© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Retired Missouri conservation director plans to enjoy the areas she oversaw

Sarah Parker Pauley was director of the Department of Conservation from late 2016 through June 2024. She also serves as the director of the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the state park system.
Missouri Department of Conservation
Sarah Parker Pauley recently retired as director of the Department of Conservation, a position she'd held since late 2016. She also served as the director of the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the state park system.

Recently retired Missouri Department of Conservation Director Sara Parker Pauley says the end of her decades-long tenure will not dim her passion for the outdoors.

“When you have the great pleasure and privilege of spending your career on areas that you're passionate about personally, then you better believe I am ready to spend a little more time in the field, as we say, enjoying the resources that I have been working to steward these years,” Pauley said in an interview Monday on St. Louis on the Air.

In late 2016, Pauley became director of the agency responsible for managing conservation areas that Missourians use for, among other things, hunting, fishing, bird-watching and hiking. That came after she led of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the state’s parks system.

One of the key differences between the agencies is that the Department of Conservation receives most of its funding from a dedicated sales tax — while the money to run the Department of Natural Resources comes from the legislature. That means the Department of Conservation can act more independently than other state agencies, though officials have to answer to a four-person Conservation Commission.

Pauley said the sales tax helps avoid political pressure on the Department of Conservation’s priorities of regulating the state’s fish and wildlife areas.

“It really ensures that we are focused on the mission at hand and that we are looking at fish and wildlife management from a scientific standpoint,” she said.

Pauley said she is most proud of helping set up the Boone County Nature School, which provides education about wildlife to all of the students in the central Missouri county. She said she noticed an uptick of interest in the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when it became clear that the virus was less transmissible in outdoor environments.

“I always felt better when I was outdoors. And certainly science is now proving that it has a significant benefit to mental health, and certainly to physical health, to be outdoors and connected with nature,” Pauley said. “During the pandemic when people needed to get outside, but do it in a safe way, we did see a significant bump in people who were fishing and people who were hunting. We certainly saw people who were just getting outside.”

Jason Sumners, the Missouri Department of Conservation's new director, sees some engagement endeavors as a challenge to conservation goals.

Economic boon or burden?

While Missouri’s state parks and conservation areas are arguably one of the biggest tourist drawing points for the state, they often prompt divisions in rural communities.

That’s because transforming land into parks or conservation areas largely keeps that land out of reach for economic development, which could mean less money going to local or county governments.

Pauley said the Department of Conservation tries to avoid those conflicts by providing a payment in lieu of taxes to local communities. She said residents of counties that contain state parks can also benefit economically — pointing to Echo Bluff State Park in Shannon County as a prime example.

“Many of the folks working in the restaurant or working at the gift shop are locals. They love that park now,” Pauley said. “They know it's an asset to that area. So, I think sometimes it's maybe the fear of the unknown and what may be. But for many of those counties, it really is an opportunity to increase economic activity.”

Sarah Parker Pauley reflects on her career caring for Missouri’s great outdoors

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Ulaa Kuziez, Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr and the production intern is Roshae Hemmings. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

Stay Connected
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.