For many who work at the Missouri Department of Conservation, it’s not just a way to make a paycheck; it’s a way to live out a passion for preserving outdoor resources. And it just so happens that these employees are able to preserve the outdoors and while maintaining a budget that runs so well, it’s a model for other states.
One reason it runs so well is because of a state sales tax implemented in 1976, which is one-eighth of 1 percent (or one penny for every $8). This sales tax helps bring in $108 million a year. Also, the MDC has a unique way of practicing conservation. On the federal level, forestry and fish and wildlife are separate departments; Missouri, believing there is no separation between the two areas, decided to keep them together within one department.
This year, the MDC will use its funding to begin work on renovating a few areas near Columbia. For one, improvements will be made to the hiking trails at Three Creeks Conservation Area, which is between Columbia and Ashland. Also, the department will begin renovating the Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City, which has exhibits that are now 25 years old.
Although the one-eighth sales tax brings in a lot of revenue for the MDC, there are a couple of other funding sources as well: revenue from those who buy permits and federal funding that comes from the nationwide sales tax on sporting equipment. The department receives no general revenue from the state budget.
Tim Ripperger, MDC deputy director, says he thinks the department’s budget is doing well, with every dollar generating more than $60 of economic activity across the state.
“Our budget right now is a good, solid budget,” Ripperger says. “We work to live within our means. Our commission is very dedicated to not overspending in any fashion but keeping our budget balanced. And we have done that. Our budget actually has been running behind inflation the last few years.”
Ripperger, a director over the business side of the department and the supervisor of the outreach and education division, has been at the MDC for 38 years. He is an outdoorsman and also has a Bachelor of Science from the University of Missouri in fishers and wildlife management.
Contributing to the state’s economy
Not only does the MDC stay within its own budget, but the activity it generates and manages also contributes to the state and local economies. For one, the department supports 99,000 jobs through fish and wildlife recreation and the forest product industry, and one in four Missouri tourist dollars is spent on fish, forest and wildlife recreation.
Also, hunters and fishers influence Missouri’s economy. Ripperger says deer season has about a $1 billion statewide impact each year, which includes local food and lodging businesses, along with deer processors. Between 500,000 and 600,000 people go hunting each year. Fishing also draws in money to local businesses, with over 1 million people who fish in Missouri each year.
“We manage our fish populations to be both sustainable and of quality, so they draw in millions of tourist dollars every year and support businesses not only in those communities but sometimes right on the lake,” Ripperger says.
Ripperger says with all that activity, citizens make their sales tax back.
“We like to say we pay for ourselves,” Ripperger says. “The money Missourians are spending on that sales tax, the wildlife recreation, fishing activity and forestry activity in Missouri actually brings about that same amount of sales tax right back in. We’re managing the citizens’ money to get the most conservation impact for the dollar.”
A closer look
Ripperger says the MDC specifically looks at conserving outdoor resources and educating Missourians on those resources.
“Our goal ultimately is, we believe that Missouri’s quality of life is based on our natural resources,” Ripperger says. “Our job is to serve as a conservation agency protecting those resources.”
This goal is implemented in several ways. For one, the department helps manage land around the state, whether that’s state-owned or private land. This includes helping protect watersheds, helping wildlife and managing soil erosion.
Additionally, the department develops ways to get more Missourians outside and learning about nature. A few examples of the opportunities available to Missourians are shooting ranges, fishing events and guided hunting experiences. Also, there are opportunities to study outdoor resources, such as the Urban Deer Summit that took place in Columbia in August 2013, which let those in the community talk about management of urban and suburban white-tailed deer.
The MDC’s work is not only cost effective, but it also seems to be successful in terms of pleasing Missourians. According to research done by the MDC, more than three-fourths of Missourians agree that the Missouri Department of Conservation is a name they can trust, and two-thirds rate them as doing an excellent job. Citizens pleased with the department, and many have expressed interest in the state’s natural resources.
“In a survey that we conduct with the University of Missouri, 91 percent of Missourians tell us that they’re interested in the forests, fish and wildlife of Missouri, which, to me, is phenomenal that that many people in our state have that interest,” Ripperger says.
The importance of citizens
The Missouri Department of Conservation began because of Missouri’s citizens, specifically one Columbia citizen. In the early 1930s, with the Depression, a drought and wildlife population issues looming, outdoorsmen were concerned for Missouri’s natural resources. Hale W. DeJarnatt, of Centralia, wrote at that time to Attorney Gen. Roy McKittrick and said politicians were not spending the sportsmen’s money wisely, and the department should be made up of a “bipartisan commission of four members.”
A publisher in Columbia at the time, E. Sydney Stephens, was made president of the newly formed Restoration and Conservation Federation of Missouri. He was tasked with appointing a committee to elect a commission that would run the Missouri Department of Conservation. After a series of events, on July 1, 1937, Stephens began what is now the Missouri Department of Conservation, where he served as president.
Stephens said of his creation: “I’ll never have any money, but that’s not important to me. This [the department] is my swan song, my one contribution to the state I love.”
By removing Missouri’s conservation agency from politics, more opportunities arose to improve the state’s natural resources.
“It created a system where science [determined] the setting of [wildlife] seasons, methods and limits and the managing of resources for the state versus having it be a little bit of a political football,” Ripperger says.
In 1976, Missouri citizens took the next step to improve natural resources in the state. This was when an initiative petition was passed to create the one-eighth sales tax still in place today. This tax was created because citizens wanted the conservation agency to be more consistently funded, Ripperger says.
“All the success, from my viewpoint, of the Missouri Department of Conservation goes back to the citizens of the state,” Ripperger says. “They’re the ones who twice through our history have stepped to the plate, and said, ‘Here’s what we want as citizens of this state,’ and then they supported conservation over the last 75 to 80 years. Time and again, they’ve shown that natural resources around Missouri are extremely important to them.”
Ripperger says working with Missourians is his favorite part of his job.
“I love working for the citizens of Missouri,” he says. “We have great people, [and] we have a great hunting and fishing heritage here in the state.”