Government & Politics

Conservation leaders wary of changes proposed by legislators

Count Anita Gorman as one of many conservationists who are casting a wary eye toward the Missouri General Assembly.

Gorman, who served on the Missouri Conservation Commission from 1993 to 2005, looks at three bills working their way through the state legislature and sees trouble.

The first two — one version in the Senate, the other in the House — would make regulations set by all Missouri state agencies subject to review by a legislative committee. For example, the Department of Conservation’s setting of hunting seasons, fishing length limits, habitat programs and more could be under the perusal of the legislature, which could alter regulations or reject them.

Another measure, introduced in the Senate, would double the size of the Missouri Conservation Commission from four to eight, and require one representative from each of the agency’s eight regions.

If passed, both measures would be put on the ballot and voters would decide their fate.

Action could be taken on the Senate bill that would call for the legislative review committee as early as next week. The schedule for the other bills has yet to be decided.

“These bills are absolutely the biggest threats we have seen to conservation management for some time,” said Gorman, who lives in Kansas City and was chairwoman of the Conservation Commission, the citizens panel that has the final say on fishing, hunting and conservation regulations. “If they go through, I don’t see how the Department of Conservation could operate efficiently.

“It has to change regulations every year, and that takes a tremendous amount of time. If those regulations had to go before the legislature before they became final, it could delay things greatly.

“And by making sure that there was a representative for each of the districts on the commission, I think that would lead to regional partisanship and all kinds of problems.

“We have the most highly respected conservation department in the nation. My feeling is: ‘If it isn’t broken, why fix it?’ ”

Since the Department of Conservation was created by a constitutional amendment in 1936, it hasn’t been subject to control by the legislature.

The agency proposes regulations on the management of the state’s wild resources, and the four-person Conservation Commission decides whether they should be adopted or altered.

The formula has worked, at least according to polls of Missouri residents. A Gallup poll in 2009 found that 72 percent of those surveyed thought the Department of Conservation was doing either a good or excellent job.

Sponsors of the bills that would establish a committee to oversee regulations made by state agencies say they aren’t targeting the agency. Instead, they say, the bills’ intent is to guard against “executive overreach.”

But Aaron Jeffries, assistant director in charge of government affairs for the department, worries that while the bill might not be aimed at his agency, it would become subject to legislative second-guessing. And that could lead to problems.

“Their intent wasn’t to control us,” Jeffries said. “But we find ourselves right in the middle of the battle, no matter what.

“We’re trying to get an exemption, but we haven’t worked anything out yet.”

The intent of the Senate bill to expand the Conservation Commission is to get geographically balanced representation on the panel, according to the office of Sen. Brian Munzlinger, a Republican from Williamstown who introduced the bill.

“It has been more than 30 years since northeast Missouri has had a representative on the commission,” said Pat Thomas, an aide to Munzlinger. “These people pay their conservation sales tax, but they’re not getting the representation.

“They’re getting tired of hearing, ‘You don’t exist.’ ”

Thomas doubts that the perceived problems of partisanship and regionalism would exist if the measure passes and is approved by voters.

“They (the newly configured Conservation Commission) would be entrusted to look at the state as a whole, not just part of it,” Thomas said. “But at the same time, there would be better representation across the state.”

Regarding the legislative committee to review state regulations, similar measures were passed in 1978 and 1982 in the legislature, but both were turned down by voters, Jeffries said.

Brandon Butler, the newly named executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, hopes it doesn’t have to come down to that.

“I’ve seen in other states what can happen when politics is involved in fish and wildlife management,” he said. “It just adds an extra step to the process.

“We’re fighting this. We really don’t feel the people of Missouri want this.”