Saturday, January 23, 2010

Retiring Conservation Dept. director: Keep Missourians connected to land


By Jim Low
Missouri Department of Conservation

JEFFERSON CITY–Retiring Conservation Department Director John Hoskins says he has occasionally lost sleep during the past seven years, but he says the rewards of the job outweighed the worries. He says conservation succeeds when people understand nature and have fun outdoors.

EARLY YEARS

Hoskins became Missouri’s seventh Conservation Department director in July 2002. He was the first conservation agent to rise through the ranks to the agency’s top job.

Hoskins traces his passion for the natural world to his childhood on a small family farm in the Ozarks. His first exposure to the Conservation Department was having a friend whose father operated a fire tower for the agency.

The future director was not thinking of a conservation career when he enrolled as a business major at Southeast Missouri State University, but it took him only a year to decide he wanted to study something that was more important to him personally. He also wanted a job that would enable him to stay connected to his beloved Ozarks. In the fall of his sophomore year, he changed his major to biology.

“I realized I was more interested in ecological studies than accounting,” says Hoskins. “So I pursued a degree to be a science teacher with a minor in social science, because I was also interested in government and history. Years later, those classes in business, biology and social science all fit together.”

He taught science in the Charleston and Ellington schools for two years before learning that the Conservation Department was taking applications for a class of 20 new conservation agent trainees. His application was one of four from Ozarks natives that rose to the top of a huge stack.

INTO THE PRESSURE COOKER

Over the next 20 years, Hoskins moved up to positions as Protection Division regional supervisor, General Services section chief and Protection Division chief. When he succeeded Jerry Conley as director, he stepped into a pressure cooker.

“There was no honeymoon,” he recalls. “I came to work one morning soon after I became director and found a TV camera set up in the courtyard with a reporter waiting to interview me about a scathing report from the state auditor. I felt like a deer in the headlights, but we didn’t hide from the issues. I got out from behind the desk and gave live interviews around the state. That was a rather stressful introduction to the director’s job.”

Hoskins became director at a challenging moment in the Conservation Department’s history. Revenues failed to keep up with inflation for the first time since Missourians established the one-eighth of 1 percent conservation sales tax. The tax had enabled the agency to establish nongame wildlife management programs, buy land for public recreation and expand services such as education, nature centers and aid to farmers and other private landowners.

“When I came on in 2002, critics were essentially saying we had achieved what we told the people we would do, so we didn’t need the sales tax anymore,” Hoskins recalls. “There was little recognition that the challenges facing Missouri’s wild resources were as great as ever.

“I guess I was a little naïve. I felt like our mission and our values served the public in wonderful ways, and I was taken aback by the level of animosity that some people expressed toward conservation.”

Hoskins’ first big challenge was defending the sales tax and other hard-won conservation gains. Doing that meant shoring up public support for the agency’s mission.

“We decided to communicate directly and personally with the public. I did more than 50 town-hall meetings in my first three years as director. We advertised the meetings ahead of time, took senior staff members along and tried to get people to come out and talk to us. We wanted folks to know that those who ran the department were real people with genuine intentions who would listen to them.”

Most of those meetings were very friendly, but Hoskins also met people who clearly did not like some things the Conservation Department was doing.

“It was very candid and very challenging, and I had to get over my stage fright about being in front of people. I didn’t get to just read speeches. I had to respond to what people were saying.”

In 2004, the department changed public meetings to focus on specific issues, such as deer, turkey, waterfowl, trout and catfish management.

“We held something like 30 deer meetings alone, and where I might have drawn as many as 80 people to some of the director’s forums, we would have big meeting rooms jammed with hundreds of people for the deer meetings. I think we proved to a lot of people that we wanted their input.”

Hoskins says these meetings were excellent examples of an approach to conservation that is “fundamentally citizen focused and led.”

“This is not government as usual. For those who want to condemn government and say it’s too cumbersome, or it’s not responsive – none of that fits our Conservation Department. The people of Missouri set up a constitutional framework for this agency so it is managed by four citizens (Commissioners) who serve without compensation. Through the years, that has made an enormous difference in how our staff works with the public.”

DOING MORE WITH LESS

Intensive, continuing contact with citizens ensured that the Conservation Department’s mission stayed in touch with Missourians’ desires. But things were not easy, even with strong citizen support. The state’s economy was struggling to recover from a dip in 2001, and this meant diminished revenues for all state agencies, including the Conservation Department. Hoskins says he was fortunate to work for conservation commissioners whose experience and vision suited them well to address these challenges.

“When I became director, there were people on the commission who definitely were the right people for the time. I remember guidance from Howard Wood, Stephen Bradford, Anita Gorman and Cynthia Metcalfe as I began the job. They said, essentially, that we were on a precipice, and we had to improve our financial management very quickly. Together, we took a conservative approach, and it has served us well. We focused more on taking care of what we had and less on expanding infrastructure.”

Hoskins says the Conservation Commission followed through on commitments it had made to build nature centers and other facilities, but the approach to these commitments changed. Challenge grants encouraged local partners to share the cost of new facilities, strengthening community support for the projects. Innovative funding partnerships stretched scarce Conservation Department funds, allowing the agency to accomplish much more than otherwise would have been possible.

“We did participate, but we didn’t dominate, and that is likely the pattern for the future. We focused more on trying to direct our resources to better manage public land, take care of existing facilities, and offer good conservation services. The public expects us to have a high-quality program.”

Much of the work necessary to ensure quality services in an economic downturn was neither glamorous nor pleasant. Hoskins reduced the number of administrative units in the agency and changed its structure for greater economy and efficiency.

“Those changes were difficult. I was keenly aware that they affected people’s lives, and I didn’t take those things lightly. But I had to do them because I felt like they were the best thing for conservation. As I prepared to leave the job, I found myself doing it again, reducing the workforce and closing offices that didn’t provide Missourians the highest value for their conservation dollars.”

THE BEST OFFENSE

Hoskins says he and the Conservation Commissioners have always agreed their most important responsibility was defending Missouri’s unique system of conservation governance. Missouri citizens set up the system in 1936 through the initiative petition process. Their goal was removing conservation policy from the political arena.

To achieve this, they established a balanced, bipartisan commission of four citizens appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. The commission has exclusive authority to manage Missouri’s fish, forests and wildlife for the public good. Professional, science-based management over the past 73 years has prevented hunting and fishing regulations and resource management from becoming political footballs as sometimes happens elsewhere.

“Having a sales tax for conservation comes with a heavy burden of responsibility to prove ourselves worthy of dedicated funding. I believe today, even in the environment we are in, with the economy and the problems we have in our country and our state, Missourians remain very supportive of the conservation mission. That gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Hoskins says Conservation Department Director-Designate Bob Ziehmer has been a key player in maintaining support for the agency’s independence and funding. He counts Ziehmer among the many citizen and professional conservationists who have been in the right place at the right time. “I have confidence that Bob Ziehmer will meet tomorrow’s challenges and move conservation forward in the years to come.”

LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD

Hoskins says one of the greatest rewards of the past seven and a half years has been working with the Conservation Department’s professional staff.

“From the time I went to work as a conservation agent to my time in the director’s office, it has been a privilege to work with such a great group of people and be part of the culture of excellence that exists here. I was working on something that was important to me personally and to those around me, and I was proud of it. Our mission satisfies a need that is very important to Missourians. It is hard to find a job with that combination anywhere else.”

Asked what advice he has for those who will carry on the work of conservation after he retires, Hoskins cited the importance of staying connected to Missouri citizens and keeping Missourians connected to the land.

“Conservation will only succeed if Missourians understand what the department is doing and feel they have a personal stake in the outdoors. People defend the natural world when they understand it and are engaged with it. That means you have to get people outdoors, whether it’s hunting wild turkeys, catching bluegills, visiting a nature center or doing nature photography. One of the most critical jobs is making sure Missourians have opportunities to connect personally with nature and have fun outdoors.

“We each have a role in fostering a love of nature in the hearts of the next generation. We should all try to leave the earth a little better and brighter for our having been here, and sharing nature with others is a great way to do that.”

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