ST. LOUIS – There is a tax that many city dwellers — who live far from the rural lands where most of it is spent — know nothing about. The Conservation Sales Tax that voters passed in 1976 permanently earmarks one eighth of one cent of every purchase dollar to the Missouri Department of Conservation. Its permanent nature is meant to ensure that the department is able to implement long-term, effective conservation planning on public lands free from political pressure.
Cities pay the lion’s share of this tax statewide, which covers 61 percent of the agency’s $105 million annual budget. To give back to urban residents and foster goodwill, the MDC has been increasing its spending and presence in places such as O’Fallon Park. At the same time, some rural lawmakers in Jefferson City have fought to weaken the tax’s special status.
“The Back to Nature grant comes from the Missouri Department of Conservation,” said Nelson Curran of the Missouri Botanical Garden as he cut through a thick stand of poison ivy in O’Fallon Park. As Community Programs Coordinator and a leader of the Garden’s Outdoor Youth Corps, he and a paid crew of area teenagers have been blazing a nature trail through acres of thick woodland this summer. It is one of several projects he is tackling with neighborhood youth, funded by two anonymous donors and a variety of organizations, including the conservation department.
The department’s $75,000 Back to Nature StL grants are awarded every three years in the St. Louis area and cover 75 percent of the cost of approved projects.
“It helps support wildlife habitat in St. Louis city and provide opportunities for the public to connect with nature,” Curran said. “That’s a huge part of it.”
Polls show that the conservation tax remains highly popular among St. Louisans who are familiar with it. Given that, the agency has steadily increased its urban outreach with nature education programs and technical consulting covering urban forestry, wildlife and sustainability planning. For years, MDC has also stocked city fishing lakes and offered fishing programs throughout St. Louis city and county. Besides Back to Nature StL grants, MDC also offers $30,000 Community Conservation grants in the region.
“We have a wealth of wildlife here at the park,” said Josh Ward, MDC’s St. Louis-area community conservation planner, as he helped Curran’s crew at O’Fallon Park. “You hear the songbirds all around right now here in the woodland, and there’s a really unique egret rookery over in the lake with fifty or more birds nesting. We’ve also had reports of coyotes here in the woods. It’s worth conserving habitat for them.”
Even if it is a minuscule expense for individual taxpayers, the conservation tax’s unique status makes it an easy target for politicians.
Rural state representative and cattle rancher Mike Moon, a Republican, was joined this year by the Missouri Farm Bureau in proposing a constitutional amendment to require that the tax be reviewed and voted on every six years. Moon and his agricultural allies also complained that the state owned too much land and paid too little property tax.
It wasn’t the first time lawmakers in Jefferson City have groused about the tax, and it may be another reason the MDC has upped its game in urban areas, where it enjoys unflagging support.