Plenary Authority and the Conservation Commission

Too many years ago, when he first arrived in Missouri, a relatively young man was hired by the Missouri House of Representatives to serve as a non-partisan research analyst. The job was far off the beaten path for someone who was trained and educated in wildlife conservation and natural resources, and while he was naive to the workings of the political world, he pursued his duties with vigor and learned quickly.

During the first week, the staffer was introduced to his new colleagues and assorted Representatives, and upon hearing of his background, one House member commented, “Well, maybe you can finally figure out how to get hold of all that Conservation money.”

This would be his first introduction to the longstanding tension between the Conservation Commission and the Missouri Legislature. A strain between branches of government over control, authority, and money.

“Honestly, I was clueless,” said the former staffer when interviewed for this article. “I knew of the Missouri Department of Conservation by reputation, but knew nothing of its history, its Constitutional authority, or its funding.”

But after a couple years, and some schooling by the likes of Ed Stegner, then the Executive Director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri (CFM), and Charlie Callison, former conservation director and secretary of the National Wildlife Federation, the green staffer learned why the Missouri Model of Conservation was so unique and special, and why some members of the Missouri General Assembly generally hated it.

On June 13, 2023, the MO Supreme Court issued an opinion regarding the Conservation Commission’s authority and use of dedicated funding, as stipulated in the state constitution.

For those interested in reading the details, a fairly concise Supreme Court Opinion Summary neatly hits the high points, and the entire Supreme Court Opinion provides a relatively easy to understand analysis.

In simple terms, the court explored the question of whether the General Assembly could limit the Conservation Commission’s authority to spend its dedicated funds for any of the purposes listed in the constitution. Those purposes are: 

“…the control, management, restoration, conservation and regulation of bird, fish, game, forestry and wildlife resources of the state, including the purchase or other acquisition of property for said purposes, and for the administration of the laws pertaining thereto, and for no other purpose.

The moneys and funds…shall also be used by the conservation commission…to make payments to counties…as payment in lieu of real property taxes for privately owned land acquired by the commission after July 1, 1977, and for land classified as forest cropland in the forest cropland program administered by the department of conservation…”

The high court concluded the Conservation Commission has absolute authority to decide how to spend money according to its constitutional purposes when it stated: “The plain language of article IV, sections 40-44 makes clear the people’s intent to grant the Conservation Commission plenary authority to expend and use conservation funds for certain enumerated purposes without legislative discretion.”

So why is this important? 

Historically, decades of use, abuse, exploitation, and political hackery took a terrible toll on the state and nation’s fish, forests, and wildlife resources. Looking to turn things around, national conservation leaders proposed new ideas. In 1930, The American Game Policy described the model necessary to successfully manage fish and wildlife resources in the future. Elements included the need for trained professionals, emphasis on research and fact finding, cooperation among interest groups, multi-disciplinary work, and adequate funding. It also emphasized the need for freedom from political influence, enough authority to govern its own work, and that the cost should be carried by all citizens because the work of conservation results in “public betterments.” 

Missouri took this message to heart and through the will of the people and decades of work, this model was implemented, surpassed only by what’s been created on a continental scale. Through the actions of Missouri citizens and a few simple words, a relatively independent, non-political Conservation Commission was created with enough authority and dedicated funding necessary to ensure that our state’s precious fish, forest, and wildlife resources will be available for everyone to use and enjoy, today and in the future.

Now I know not everyone appreciates what we have here. For some, the power and funding granted to the Commission is too much, and nearly every year there are attempts by legislators and special interests to undo the Department, or second guess its decisions with folksy wisdom, anecdotes, and vitriol. 

“For 35 years I’ve listened to the criticisms, but what I’ve mostly seen is an agency and commission work exceedingly hard to meet the needs of the people – all the people it serves, while still being accountable to the legislature,” said the former legislative staffer. “It’s not perfect, but it is still the best state model for conservation anywhere in the country, by far.”

While the road between the Department of Conservation and the Capitol can at times be bumpy, the work of the Department over its history has been outstanding and worthy of praise. Hopefully, this Supreme Court opinion will silence, at least temporarily, some of the critics.

Sitting on the front porch, sipping coffee, while watching deer and humminbirds, the anonymous now retired public servant smiles contently. “The work of E. Sydney Stephens, the first director of CFM, and a principal author of the initial constitutional language in 1936 has once again been tested, and once again yields no cracks. I know Mr. Stegner and Mr. Callison are doing a little dance, and I know all those people who worked so hard to secure funding for Missouri conservation are celebrating maybe just a little bit, albeit quietly.”

by Dan Zekor

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