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Sara Parker Pauley

Director, Missouri Department of Conservation

Job description

I have responsibility for an estimated 1,800 positions that carry out the department’s mission to protect and manage the fish, forest, and wildlife resources of the state and to facilitate and provide opportunities for all citizens to use, enjoy, and learn about these resources. 

Professional background

A native of Columbia, I received both my law degree and bachelor’s degree in journalism from MU and did post-graduate studies in Australia as a Rotary Fellow. I have served as director of the MDC since 2016. Previously, the six years before that, I served as the director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. I’ve worked as project manager for D.J. Case & Associates, a natural resources communications firm, and as a deputy director for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. I’ve served as an instructor at MU’s School of Natural Resources in natural resource policy and administration. I also served as chief of staff to the speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives. I began my professional career as a policy analyst with the Missouri Department of Conservation from 1993 to 1996. 



Years lived in Columbia

I lived in Columbia for more than 20 years. I’ve lived in Boone County for more than 50 years, and I’m currently living in rural Boone County. 

Quote you live by

I’m a Teddy Roosevelt fan, so something from “Man in the Arena” (the “citizenship in a republic” speech). “It’s not the critic who counts . . . The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”   

Favorite volunteer activity

Conservation Federation of Missouri. 

Favorite recent project

This one is easy — being a part of the Boone County Nature School project! It has been amazing to witness how this vision has grown as more partners have come alongside and joined this innovative community effort! Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Peter Stiepleman and I schemed for years on this, but now that it’s happening (in large part due to the generosity of Vicki Russell and the late Hank Waters and the support of the conservation commission), it is becoming so much more than we could have ever initially imagined. To think that every fifth grader in Boone County will have the opportunity to spend time here, to learn about and connect with nature here, just makes me happy to have been part of this effort in some small way. It will be a model for the community, state, and nation.  

Why you are passionate about your job

I’ve been passionate about nature and the outdoors for as long as I can remember. It’s where I can think, rest, and rejuvenate. To think I have had the opportunity to spend most of my professional career in this space — of protecting and conserving nature and introducing others to nature — it’s a dream come true. 

Why you are passionate about your company

For many reasons: because of its worthy mission and its passionate staff; because of the support of Missouri’s citizens, since the Missouri Department of Conservation was founded by the citizens of Missouri and is largely funded by the citizens through an eighth-cent state sales tax, and I do not take for granted this direct connection and support of Missouri’s citizens; and because nature is central and integral to our very quality of life, and the MDC plays a big role in working to conserve nature and connect people to nature. 

Accomplishment you are most proud of

Being the first female director in the 80-year history of the MDC and first female president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which has been around for 117 years. I’m opening doors for other women leaders. 

If you weren’t doing this for a living, you would

Hard to imagine doing something different. But it would be in the outdoor, conservation, or nature space.  

What people should know about your profession

It’s largely filled with passionate people who are in it not for the money, but for the high level of personal and professional satisfaction it brings them.  

The next challenge facing your industry

There are plenty of challenges, from loss of habitat to impacts from climate change to new wildlife diseases emerging to the changing societal demographics that indicate our public is more disconnected from nature than ever. So yes, there is plenty to worry about and work on. But I’m an optimist, and just as we saw this great return to nature during the COVID-19 pandemic — record numbers of people escaping to nature for recreation, solace, and healing — I believe there will be a great return to nature more permanently as people recognize their individual, family, and community quality of life depends, in part, on a healthy natural environment. 

Your next professional goal

Finish this post strong — giving as much effort on my last day as my first. Then, we will see what the next chapter might hold. I want to keep using my experiences to make a difference for people, nature, and our shared quality of life.

Biggest lesson learned in business

Customer service is everything. 

How you want to impact the Columbia community

Get the Boone County Nature School up and running so our county’s young people can begin to connect to nature, learn, and make memories there!

Greatest strength

Optimism. Passion for continuous learning. Connector. 

Greatest weakness

Impatience — often too many irons in the fire.

What you do for fun

Anything outdoors: hunt, fish, kayak, and hike the Katy Trail. 


There’s my husband, a retired Missouri State Trooper; my dad, retired from MU Extension; my mom, a retired Columbia Public School Teacher; my brother, a surgeon at Columbia Orthopedic Group; and another brother, who works at Schneider Electric. We all have Columbia roots. It’s a family thread of public service.

Favorite place in Columbia

I love the trails! Thank you to Darwin Hindman and other key city leaders! 

Most people don’t know that you

I took a semester out of law school to live on a trapline with Cree trappers in northern Canada. 

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