Remarks to the Conservation Federation of Missouri Convention

February 26, 2010

Thank you, Dave.

Dave and I went deer hunting last fall on his farm up in Clark County, and I managed to bag a doe in Pulaski County… That’s a long walk in the rain.

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be here to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, and all that it has accomplished in that time. I’d also like to put in a plug for the new director of the Missouri Department of Conservation, Bob Ziehmer.

Bob and his family are dyed-in-the-wool outdoorsmen, and I know he will be an excellent and dynamic leader.

I’m also delighted to participate in honoring the folks getting special awards tonight for their outstanding service as communicators, educators, and wise stewards of Missouri’s water, forests and wildlife.

The Federation was founded in 1935 with just 75 members. Today, it has 80 affiliate organizations and more than 83,000 members.

We come from all parts of the state and all walks of life.

Some of us grew up in the country, where hunting and fishing come as naturally as breathing.

Some grew up the city, but jump at every chance they get to leave it behind and spend time hiking and canoeing.

We’re archers and anglers, hunters and hikers, birders and bikers.

But we all share a love of the outdoors.

We all want a cleaner, safer and healthier state to pass on to our kids and grandkids, and a bounty of wildlife to harvest for generations to come.

And that is the true genius of the Conservation Federation.

For 75 years, it has united us around critical issues affecting our natural resources, proving time after time that we can get more done for Missouri when we pull together.

We also share a core value that transcends politics, age, race, gender and geography. It even transcends time. And that is our belief that we have a duty to be good stewards of the land.

Conservation is not the work of a single person or a single generation; it doesn’t have a fixed beginning and a fixed endpoint.

It is a responsibility handed down to us from those who came before us – people like J.T. Montgomery and Edward K. Love, Roland Herr and Ed Stegner. And we must pass it on to those who follow us.

We share the responsibility today for protecting our fields and forests, our wetlands and wild places from the creeping degradation of urban sprawl. We share the responsibility for making our air, our rivers and streams cleaner.

We are the first and last defense of Missouri’s plants and animals, down to the lowliest toad and thistle, whose only apparent value is that they are part of God’s creation.

The call to stewardship didn't originate with the founding of the Conservation Federation, of course.

It began the minute God gave Adam dominion over the fish, the birds and the wild animals, and put him in charge of the Garden of Eden.

God left Adam with some very simple gardening instructions: “Till it and keep it.”

Till it … and keep it.

Five words that even a guy made from a handful dust could understand.

Of course, things didn't go exactly as planned….

There was this woman… and this snake… and this apple tree….

But we can't blame Adam and Eve entirely.

Human beings, being what we are, can’t fully appreciate something unless we’re aware of how special it is. And if we don’t appreciate it, we won’t take care of it.

And that gets us from the management issues in Eden to the biggest problem facing conservation today: Too many people are disconnected from Nature.

That’s true of adults, but especially true of kids. It’s even got a name: “Nature deficit disorder.”

What are kids doing instead?

According to the experts, kids between the ages of eight and 18 spend an average of about seven and a half hours a day on activities like watching TV, messing around on Facebook or playing video games. And that doesn’t include the time they spend watching movies, playing video games or using the computer.

Not surprisingly, the rate of childhood and teen obesity has surged. Over the past several decades, the number of overweight kids 6 to11 years old has quadrupled, and the number of overweight teens has tripled.

Reconnecting with Nature isn’t something you can do indoors, sitting at a computer, or watching TV.

It requires being there, walking around in it.

That’s how future conservationists are made.

And that is why tonight, I am signing an Executive Order issuing the “Children in Nature Challenge”. I’m challenging all Missouri communities to make the most of the programs and opportunities that exist for kids to experience and explore Nature and the outdoors.

Educating them about Nature will not only benefit our children physically and mentally today. It will instill in them a lifelong understanding and concern for the care of our natural resources. I’m instructing the state departments of Elementary and Secondary Education, Health and Senior Services, Mental Health, Higher Education, and Economic Development to join in the excellent efforts underway in the Departments of Conservation and Natural Resources to help implement this challenge.

And I know I can count on everyone here to help me lead the charge.

Fortunately, just about anywhere you live in Missouri, it’s easy to reconnect with Nature within a short drive of home. That’s a fact that astounds visitors from other countries; we take it for granted.

If a kid has never hiked along Pickle Creek in the springtime and come up on a fawn, sleeping peacefully in the middle of a trail, you can’t really explain how magical that is.

If kids have never loaded up a john boat and headed down the Big River on a July afternoon, caught a mess of bass and cooked and eaten them right there on a gravel bar, they’re missing a thrill no videogame can match.

And until you’ve sat quietly in a duck blind and been nipped by a gust of wind carrying the first hint of snow, it’s hard to explain the sense of continuity you feel, knowing your span of days is on a timeline bending toward infinity.

When I was a kid, I did a lot of fishing with my dad. We’d get up early, toss our gear in the back of the station wagon and head on down to Bennett Spring or Montauk – which, by the way, is where I’m headed Monday morning for the opening day of trout season.

I spent many hours learning to read the river, learning to tie a fly good enough to fool a trout. That kindled my love of the outdoors, which I passed along to my sons ... and I hope they’ll pass along to theirs.

We need to get more Missouri kids off the couch, away from their videogames and back into the outdoors. And that’s just what I intend to do.

Earlier this week, I was in Babler and Watkins Mill state parks to roll out my Missouri State Parks Youth Corps program. We’ll be putting more than a thousand young adults to work this summer at our 85 state parks and historic sites.

That includes our newest state park, the Current River State Park. Georganne and I – and our dog Daniel Boone - will be stopping by there on Sunday, along with our outstanding parks director, Bill Bryan. Now there’s a man who knows his way around a fishing pole.

My elite Parks Youth Corps will learn to be good stewards of the land from the ground up: cutting brush, building trails and picking up trash.

They’ll also be outdoor ambassadors in my effort to reverse a 10-year decline in the number of visitors to our beautiful, affordable state parks.

More visitors to our parks will pump more money into our tourism industry and help rev up our economy.

According to the CFM Business Alliance, the total impact on Missouri’s economy from fish, wildlife, outdoor recreation and forest products was about $11.4 billion in 2008. That accounted for 95,000 jobs with $2.9 billion in job earnings.

That ain’t hay.

For families who love the outdoors, there’s just no better deal around than our state parks. Now we’ve got to spread the word: If you like to kayak or fish, bird-watch or mountain bike, come to Missouri first.

That is a testament to the historic and the ongoing work of the Conservation Federation.

It was conceived during the Great Depression, a low point in U.S. conservation history.

Unregulated hunting, fishing and trapping and the abuse of forests had left Missouri’s natural resources in deplorable shape.

A group of Missouri sportsmen, unhappy with what they saw, and inspired by the ideas and writings of the great biologist and outdoorsman Aldo Leopold, devised a solution as simple as it was revolutionary.

They drafted a constitutional amendment creating a non-political conservation agency to be governed with the input of ordinary citizens according to sound principles of biology. Missouri voters approved it by a landslide.

The Federation’s list of accomplishments in the 75 years since is extraordinary. To name a few:

  • The 1976 passage of a dedicated, one-eighth cent sales tax for conservation.
  • The Design for Conservation, a touchstone document whose principles are timeless and enduring.
  • Operation Game Thief
  • Operation Forest Arson
  • The Stream Team
  • The Katy Trail
  • Wild & Scenic Rivers
  • The State Parks and Soils Conservation tax
  • The Ozark Trail,
  • And last but certainly not least, Share the Harvest.

I donated the meat from the doe I shot last fall to Share the Harvest. It’s a wonderful way for hunters to keep the Missouri hunting tradition alive, to help manage our whitetail herd, and to provide fresh, nutritious meat for our neighbors in need. This year, hunters harvested and donated hundreds of thousands of pounds of venison for distribution at Missouri food banks.

Knowing all the good this program does, I allocated $200,000 in Neighborhood Assistance Program funds to Share the Harvest so we can add more processors, increase donations of deer and provide more meat to Missouri families in need.

And when turkey season starts this spring, I’m going to ask Dave to hook me up. Dave claims to be a great turkey hunter, but he learned all he knows about turkey from Ray Aye.

Conservation works best when citizens are involved – and that means building the broadest possible coalition, which is just what the Federation does so well.

So here we are today, 75 years after 75 sportsmen put their stake in the ground and fought to restore Missouri’s natural resources.

What will Missouri look like 75 years from today? 100 or 200 years from now? What challenges lie ahead of us?

One thing is certain. The work of conservationists in this century will be harder and more complex than the work we’ve done up to now. We are learning more every day about how natural systems work and interrelate. We must use that knowledge to create enlightened public policy.

There is no doubt that the Federation will continue to play a key role in building consensus around shared principles in order to reach common goals.

We also must set the bar higher than just conservation. It will not be enough to pass on this state in the same shape it’s in now. It needs to be better.

The National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses has identified the loss of hunting land as a critical issue nationwide, and is pushing for no net loss legislation in all 50 states.

Across the nation, and Missouri is part of this picture, these lands are being converted from wildlife habitat to shopping malls and subdivisions at a rate of 2 acres a minute - or about 1.5 million acres a year.

Whether or not there are any wild turkeys or quail left in our woods 75 years from now, or any otters or hellbenders in our streams a hundred years from now, depends on what we do today.

We can stand by and let sprawl write the requiem for our wildlife. Or we can follow the example of those 75 bold Federation thinkers 75 years ago, and take a stand.

We’ll have to find new ways to get a new generation of Missourians back to nature, to learn the lessons only Nature can impart:

  • That we are not alone in this world.
  • That we share it - briefly - with other species with their own purpose, who have been here a lot longer than we have.
  • And that our needs exist in the context of a greater whole.

There are no other people anywhere in the state that can do more about the conservation challenges facing Missouri than you can.

There are no other folks who can do more to fulfill our God-given charge - to be good stewards of the fish of the waters, the birds of the air and the beasts of the field - than the folks in this room tonight.

And the Conservation Federation will continue to serve as a rallying point, uniting and empowering a new generation of citizen conservationists … inspiring them to innovate and take action … and defending the funding for the Missouri Department of Conservation, Parks and Soils.

Thank you for all you have done, and all you will do to protect the beauty and bounty of our state.

God bless us in our work. And God bless Missouri.