The Future of Public Lands

Missourians cherish forests, wildlife, rivers, streams and everything they represent. We earn substantial livelihood from the products of the soil and water and spend millions pursuing recreational activities associated with the outdoors. The land says a lot about who we are.

So important is this love affair with the land that we have committed ourselves to the idea of "public land." Land has been set aside for public use and enjoyment for the preservation of wild things, and so future generations may experience the rich traditions and relationships associated with soil, water, forests and wildlife.

Of the state's 44,606,080 acres, only about seven percent is considered public land and, therefore, available to all citizens for outdoor recreation and other uses. The U.S. Forest Service is the largest public land manager in the state, with responsibility for about 1.5 million acres. The Conservation Department is second with 709,677 acres. The Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Natural Resources (State Parks), National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service follow, in that order.

The Conservation Department has traditionally owned and managed land for wildlife refuges, state forests and related activities, but in the early 1970s it was clear additional land was needed if we were to meet the desires of a growing population and achieve conservation goals. In 1976, Missouri was considered to be "public land poor" when compared to other states in the conservation forefront.

Consequently, a long range plan called "Design for Conservation" proposed doubling Conservation Department acreage. "Design" emphasized the importance of public land and land acquisition in meeting our constitutional mandate and set a 20-year target for about 600,000 acres in public ownership for conservation purposes.

Success was the end result of our planning. During the period 1977 to 1995 we met and exceeded our goal, and by October, 1995 conservation lands totaled approximately 709,677 acres. Today, conservation areas, natural areas, river and stream access sites, public lakes and other Conservation Department facilities are within a short drive of most Missourians.

So what does the future hold? Missourians have supported a certain amount of public land ownership but are clearly concerned about what is perceived as too much "government land." Thirty-nine percent of the respondents to a recent survey believed one-half of the state to be in public ownership (the actual number is only seven percent).

Further complicating the issue is the fact that many of the people who live in urban areas also have strong ties to rural and small town life. While they live and work in cities and suburbs, they spend much leisure time in the woods and on lakes and streams. Providing access to the fish, forests and wildlife resources will continue to be a Conservation Department priority.

Because we now have an outstanding distribution of public land and facilities across the state, land acquisition activities in the future will focus on special needs, such as urban areas, additional stream access sites, critical habitats and fulfilling expansion needs to existing conservation areas. Special opportunities are also given priority consideration like the flood plain land damaged during the floods of 1993 and 1995.

Aldo Leopold, writing about the need to save lands for future generations said, "It will be contended, of course, that no deliberate planning to this end is necessary; that adequate areas will survive anyhow. All recent history belies so comforting an assumption." Fortunately, Missourians have not subscribed to this assumption.