Conservation Commission expansion is reasonable, but major fixes aren’t needed in a Missouri success story

State conservation workers a few years ago released hundreds of yearling pallid sturgeons into the Missouri River.
State conservation workers a few years ago released hundreds of yearling pallid sturgeons into the Missouri River. The Kansas City Star

Nearly 40 years ago, the people of Missouri voted to approve a one-eighth-cent increase in the state sales tax to support conservation. The Star’s editorial board called the plan a “farsighted concept” and “a program without parallel.”

Almost immediately the conservation tax and its projected revenues — as much as $30 million a year at the time, more than $100 million now — ran into legislative buzzsaws. Spending was delayed, and efforts to repeal or force new public votes on the tax came and went in those early years, as did legislative attempts to pick the pockets of the conservation fund for other uses.

But the tax began working and helped to create one of the most admired Conservation Departments in the nation. Overseen by a four-member commission, the considerable tax revenues have gone toward acquiring conservation lands, building fish hatcheries and nature education centers, and creating other rewarding programs for hunters, anglers and lovers of outdoor activities throughout the state.

But here we go again. As The Star’s outdoors writer recently reported, a passel of bills are making their way through the General Assembly, several of which would have the effect of crippling the state’s conservation resources. One bill to repeal the tax already has been rescinded, but others would cut the tax rate in half, eliminate hunting and fishing permit fees (about $40 million in annual revenue) and ask voters to reapprove the tax every 10 years.

“This seems to be a concerted effort to damage or destroy the department any way they can,” conservation supporter Ron Kruger of Ironton, Mo., told The Star. “It’s a vendetta and the most serious threat to conservation I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Lawmakers and others are right to question whether the Conservation Department, whose annual expenditures amount to less than one percent of the state budget, uses its tax money wisely. But pulling the plug on one of Missouri’s exemplary successes is absolutely the wrong way to go about it.

Conservation supporters have been spreading the existential alarm — shooting ranges would close, lakes could not be stocked with fish, etc. And some argue that if the system isn’t broke, it doesn’t need fixing.

Yet, one bill seems worthy of consideration and offers an opportunity for compromise. It would expand the conservation commission to eight members, each representing one region of the state. (The conservation department operates eight regional service centers.) At the very least that change could ensure that the Kansas City region would gain something it has historically lacked — a consistent voice on the commission.

The governor appoints commissioners to the bipartisan panel. They are unpaid, but their travel expenses for commission meetings are covered.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Brian Munzlinger of Williamstown, complains that his northeast Missouri hasn’t been represented on the commission for 35 years. His opposition caused a dustup over Gov. Jay Nixon’s appointment of a commissioner from Columbia. So, of course, politics is never far from the proceedings. Yet a panel of eight commissioners, just like a panel of four, should be expected to serve not only their areas but the state as a whole.

Missouri auditor Tom Schweich found at least three areas of concern in 2013, but overall gave the conservation department a good rating. The department and commissioners should strive for excellence and ensure that Missourians can continue to take pride in their natural surroundings and enjoy their outdoor sports.

Oversight and accountability, of course, are vital, but in the case of conservation a scalpel would be more useful and appropriate than a sledgehammer.