Q&A: New President of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies Talks About an Evolving Conservation Model

“There’s a growing recognition that environmental health, fish and wildlife health, and human health are all interconnected”

Sara Parker Pauley is the current president of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, a collection of the heads of every state and provincial fish and wildlife agency in North America. She is the first woman to oversee the agency.

Pauley is in the process of completing a comprehensive reorganization of Missouri’s Department of Conservation, the envy of most peer agencies because of its receipt of sales-tax revenue for the bulk of its funding. We wanted to know more about the context for the reorganization, and about Pauley’s view of the current and future challenges facing wildlife management in North America.

Outdoor Life: We’ve seen state agency directors with backgrounds in accounting, in corporate leadership, and certainly in the biological sciences. How has your background prepared you for your role as MDC director?

Sara Parker Pauley: I have degrees in both journalism and law. I started with the Department of Conservation straight out of school. I had high hopes of working for the Missouri Conservationist magazine, but then I got one of those offers you can’t refuse to work for the DNR on natural-resources policy, and then worked in the Missouri legislature for the then-speaker of the house. I spent stints with the National Wild Turkey Federation and [Bass Pro Shops’] Wonders of Wildlife. Twenty years after leaving the department, I’m back where I started. But to answer your question, I’d say that my background has given me the ability to look at issues analytically, to help communicate them to stakeholders, and to work collaboratively with a wide variety of people and interests to accomplish goals.

OL: Missouri’s Department of Conservation has undergone a pretty significant reorganization. Can you talk about the ideas for the reorg, and also how you’ve put those ideas into action?

SPP: First, it’s important to recognize that the average tenure for a state fish-and-game director is 3.2 years. That’s not much time to get to know an agency’s culture, to understand what’s possible, and then to implement significant changes. MDC’s first director served for 15 years. Nobody will hit that [longevity] again. So, you feel this sense of urgency, plus agency directors have become more political over time. There’s a short window of time to implement real change.

Meanwhile, the world is changing faster than ever. There are new threats and challenges coming at you all the time, and you can respond with only finite resources. I looked at my tenure as one in which, if you’re not looking forward and preparing to adapt and implement change before you see declines, then decline is imminent. For an agency, decline means irrelevance.

OL: What sort of changes and threats do you see on the horizon?

SPP: They’re not on the horizon. They’re already here, and we’re playing defense. If you look at threats to the resources we manage, there are new diseases on the landscape. Take Chronic Wasting Disease. We’re spending millions of dollars a year abating and managing CWD. Look at invasive species. We’re spending $2 million on trapping and managing feral hogs alone, not to mention all the other invasive species out there. That means we have fewer dollars at our disposal to be proactive with our core mission. One of the engines for our reorganization was to find ways to be more effective and efficient with our limited resources.

Think about the trajectory of state agencies. We’ve had 80 years of success stories: restoration of wildlife species, acquisition of public land for public use, building nature centers and boat ramps. But at some point, all that growth has a cost, in maintenance, in expectations of high-quality visitor experiences. But maintaining that—not to mention increasing services and capacity—costs money and resources. I look at all these as warning signs. When I came to the agency, I asked the division and section chiefs what was working well and what needed to change. What were the barriers to us accomplishing our mission. Just by asking that, and then really listening to the answers, I started realizing that while our constituencies were changing rapidly, and had different expectations of what our agency should deliver, we weren’t changing. We were still very much traditionalists while our constituencies were increasingly mutualists, in terms of their expectation of our role in their lives.

Sara Parker Pauley outside portrait
Pauley is in the process of completing a comprehensive reorganization of Missouri’s Department of Conservation. Sara Parker Pauley

OL: We haven’t even gotten to the main part of the question: How did you reorganize the department?

SPP: Well, you can’t understand the reorg until you understand the operating environment, and Missouri has a level of both expectation and scrutiny that other agencies don’t have, because of our sales tax [in the early 1970s Missouri voters passed a sales tax that earmarked 1/8 of 1 percent of sales tax to support fish, forest, and wildlife conservation efforts through the MDC. An effort to repeal the tax was defeated in 2019’s legislative session]. In the 1970s, we made a promise to the people of Missouri that we would use their funds to build new nature centers, to buy land, to build boat ramps. Today, I have the very unsexy role of having to take care of all that stuff that we built 40 years ago and that’s in dire need of improvement.

Another part of our job was to look at processes and operational excellence. We need to look at our operations like a business. In order to maintain the public’s trust, we need to make sure we are good stewards of dollars. As a result, we are much more careful and prudent about which lands we acquire. We focused on the right things in the past—restoring game species, stocking waters, and buying public land. But now we’ve entered this new phase of taking care of what we own. We’ve added all these things to our work, but nothing is coming off our plates. As we continue to add, something has to give. That was another context for our reorganization.

In our strategic planning what emerged was clear: First, take care of nature. Second, connect people with nature. And third, retain the public trust through outreach and responsive action.

OL: Can you give me a concrete example of that outreach?

SPP: We created a relevancy branch has added recreational-use specialists in each region. Their goal is to be that liaison with the citizens we serve in that region. They are familiar with our portfolio of public lands and with private-land opportunities. Those rec-use specialists are the advocates for our users—both existing and new users—and are empowered to ensure that we’re reviewing our own MDC-owned lands and looking at regulations or rules to make them more accessible and useable. For instance, should we open gates to more camping? Should we allow bikes and e-bikes on our wildlife management areas? Their job is to connect the dots between the agency and our constituency.

We have redoubled our work with private landowners. Missouri is 93 percent private owned, and we are making sure we have the capacity to provide technical and financial help for private landowners. And we are increasing our community conservation efforts, investing in very exciting pilot programs in the Kansas City and St. Louis communities with urban conservation.

We are putting more emphasis on cooperative positions, from university extension services to partnerships with Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever, the Missouri Soybean Association, and the Missouri Farmers Association. We’re adding business capacity, investing in IT and infrastructure management. We’ve added customer engagement processes, including a call center and more outreach to our constituents. We still have Forestry, Fisheries, and Wildlife divisions, but now we are much more focused on our work as a system.

As an example, in the prior construct, the Forestry Division might have had a very different idea of how to manage a state-owned conservation area that than the Fisheries Division did. As a result, our 1,200 conservation areas were managed by how strong the division was in that particular region. There was no overall strategy for prioritizing landscapes. As part of our reorg, we are basing our work plans and priorities on our integrated Comprehensive Conservation Strategy that has identified our highest priority geographies. That’s where we work first, not based on division priorities, but on areas of greatest conservation need.

OL: As president, what are your priorities for AFWA?

SPP: We have started new-director orientation—over the last four years, a third of our agency directors are new—and I personally give a presentation that talks about the challenges we face. Every agency is different in its details and its operational model, but when I talk about the need to take care of our infrastructure, everybody nods. Every agency director is dealing with a changing citizenry, some more quickly than others. And when I talk about the need to operate more like a business, they all get that.

Agency relevancy may look a little different from state to state, but every director gets it. The speed of change and the complexity of our resource issues are accelerating to the degree that there’s not much time to learn the job of director before you are immersed in responding to change. We are losing habitats, losing species, confronting disease, and managing risk at a greater pace than ever.

OL: As a national conservation leader, what advice do you have for someone just entering the profession?

SPP: If COVID showed us anything, it’s that when one aspect of our lives is off kilter, the rest of our lives is unbalanced. Whether you’re talking about your personal health, the health of your family, or community, or whole landscapes, I think there’s a growing recognition that environmental health, fish and wildlife health, and human health are all interconnected. Agencies can be a huge part of healing and ensuring a livable world, and the skill sets we will need are not the skill sets that got us here.

The learning and adaptive mindset that’s required going forward is not the one that says I’m going to do forestry all my life, but rather I want to learn the interconnection between healthy forests and healthy watersheds and soil health and wildlife health and ultimately human health. It’s not going to just be the hard sciences that have a role to play. It’s communications. We need innovators and problem solvers.

It’s not an accident that the person we hired to run MDC’s relevancy branch comes from a not-for-profit organization, not from conservation. But she knows how to make connections between diverse audiences and knows how to develop programs to meet the needs of people where they’re at.

Those are the sorts of people who will be our future conservation leaders, because they recognize that conservation affects our quality of life, our livelihoods, and ultimately even our very lives.