Conservation and Country Schools

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Published on: May. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

When I was hired by the Conservation Department as an education advisor in 1951, my assignment was specific: work with teachers and students to promote long-term conservation of Missouri's soils, waters, forests and wildlife. My job had me visiting elementary schools of various sizes, both public and private.

I especially liked getting out into rural areas and visiting one-room schools, the likes of which have gone the way of the passenger pigeon.

Missouri had thousands of such schools, where one teacher was responsible for one classroom of stair-stepped kids, grades one through eight. Furnishings were sparse, teaching materials were limited and the kids usually walked to and from school carrying lunch pails. On wintry days, heating stoves were tricky to adjust, and water pipes-if indeed there was indoor plumbing-were at risk of freezing. My visits typically began with a knock on the schoolhouse door.

"Come right on in," the teacher would say while the kids craned their necks. Though I might visit only once a year, I was always welcomed as the "conservation man." After apologizing for breaking up lesson work (cheerfully accepted, of course), I talked to the youngsters, answered questions, showed a conservation film from a heavy and bulky projector and concluded by leaving some conservation booklets with the teacher.

Students' questions often revealed something about how their parents viewed conservation. At one Ozark school a boy got laughs from his classmates by asking me how to telephone fish. He obviously was referring to the illegal practice of shocking fish in a stream by working an old fashioned crank telephone. I could not allow such a charged question to go by without some response, so I simply answered, "Go to the nearest phone and dial FISH."

I made as many as four visits per day and often learned as much as the kids. Back then there were eight education advisors employed by the Conservation Department (today they are known as consultants), and we thought of ourselves as itinerant preachers for conservation.

My crusading message to kids can be summed up this way: learn to care for the soil that feeds you, also care for the streams, woodlands and the habitat needs of wildlife. I told them to obey the hunting and fishing laws and not to burn the woods every spring, the way their grandpas used to do.

Back then, residents burned degraded Ozark woodlands in attempts to grow grass for open-range livestock. It took some

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