Sara Parker Pauley started her career at the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) right out of college and 20 years later she returns as the first woman to serve as director in the agency’s 80-year history. In a way, this landmark appointment seems predestined – everything she’s done has led to this milestone moment.
An outdoor enthusiast and lifelong conservationist, Pauley, 51, is comfortable behind a desk or in the field hunting wild turkey. She has been described as a natural leader dedicated to preserving and protecting the state’s natural treasures throughout her entire career.
Most recently she spent six years as the director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, (DNR) where she oversaw four divisions responsible for protecting our air, land and water, preserving historic places and providing recreational and learning opportunities. So, she’s been in the top spot before and is comfortable managing a large staff. MDC employs 1,450 people throughout the state, and the organization is a progressive one with a national reputation.
“We are a leader in the national conservation story and known for our top research in the field. I see my job as making sure this amazing team has the resources it needs to continue in those efforts,” Pauley said.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m the first female director at the agency and that our staff reflects diversity even at the top,” she said. “I’m also a Missourian who has been raised in the Missouri outdoors,” she said. “I started my career here and it’s very meaningful that the commission has their confidence in me.”
Dave Murphy, chairman of the commission appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon to oversee the agency, and the other three commissioners took her hiring very seriously.
“Sara is only the ninth director to serve in the organization’s history,” Murphy said. “We had applicants from all over the world but after the interview process we were unanimous that Sara was the most qualified for the position.”
“I’ve known Sara for some time so I was probably harder on her than other candidates and I tried to ask tough questions to bring out the excellence I know is in her,” he said. “She’s compassionate, engaging and her instincts are incredible and she has an infectious enthusiasm for life. When most people are taking a nap, she’s out climbing a tree, hiking or biking on the Katy Trail.”
Being outdoors is second nature, part of Pauley’s DNA passed down through the generations of her family. She grew up in Columbia and went to Hickman High School, where her mother, Marilyn, was a home economics teacher and her father, John, was a Fulbright Fellow and founder of the lifelong learning program at the University of Missouri Extension. He was instrumental in developng an ongoing publication for retirees entitled, Life After Extension.
“My father was a quail hunter and avid fisherman,” she said. “When other kids would go to Disney World, I spent summers camping and floating on the Ozark streams in south-central and southwest Missouri, such as the Gasconade and Big Piney.”
“I saw the outdoors as a grand adventure, every day was something new and exciting,” Pauley said. “I also had the quintessential Ozarkian granny who was a master gardener, a hunter and even trapped some. I adored her and we used to hunt squirrel and deer together. I still have her old 30-30 (Winchester rifle).”
While at the University of Missouri, where she graduated with degrees in journalism and law, her interest in the landscape became more focused and she enrolled in every class that dealt with natural resources and the environment.
“I considered going to work for an outdoor magazine or to handling environmental law and felt blessed that I could see myself in a career out of doors,” she said.
Pauley clerked for Ruth Musgrave, a lawyer who founded the Center for Wildlife Law at the University of New Mexico. She then took a semester off during law school to live in Manitoba in northern Canada with the aboriginal people who made their living trapping. Pauley also served as editor of the Missouri Environmental Law Journal and was also a rotary fellow with post-graduate studies in Australia.
“Sara is fearless,” said Beth Pike, who graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in journalism and today serves as a television news producer and co-owner of Orr Street Production in Columbia, who since the early ‘90s has served as a consultant and video producer for the MDC.
The two didn’t meet in journalism school but became friends later when they were both in their early 20s.
“We were trying to figure out our path and we were both interested in environmental issues,” Pike said.
They teamed up to make videos of fur trappers in the Ozarks for several wildlife conservation agencies. They also spent time hiking in upstate New York and attended a rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming where Pauley met her idol country music singer George Strait.
“That’s one of the only times I had ever seen Sara shy or quiet,” said Pike, who also got to know Pauley’s family.
“I love her parents, I would describe her dad as an adventurer like Huckleberry Finn and her mom as one of the most hospitable people I know. Those traits rubbed off on Sara,” Pike said. “Sara and I just clicked, we were kindred spirits and we had a good working relationship, too.” “Sara also had a lot of drive and was passionate about what she was doing and you knew she was going places.”
Ken Babcock, who joined MDC in 1970 and went on to serve as the assistant wildlife division chief, saw great things in Pauley, too.
“The first time I saw Sara she was giving a presentation at a Fish and Wildlife Conference about her time in Canada and her report and presentation were excellent,” he said.
“I sought her out and introduced myself. I found out she was finishing law school and asked her if she would be interested in a career as a conservationist? I gave her my card and we met and eventually she took the job in the planning and policy section of the agency,” he said.
Remembering the days when conservation was a profession made of almost entirely white males, Babcock is excited that she is the person to set the first mark.
“Sara is steady, willing to listen to people and respects their input,” he said.
“She also has great decision making skills and the ability to make decisions that aren’t always popular, and that’s sorely needed in any agency.”
“She’s the right person for the job at this time, and I have been delighted to watch her advance throughout her career,” he said.
After three years at MDC, Pauley moved on to become chief of staff and general counsel for the Missouri House of Representatives speaker’s office.
“That was a great experience to learn how laws are made and how the Legislature works,” she said.
Later, Pauley served as the deputy director for the DNR for four years. That’s when Leanne Tippett Mosby met Pauley, who was first her boss but became a friend.
“One of my colleagues knew Sara from law school and she told me, ‘if you didn’t love her so much you would hate her,’ and that’s true. People instantly take to her, like a moth to a flame. She’s a warm and caring person and everyone in the department grew to love her,” said Mosby, currently DNR’s division director of environmental quality.
“Sara’s a woman of many talents, she’s a great listener and picks up on things very quickly. She’s also fun to work with and a great cook,” she said.
Mosby remembers a party after the legislative session had closed one year and Sara decided to hold a cartwheel contest in her front yard.
“Sara and I had trouble walking the next six months but we had so much fun,” she said. “The other night I was at her house and she was showing me how to use her turkey call.”
“You can see that she gets her graciousness and all that southern charm from her mother. Sara’s like magic pixie dust, being around her she exudes this warmth and just makes people feel immediately comfortable.”
Both Pike and Mosby have been recipients of Pauley’s inviting hospitality. She’s thrown wedding and baby showers, and rehearsal dinners for them and is known as quite the hostess. Now they host their parties in Scott’s man cave, a large building beside their home in Claysville, near Hartsburg, where he houses his boats and toys but also makes a perfect party space. On one wall is a photo of her grandmother and another one when she shot her first wild turkey at Murphy’s farm in Northeast Missouri.
“We do love to entertain and I like to cook,” Pauley said. “We often serve venison, wild turkey and other game.”
She met Scott 10 years ago. A Boone County native, he spent 33 years at the Missouri Highway Patrol and is now a professional bass fisherman. Both had been married before but their relationship turned serious quickly.
“A friend of mine tried to set us up at one point, but neither of us were interested, but a year later we did meet and within six months we were married. We share a passion for the out of doors. I taught him how to hunt and he taught me how to do a better job of bass fishing,” Pauley said.
When fishing tournament season begins and he’s on the road, Pauley said she becomes a fishing widow. But the couple clearly have great affection and support each other in their individual pursuits.
“Sara is an amazing human being, always in a good mood and we have a marriage made in heaven. She’s an independent person and I’m her caretaker, the strong man behind the strong leader and I’m very comfortable with that,” Scott said.
Scott also serves as a marketing representative for the Missouri Division of Tourism, so both of them are proud to promote the state’s bounty and support tourism and agriculture.
Scott likens his wife’s pace to a boat motor running at full throttle, which can be challenging at times.
“He says ‘I tend to run wide open,’ and I do sometimes but I have a lot that I want to accomplish,” Pauley said.
Since starting the job as director in early November, Pauley has kept an exhaustive schedule. An early riser, she’s up by 4 a.m. or so and uses that quiet time at her home to read, organize and reply to emails before she’s busy meeting with the 10 division leaders, external partners and the four commissioners.
“I use a collaborative leadership style,” Pauley said. “My job is to provide vision, motivation, inspiration and the resources
for our team and I try to create an atmosphere and culture where we can be innovative and prepared for the future.”
One of her goals as director is to educate and spread awareness of what the MDC does and why that’s important to everyone in the state.
“I have a grand opportunity to connect and reconnect with a large portion of the population that may not understand the importance of why what we do matters, why healthy fisheries and forests matter to a suburban mom in St. Louis and to every Missourian,” she said.
Earlier in her career, Pauley spent several years as the regional field supervisor for the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Women in the Outdoors (WITO) Program, where she was responsible for creating outdoor educational opportunities for women. Pauley enjoyed that role and she’s arguably the perfect choice for role model and poster “girl” to promote hunting and conversation to the next generation of women, who comprise one of the fastest growing segments in shooting sports.
When Pike’s daughter, Grace, wanted to hunt, Pauley was happy to be the first to accommodate and lent the 11-year-old a shotgun and took her to a good spot, increasing her chances of taking a turkey in the wild.
“Many of the boys at school didn’t believe Grace could get a turkey, but she did and that gave her a lot of confidence,” Pike said. “That evening Pauley brought the turkey ready to cook and that was very special to Grace. She thinks Sara is fantastic and she is, she’s a force of nature, with a dear heart.”
Whether bagging a 12-point buck, or spending time at a testing station for chronic wasting disease that’s threatening the state’s white tail deer population, Pauley is grateful to have spent a majority of her career in the field. She embraces being a public servant and going above and beyond the demands of the position.
A licensed attorney and member of the Missouri Bar, Pauley is a past board member of the Conservation Federation of Missouri where she received its President’s Award. She’s also a member of other professional boards that deal with the environment and conservation.
That laser-beam focus and inner drive to excel can be exhausting, but Pauley recharges by spending time with friends and in nature, walking her two dogs Scout and Zoey and reveling in the beauty of the rural landscape where she lives.
“Sara renews herself in spirit by being outdoors and she’s a cause of celebration for all of us, for all generations,” said Murphy, who has three young grandchildren. “I see enormous possibilities going forward. Her leadership makes me optimistic for the future.”
While the agency is dealing with a variety of new issues that weren’t as prevalent years ago, Pauley’s ready to take anything on and make sure the MDC is part of the discussion and solution.
“We’re dealing with the impacts of global warming, loss of habitat, invasive species and disease and air pollution. Those are real areas of concern right now, and we have to be on top of our game in how we respond to these challenges,” she said.
“I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had in the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, and both are going to serve me well in this job,” she said.
“You can never totally plan everything but it’s fun to think that all these years later that I’ve come full circle and am back at the agency that I love. It’s a dream come true to have been able to make a career out of my love for the outdoors. I pinch myself often.”