Vantage Point

Missouri Conservation—A Civics Lesson

History was one of my favorite classes in school. Probably because my Carter County R-1 High School Civics and American History teacher was Mr. J. S. (Jim) Allen.

Mr. Allen was a passionate educator who cared deeply that students appreciated the subject matter. He developed a specialty in state government and the Missouri constitution during his two terms in the Missouri House of Representatives. Mr. Allen stressed the uniqueness of Missouri governance and the importance of Missourians' right to amend their constitution through initiative petition.

Missouri conservationists successfully used the initiative petition process twice. In 1936, voters created the Conservation Commission, and in 1976 they established a dedicated conservation sales tax. As a result, Missouri is ahead of most other states in fish, forest and wildlife management programs.

In the late 1930s, Aldo Leopold, who is often proclaimed conservation's greatest philosopher, wrote about the new Commission and its chances for success. 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 things have been growing scarcer but less so in Missouri than elsewhere. This is why conservation is possible here.

In our state capitol, we work hard to share this story and the effectiveness of today's conservation programs with our elected officials. Since term limits became effective in 2000, over 100 Missouri Senators and Representatives reached the maximum years of service. Some of their replacements appear less supportive of conservation governance as we know it.

During the 2005 session, a small group of Missouri House members tried to reduce the funding available for the Department. Three times, they attempted to withhold $25 million from the agency, even though voters placed budget authority in the Conservation Commission. Another group of legislators attempted to establish seasons, methods and limits for the harvest of catfish and carp. This is also an area traditionally recognized as a responsibility of the Conservation Commission. These challenges reinforce the need to constantly educate elected officials about our conservation constitutional legacy.

Meanwhile, elected officials elsewhere have taken note of Missouri's conservation successes and are striving to learn from them. The Governor of Minnesota is advancing a proposal that essentially mimics Missouri's program, including an independent citizen commission to oversee agency operations and a permanent, dedicated sales tax.

Missouri conservation is unique because citizens voted to fund and manage fish, forests and wildlife through the Conservation Commission. The program's success is rooted in the most fundamental of democratic principles—citizen-led, citizen-driven governance.

Recent survey information suggests that citizens still approve; over 60 percent of Missourians surveyed were satisfied with the job of the Missouri Department of Conservation. Importantly, 93 percent reported an interest in Missouri's fish, forests and wildlife and 91 percent agree that it is important for outdoor places to be protected.

To keep your trust, the Department commits to remain open as we conduct business and to involve Missourians in conservation decisions. I think Mr. Allen would approve.

John D. Hoskins, Director