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Missouri's Department of Conservation: Feeling the Pinch of a Sour Economy

Good morning, and welcome to our Sense of Community Series. I’m Jennifer Moore. All this week, we’re looking at the effects of state budget cuts on the Ozarks. This morning, and again this afternoon, we’re going to be looking at how those budget cuts are affecting the environment.

I’ve come out to the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, where I’m walking along one of the numerous trails behind the center. I can just see the first signs of Spring: a tree right next to me, for example, has tiny green buds all across it, the birds are chirping, and many people are out enjoying the trails.

The good news is: when it comes to state budget cuts, the Department of Conservation is actually doing pretty well. And that’s because, in comparison to the other 49 states in the union, it has a unique system of funding.

It’s not funded through general revenue; instead, it gets over half of its funding through a 1/8 cent sales tax.

However, the bad news is: due to the poor economy, a lot of people haven’t been out spending money, which means sales tax revenues are way down.

This has caused the Department of Conservation Center to cut back and try to reduce expenses by $7.5 million. Here at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, they’ve also had to let staff members go, and have had to reduce the hours of both the Nature Center, and of the trails, like the one I’m walking on right now.

“Just a little over a year ago, we received word that we were going to be under some pretty severe budget cuts, and that it wasn’t going to be a temporary thing with the way that the economy is,” she said.

Linda Chorice is the manager of the nature center.

“We lost one full time maintenance staff person who worked at nights. We lost two almost full time hourly folks, and then a part time clerical person. So we had some pretty significant staffing cuts,” she said.

Chorice said the Springfield Conservation Nature Center’s popularity helped in making a case for it to stay open as much as possible.

“We were lucky in that, all the nature centers—and there are six that the Department of Conservation operates in Missouri—everyone was to cut back two days a week. Because of our heavy visitation and all of the information we could show about how popular this center is, we got permission to only close one and a half days for eight months of the year. So that helped us tremendously,” she said.

[Sound: footsteps on trail, kids chatting]

Out on the trail, I pass by a couple of people wearing Department of Conservation shirts. These are a couple of the nearly 70 volunteers who donate their time and energy here…and many say they’re the lifeblood of the nature center and its trails, especially in this recovering economy. Some of them have been with the center since it opened 23 years ago, Chorice says.

“These folks are well trained. They help us at the front desk. They answer the phone. They greet people. They make sales. They help us with programs. They patrol our trails. And they don’t take the place of staff, but they certainly help us tremendously. And for that, we feel very fortunate. That’s why we’re still able to do everything that we do,” she said.

The Department of Conservation, of course, encompasses much more than just its nature center. It’s main function is to protect the state’s forests, fisheries and wildlife—and all of those areas have seen reductions.

Tim Stanton is a forestry regional supervisor—he oversees a team of 30 people caring for the forests of 17 counties across southwest Missouri. His team lost two positions since the economy tanked—a forester in Neosho, and a forestry technician.

Speaking like a true forester, Stanton says the department hasn’t had to “cut anything down,” but certainly has had to “trim around the edges.” One place that’s evident is the forestry help traditionally given to private citizens.

“We used to be able to go out when a landowner, a private landowner, needed a timber harvest…we could write them what we call a project plan, and then go out and mark the timber,” he said.

Stanton says that service hasn’t been scrapped altogether, but it’s become much more selective.

“What we did was, we made sure that there is a long-term commitment from the landowner, verbally, that they’re going to manage the timber before we help them do a service like that. So we cut out a lot of the ones who are just in it for the money,” he said, adding that maintaining forestry is a long-tem project.

Also, he says foresters, and other conservation staff members, have been forced to think outside the box when it comes to tightening the belt—even if that means doing away with long held traditions in the way things have always been done.

“That’s a big change we’ve seen on efficiency, where we used to have work team boundaries—you had lines drawn in the sand—you know, ‘You guys work this area.’ We’re seeing a lot more teamwork across boundaries,” he said.

A lot of that efficiency—like the teamwork he mentions—is behind the scenes. But more visible signs of budget cuts will begin appearing soon.

[Sound: River water, walking through grass]

Reporter Standup: And for an example of one of those more visible signs, I’ve come out to the Deleware Town Public Fishing Access, about six miles West of Nixa, just off Highway 14. I’m right on the banks of the James River—you can probably hear the current right in front of me—it’s pretty strong. I’ve just seen a fish leap up into the air. This is one of the 92 maintenance areas in southwest Missouri alone that the department mows and keeps clean for the public. But as we get closer to summer, this grass will be noticeably higher than it’s been in past summers, the department says—because one way it’s cutting back is how often it’s mowing those areas, and how wide of a swath it’s cutting. So, if you get attacked by ticks and those pesky chiggers this summer after wading through the taller grass to reach the river, you’ll have the poor economy to blame for it.

Join us this afternoon at 4:30. We’ll be looking at whether Missouri’s state parks are affected by state budget cuts, and how private organizations are teaming up with the state to make sure the public doesn’t see a loss of services.

For KSMU’s Sense of Community Series, I’m Jennifer Moore, along the James River.