The Missouri Department of Conservation does more than maintain the state’s natural resources; it fuels the local economy.
In the backseat of Steve Brune’s truck lies an atlas-like book with hundreds of pages and plastic binding. The book documents every last mile of public land in Missouri. Brune references its’ pages often, searching for land by county where he could hunt white-tailed deer or maybe a wild turkey. He’d then trace his finger along the coordinates of a paper road map and then go off to scout out this piece of hunting ground to find his next game.
Brune has been hunting for as long as he remembers, which is around 50 years, and hardly a day passes that he’s not planning a hunting trip or sharing advice, he says. At 4 or 5 years old, he wasn’t even old enough to hold a gun when he’d go squirrel hunting with his dad and bring his game home for dinner. But now, he no longer has to use this book tucked underneath the seat of his truck, as the Missouri Department of Conservation has consolidated all this information and more into a series of apps.
The apps make finding public land and managing permits easier, but Brune says hunting is not a lazy man’s sport — or a cheap one, for that matter. Brune says you can stay on the less expensive “bare bones” side for sure, but it’s also not hard to spend a couple thousand dollars on the hobby. Brune has spent at least $4,000 to $5,000 on hunting-related expenses this year. He spent $1,200 solely on bows, which weren’t even top of the line. He owns 180 acres of land where he hunts, and simply manicuring it with herbicides, food plots to attract game, and maintenance equipment adds up to $1,000 in a month’s time.
Brune is a senior vice president at Mid America Bank in Linn, and beyond his personal expenses, he sees how hunting flows into the local economy. At the bank, he meets people in their mid to late 20s who want to own a farm, and he says some save up their entire lives to own a piece of land. Hunters, anglers, and wildlife viewers in Missouri spend $2.6 billion per year, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. Fish, wildlife recreation, and the forest products industry bring in $12 billion in total economic impact and support 99,000 jobs.
Real Estate on the Range
Buying the permit is just the first step, Brune says. Then comes expenses on hotels, gas, and meals. But beyond these expenses for a single hunting trip, the streams of cash flow trickle into the real estate industry. Brune says land can gain a 20 to 30 percent value increase depending on the hunting potential. While pasture land without a single tree might go for $2,000 per acre, that same land with a hunting lodge, manicured trees, and paths throughout jumps to $2,500 per acre and maybe more. That’s big money, and Brune says that people don’t often realize the recreation aspect to land value.
It’s how Dale Struemph makes his living as a broker-associate for the Central Missouri Living the Dream Outdoor Properties office. “Although hunting is one of the top selling aspects of many properties, we typically combine it in a broader category of recreation land,” he says, “which is going to include everything from hunting and fishing to bird watching, picking mushrooms, trail riding, and anything that can be enjoyed while in the outdoors.”
As someone working in real estate with a focus on recreation, Struemph spends his days meeting with people, being out on the land, and, of course, doing paperwork. When it comes to manicuring land for hunting purposes, Struemph says it all revolves around the function of cover, food, and water, which will draw animals in. “If you’re a hunter, your dream is to always have your own land to hunt on,” he says. “There’s no better connection with nature than owning and taking care of that property yourself.”
For Kevin Lohraff, manager of Runge Nature Center, the connection between nature and economy is nothing new. He says some of our oldest towns are on rivers because of the trading hub activity and available resources. Missouri also is blessed with access to the two longest rivers on the North American continent: the Mississippi and the Missouri.
And on the most basic level, nature is just pretty, and that translates to home prices. “A vista is the highest-dollar value real estate because people want a view and are willing to pay for it,” Lohraff says.
Streams of Revenue
Missourians might assume that other states have similar departments of conservation, but that’s not the case, especially when it comes to budgeting and funding. “On a budgetary standpoint, a lot of people think Missouri’s department of conservation is the richest, but that’s not true,” Aaron Jeffries, deputy director of outreach and policy for the department, says. “We’re probably middle of the pack compared to other states.”
Missouri is one of three states with a dedicated sales tax benefitting its conservation department and is the only state with a commission of constitutional responsibility to manage fish force and wildlife, Jeffries says.
With a mere 50.8 percent voting yes, this sales tax of one eighth of a cent was added to the Missouri Constitution through a 1976 amendment. This sales tax applies to all taxable items, including food, and has generated more than $100 million each year since 2012, according to the department. In the 2015 fiscal year, the sales tax totaled $110.5 million, about 60 percent of the department’s total revenue.
Lohraff says hardly any other state conservation department has resources like Missouri’s: “Most states don’t have these kinds of opportunities and resources for the public,” he says. “But it’s the public’s money; we’re just stewards of it.”
Lohraff has been to all 50 states and says many state parks require an entrance fee — but not in Missouri, thanks to multiple sales taxes benefiting the outdoors. “We don’t have to have people shove out more money,” Lohraff says. “The people have already paid.”
Judith Lambayan has been volunteering for the department for almost a quarter of a century and says people from all over the state and even around the globe come to Runge Nature Center. “People have heard of us from all over the country because our department is so well-run,” she says. “When the people in Missouri decided to help finance the department with the sales tax, that really was an accomplishment for the people of Missouri.”
Beyond the budget and structure, the Missouri Department of Conservation has been dealt a good hand when it comes to public lands — Missouri claims 70 shooting ranges and 15 nature centers. “I’ve been to states that were excited to open one or two shooting ranges or their first nature center,” Jeffries says.
Connection through Conservation
The department also offers grants to promote their Missouri National Archery in the Schools Program, which introduces students to the practice of archery in around 700 schools across the state. Jeffries says the grants to schools provide the equipment, but most kids like to buy their own bows and arrows. “My two boys wanted to go out and buy their own bows with their own money,” he says. “You go to these tournaments and most kids have their very own bows.”
The state tournament, held in Branson, brought in more than 3,000 kids in March, and Jeffries says local hunting stores are also reaping the benefits of the program. One of these stores is Missouri Valley Archery and Outdoor. Owner Shannan Garrett-Cooper says kids come into the shop to buy their own bows so they can practice for competitions at home; parents come in, too, so they can shoot with their kids. Her store brings in these kids along with hunters, target shooters, and Renaissance festival aficionados.
Garrett-Cooper’s business is a family affair: Her grandfather made her first bow, her daughter is a business partner, most everyone in her family shoots something, whether it’s a firearm or a bow.
She’s not the only conservation-minded individual looking to pass down her passion to the next generation. Brune says he recently spent a weekend with his sons shed hunting the fallen deer antlers, and their interest keeps fueling the fire for him. “You have a big meal and talk about what you saw,” he says. “To me, there’s no better way to spend the day than outside with your kids.”
Lohraff also introduced his son to conservation and the Runge Nature Center before he could even walk, and that’s where he first witnessed “that immediate spark to nature and animals.” Some of Lohraff’s guns were passed down from his dad and grandpa, and he plans to pass them down to his son. Even at a young age, he felt the connection between generations. “There’s really a legacy to conservation,” he says. “There’s an awesome continuum of connection that we hope to foster.”