish and wildlife recreation and the forest products industry is about the same as the sales tax revenue received by MDC from the conservation sales tax.

Missourians Care About Conservation

Missourians have achieved some amazing results. We have restored and conserved dozens of fish and wildlife species, ensured that Missouri is a great place to hunt and fish, transformed forestry into a sustainable industry, created a system devoted to serving both rural and urban private landowners, invested in the hearts of major urban areas to encourage participation in the outdoors, developed an accessible network of public lands and facilities, and partnered the entire way with citizens and communities throughout the state.

Conservation enriches our economy and our quality of life. Today, conservation—wise use—of forest, fish and wildlife resources has a proven and important track record. These resources have a tremendous positive impact at the individual, family, community and state levels. The combined numbers generated by hunting and fishing, wildlife watching and forest industries show the importance of conservation in our state. It supports approximately 95,000 Missouri jobs, involves many Missourians through active participation and generates positive business revenue for the state of more than $11.4 billion annually.

Looking back, America’s brush with an unwise management approach of natural resources certainly kindled a passion for wildlife stewardship. Conservationist Aldo Leopold noted that this zeal seemed to burn 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.”

If you agree with Aldo Leopold and are not yet “thoroughly industrialized,” find a way to get involved locally in conservation. You will be joining a long line of Missourians who have made the Show-Me State a beacon of conservation achievement for the rest of the world. Visit mdc.mo.gov to learn about conservation opportunities throughout the state.

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the formation of the Conservation Department, such a milestone offers an opportunity to reflect upon past challenges and chart a course for future opportunities. Through the years, the men and women who have contributed to the conservation movement have changed. But the Department’s mission is still the same—to manage and protect the forests, fish and wildlife of the state. It’s a mission that provides Missourians the opportunity to enjoy our natural resources today while leaving those resources in better shape for future generations.

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is an important set of conservation principles, policies and philosophy that has led to the protection, conservation and restoration of wildlife populations in North America. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is built on a foundation of principles, called the Seven Pillars:

  1. Wildlife as a public trust resource - Wildlife belongs to all citizens, not any one individual, and is held in trust by government for the benefit of present and future generations.
  2. Elimination of markets - for wildlife Many game species were nearly decimated by unregulated market hunting and some species were lost forever. Preventing overexploitation and managing sustainable use is a continuous goal of conservation.
  3. Allocation of wildlife by law - Achieving wildlife benefits for present and future generations means regulations to protect and allocate wildlife resources.
  4. Harvest for legitimate purposes - Hunting and trapping are legitimate and, in some cases, necessary for management but must be carried out in ways acceptable to society. This principle includes concerns about wanton waste, protection of property, personal protection and use.
  5. Wildlife is an international resource - Many wildlife species, such as waterfowl, transcend national boundaries and their management requires international agreement and cooperation.
  6.  Science-based wildlife policy-  Science and good information will assist in making wildlife management decisions. One of the most important aspects is that all citizens have access to the wildlife resources, including the tradition and heritage of hunting.
  7. Democracy of hunting One of the most important aspects is that all citizens have access to the wildlife resources, including the tradition and heritage of hunting.

Other Revenues that Support Missouri’s Conservation Legacy

For more than 75 years, sportsmen have been buying hunting and fishing licenses. These funds are vital to restore habitat, purchase public lands, and bring back Missouri’s fish and wildlife populations. When a person purchases a hunting or fishing license, they are investing those dollars in conservation for the benefit of all Missourians and future generations. Fishing and hunting licenses account for approximately 20 percent of the Department’s annual revenue, totaling more than $31 million.

MDC also receives about $22 million a year from federal sources, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration programs. The Wildlife Restoration Program, originally called the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, is a program funded by taxes on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment. Those funds are specifically provided to states to restore, conserve, manage and enhance fish and wildlife.

The Sport Fish Restoration Program, created by the Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950, is funded by taxes on fishing tackle, motorboat fuel, electric outboard motors and sonar equipment. Funds are distributed to states for sport fish restoration, motorboat access development and aquatic resource education. Federal aid also comes from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Also In This Issue

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler