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Missouri's new conservation head confronts an evolving challenge of nature preservation

Jason Sumners will serve as the 10th director of the Missouri Department of Conservation. Sumners began his career in the department in 2008 as a private lands deer biologist.
Sarah Kellogg
Jason Sumners will serve as the 10th director of the Missouri Department of Conservation. Sumners began his career in the department in 2008 as a private lands deer biologist.

Missouri Department of Conservation Director Jason Sumners says he's focused on better engaging with a community that is technologically more disconnected with nature.

Missouri’s Department of Conservation has a new director.

Jason Sumners, a former deputy director with the department, was appointed to take over after the director of 30 years, Sara Parker Pauley, stepped down.

Sumners, who will serve as the 10th director, began his career in the Department of Conservation in 2008 as a private lands deer biologist.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Sarah Kellogg spoke with Sumners, who started his new job June 1, about how conservation work has changed over the years and his goals for the department.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Sarah Kellogg: I think probably the most common association with the Department [of Conservation] is with maybe hunting and fishing permits. Tell me why that might be a really narrow assessment of what the department does.

Jason Sumners: The department has a broad mission in terms of being responsible for protecting and conserving the fish, forest and wildlife resources of the state. And the second part of that mission is in a way that citizens can learn about and use and appreciate those resources.

So, it's anything from birds to bats to fish, right? We have a very broad mission, and it includes the forest in which those critters inhabit. So, from education programs to protecting and conserving the resources, it takes our more than 1,800 employees to accomplish the mission.

Kellogg: I think a common misconception is that you are in charge of the [state] parks.

Sumners: There certainly is confusion between the difference between the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Department of Natural Resources, and specifically state parks in that we, MDC [Missouri Department of Conservation], are responsible for more than 1,000 conservation areas.

But we don’t do the typical show up to a camping spot kinds of experiences that state parks have.

We have lots of public land in which we're trying to conserve and protect fish, forests and wildlife resources that as a result, citizens can utilize those, it's just a very different experience.

Kellogg: What's the difference between a conservation area and a state park?

Sumners: A conservation area, you're going to show up and have a much more natural experience. You're not going to have in many situations, the intensity of interpretation, the more personal touch that you might get when you show up to a state park. You're going to see more wild places, pretty unique habitats, a much more simplistic kind of experience.

Kellogg: How has conservation, the idea, the methods, the work, changed over the years?

Sumners: The work of conservation has changed a ton. When we think about when the department started, many of our forests had been cut over, many of our habitats had been significantly impacted. Our streams were full of gravel. And so, we went through this era of restoring species and restoring habitats.

Today, we find ourselves in a place where the challenges are more gnarly, to be quite honest. From just the social pressures, the continued development, the challenges that we face there, and we really find ourselves today not in an era of restoration but really an era of integration and trying to integrate the work of conservation into so many other aspects of people's lives as we recognize that nature is so important to our quality of life as citizens.

How do we start to think about nature in a slightly different way? And thinking about those day-to-day decisions that we make that can benefit nature.

Kellogg: How do you feel climate change has affected the work of conservation?

Sumners: So certainly, climatic patterns are changing, and the environments that we live in are much more extreme.

We were talking about some of the differences between conservation and state parks. Many of our conservation areas are in environmentally dynamic places, along rivers, along lakes, and so we have lots and lots of infrastructure that are in those places.

And so when we talk about these changing climatic patterns of, it seems to never be an average year, right? We're coming out of two extremely dry years to a wet year, right? When we think about infrastructure, that's boat ramps and accesses and wetlands, we're trying to think about those, and the future design of those in a system that is much more dynamic and much more volatile.

And so how do we create landscapes and infrastructure that is more resilient to changing conditions?

Kellogg: What are you wanting to achieve in your tenure as the head of the Department of Conservation?

Sumners: We are a citizen-created agency, and I think we all take that public trust very seriously. And so continued work with the many, many conservation partners that we have across the state to continue this mission. And the real vision of a future where healthy fish, forests and wildlife are appreciated by all and that nature becomes an integral part of everyone's lives.

I think, from COVID, we recognize that nature is so important to our mental and emotional health. It's not just about the opportunity to go hunting and fishing, but it really does provide us a tremendous amount of benefit.

Kellogg: Do you have any specifics that you're wanting to do?

Sumners: We've been moving forward with really strategic prioritized landscape conservation. So working with partners to identify some of our most critical landscapes, and at the forefront of that discussion is grasslands. Grassland conservation is one that we have leaned into pretty aggressively in the last several years with our partners at the NRCS [National Resources Conservation Service] and many conservation-related partners that are interested in grassland systems. They’re the most imperiled habitat we have. And so when we talk about some of that strategic work, grasslands are certainly at the forefront of it.

But we also face a changing public. And so we are really thinking about how do we engage with a more diverse citizenry. We engage with a citizenry that's increasingly disconnected from nature, but we know has a great interest in it, but may want to connect in ways that we haven't always in the past.

Kellogg: You talked about how people found out how important nature was post-COVID and then also a disconnect of people who are maybe more online, aren't outside as much. Have you seen a greater appreciation post-COVID of citizens wanting to go out? Or are you kind of seeing more of that disconnect?

Sumners: So shortly after COVID, we certainly saw people going out seeking out nature, and they seem to have retreated back a little bit.

But we know the interest is there. When we do surveys, we do focus groups, folks inherently know that nature is important. That they feel better. They're clearer of thought. They're happier. They get a ton of physical activity in the outdoors, they know it. How do we make them make that connection that it becomes something that they don't just know about, but they actively engage in?

And so those are the kinds of conversations we're having, and we recognize that the 18-to-34-year-old demographic when we look at how they view conservation, how they view us and their engagement with nature is a little different than previous generations. And so how do we connect to them?

Kellogg: What are some solutions that you think you've found so far on that?

Sumners: We're in the early stages of experimenting. And so we have a brand-new relevancy branch that we created just a few years ago that really is trying to dig into what does it mean to develop meaningful relationships, not only with communities, but with different constituent groups that we may be missing.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio

Sarah Kellogg is St. Louis Public Radio’s Statehouse and Politics Reporter, taking on the position in August 2021. Sarah is from the St. Louis area and even served as a newsroom intern for St. Louis Public Radio back in 2015.
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