Vantage Point

Farewell to the school, the woods and the century

Down came the flag, and my alma mater, Washington Grade School in Cape Girardeau, was officially decommissioned last month. What a strange feeling to be there to witness the end of 86 years of continuous playground and classroom experiences. For many years my world focused on that small patch of dirt, grass, gravel and building with its teachers, Cub Scout packs, competitions and learning opportunities.

Traveling daily through the woods that lay between our house and the school ignited in me a life-long interest in the outdoors. I still remember crossing the creek on the high pipe, capturing creek minnows and hiding from my friends among the trees. Our house still stands, but the woods long ago became a parking lot, and now the school is to be converted to a storage building.

Somehow the loss of school and woods seems more serious than the passing of a whole century. I've decided that's how it should be. Calendar dates pale in comparison to the life-forming events of grade schools and outdoor adventures.

The Conservation Department is a quarter century younger than Washington Grade School, but we also worked hard to make our mark this past century. Our core programs of protection, conservation, education and public service have restored forest and wildlife to the land and fish to the waters, and we have brought knowledge about the outdoors to Missourians. Our partnership efforts between citizens and professional resource managers are recognized as our nation's No. 1 state conservation success story of the century.

We go into the 21st century with a rush of new programs, facilities and ideas that should pay future dividends. Our dedication remains strong to protect our resources and provide life enhancing experiences to the people we serve. Present and future generations will continue to have the opportunity to experience the thrill of chasing those minnows or big fish, have their heart leap at the sound of a screech owl in darkened woods and enjoy the beauty of an early morning sunrise over decoys. The Conservation Department has acquired a broad collection of acres statewide to ensure these thrills can continue unabated on public land.

Our new baby of the century is a brand new program and section to work with private landowners. The Private Lands Services Program will strive to balance the development of private and public lands with the preservation of their wild nature. We want to make sure youngsters and adults can continue to experience outdoor adventures in the small suburban woods, between what Mark Twain called "all the modern inconveniences."

A new century will require new schools, new parking lots and innovative new conservation programs. The Conservation Department is not here to stand in the way of a worthwhile living for Missourians. Our goal is to find ways to continue to make living worthwhile for our citizens by protecting our wild heritage and sharing our understanding of the natural world.

The success of Missouri's conservation movement ultimately depends on the citizens of the state who have provided the Conservation Department with financial and political support. It also requires the dedication of landowners who are willing to get involved with the process and practice of conservation.

The next 100 years will bring even more pressures on our woods, fields and waterways. Our best efforts will be required to learn new methods of preserving our partially restored wild heritage. If you've been a part of the Missouri conservation movement the past century, congratulate yourself; you've done exceptionally well! If you choose to be a participant in the coming century, we have some great challenges awaiting you.