Powerful and heartfelt testimony about a proposed Missouri Conservation Commission membership amendment was shared during a committee hearing Monday night.
Sponsored by Rep. Chris Dinkins (R-Lesterville), Joint House Resolution (HJR) 107 would change the membership of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Conservation Commission from four members appointed by the governor and approved by the senate to eight nonpartisan members elected from the state’s respective congressional districts.
Along with the state legislature, the joint resolution would also have to be approved by Missouri voters because it would change the current Missouri Constitution.
Dinkins expressed concern that many commissioners come from urban rather than rural areas, in an interview ahead of Monday’s hearing.
“Most of our conservation lands are in rural areas and it is very difficult to communicate with the commissioners when they are not accessible or not in your area,” she said.
The Conservation Commission is currently made up of two Republican commissioners: William Orscheln, of Columbia, and Margaret Eckelkamp, of Washington, and two independent commissioners: Mark McHenry, of Kansas City, and Steven Harrison, of Rolla.
Commissioners serve six-year terms without salary or other compensation and are responsible for appointing the Director of MDC, serving as MDC decision makers, approving Missouri Wildlife Code regulations, strategic planning, budgeting and major spending decisions, according to the MCD website. No more than two commissioners are allowed to belong to the same political party.
The proposed amendment elicited varying degrees of comment from representatives of the House Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. Some supported adding members to the commission, some feared what would result from an election involving the Conservation Commission, and many expressed support and concern in both areas.
“They’re not involved in our state at this time, but I’m a little concerned about national organizations coming in and playing in our state,” Rep. Paula Brown (D-Hazelwood) said, noting People for the Ethical Treatment. of Animals (PETA) invested $17 million in the elections last year, and the Humane Society of the United States spent $500,000 on the elections.
Dinkins said that while she would not like the presence of national organizations, like those mentioned by Brown, involved in the Missouri election, the need for change outweighed those concerns.
“The only way I feel like we could do that (make changes) is to expand the commission,” Dinkins said. “Hopefully people in those areas can find someone who best represents their area and who won’t give away a lot of money.”
If approved during the current legislative session, the amendment would be included in the next general election or in a special election called by the governor.
“We just felt like it would be more transparent, more accessible if people actually lived in those communities,” Dinkins said in a pre-hearing interview. “They would still represent the entire state, they would still do everything the current commission does. However, they would come from across the state and not just from an urban area.”
MDC director Sara Pauley testified in opposition to the amendment at Monday’s hearing.
HJR 107 “is unnecessary and, in fact, creates great threats to our conservation model,” Pauley said. “The current commission structure has provided Missouri with a proven 85-year track record of citizen-led conservation, and our state’s nationally recognized system remains effective, in part thanks to the effectiveness of a small fee.”
Several Shannon County residents testified in support of the amendment and expressed their dissatisfaction with the MDC’s action regarding forestry agriculture in their area and the lack of representation.
“They (MDC) tore up the land with the wood, there’s none left, and they call it conservation. I don’t understand,” a concerned Shannon County resident said during the hearing.
If approved “we would have a representative in our part of the country who knows what we are talking about,” the resident added.
Representative Willard Haley (R-Eldon), a member of the Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, said he heard from about 10 constituents, ahead of any committee hearing, who oppose HJR 107.
“No constituent has yet contacted me in support of the proposal,” Haley said before the hearing. “They comment on the many successes of the current conservation program and ask that regional politics not determine the members of the board of directors of the Department of Conservation.”
During the hearing, Dinkins also shared numerous letters from Missourians across the state who supported the proposed amendment and expressed concern about the current management of the Conservation Commission.
“We have a lot of taxpayer money going into this agency,” Dinkins said in the interview. “We just need to make sure they’re spent in the best way possible for the benefit of the people of Missouri.”
According to its website, the MDC has more than 1,000 conservation areas statewide, including the Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City, which is funded by MDC sales tax.
“Why should we switch to a different system with elected commissioners, who will likely have to campaign on the interests of various individuals, groups or parties, rather than considering the science of sound wildlife management,” Pauley said. “Elected commissioners would have a responsibility to the interests of their districts, not to resources or citizens as a whole.”
Click the links below to read the full resolution:
• HJR 107: Modifies the composition of the members of the conservation commission and requires the election of commissioners.
Sponsor: Chris Dinkins (R-Lesterville)