Nurturing nature

Friday, January 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:31 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Scott Schulte deftly weaves through the rocky terrain, sweeping past leafless branches and pausing occasionally to observe the nature that surrounds him.

He halts, listening carefully. Birds call in the cold morning air. Two deer scamper in the distance. “They must be over there,” Schulte says, pointing in the direction the deer came from.

Schulte is looking for a group of geocachers — people searching for hidden containers by using Global Positioning System devices. The containers, called “geocaches,” are usually full of trinkets: a logbook to record information, a small set of binoculars, a poncho or a toy car, for example. Players may take a trinket out if they add something of their own to the geocache.

Later in the day, Schulte will accompany the geocachers to a different location and establish the first official Rock Bridge Memorial State Park-sponsored geocache.

They dub the geocache “Scott’s Spectacular Shut-Ins.” Although the nearby rocky streambed is dry, the shut-ins will appear again in the spring when the water returns and winds through tight channels created by exposed rock.

Continuing through the park, Schulte points to a vertical line of worn tree bark.

“That’s where a buck rubbed his antlers,” he says.

Further along, he notes seemingly innocuous leaf piles, evidence that wild turkeys have recently foraged for acorns.

After 27 years as park superintendent, Schulte moves confidently, effortlessly across the land.

“Scott knows this park inside and out, past and present, above ground and even underground,” says Kathryn McCarthy, an interpretive resource technician at the park who has worked with Schulte for three years. “Every time I think I’ve discovered something new about the park, he’s usually already aware of it.”

For nearly three decades, Schulte’s career has matured along with the trees in the 2,273-acre park, which is located 7 miles south of Columbia off Highway 163. But Schulte’s oversight of the park may be coming to a close as soon as next year.

At this point, Schulte, 61, hasn’t made a definite decision to leave. But he says he has been considering retirement for years, and he may take it as soon as 2004.

“I’m still optimistic that things will come together and that I will retire (next year), but my interests or my health could change,” Schulte says.

In any case, Schulte says his decision to retire will be “personal more than professional.” Now that both of his children — Byron, 22, and Mariah, 26 — have earned their undergraduate degrees, there are fewer finances to worry about.

For now, Schulte’s focus is attending to the park with the same vigor as he always has. His three staff members describe him as adventurous, innovative and knowledgeable.

Park naturalist Roxie Campbell says Schulte custom-designed a lighting system for the wild cave tours by wiring connectors to lamps and batteries to create a waterproof, sturdy and rechargeable light source.

“Scott has high standards in terms of quality and performance,” Campbell says.

His staff also praised his ability to retain information. “It’s amazing that he can remember someplace he hiked

20 years ago and tell you where it is and how it has changed,” says Jim Gast, assistant park superintendent.

Evolution of a naturalist

Since 1995, Schulte has also managed 75 miles of the Katy Trail State Park. Before becoming superintendent in April 1978, Schulte spent two years in Cape Girardeau County as assistant superintendent at the Trail of Tears State Park.

Schulte says Columbia’s community and the topography of Rock Bridge drew him back to Boone County, where he had earlier spent five years at MU earning a bachelor of science in wildlife biology and a master’s degree in parks and recreation. 

“Columbia is more liberal and more cosmopolitan than most parts of the state,” he says. “There is more support for environmental issues in Columbia.” Working with the college community is also gratifying, he says.

Schulte grew up in Hermann and left after high school to earn an electronic technician diploma at Bailey Technical School in St. Louis.

About five years later, he joined the Peace Corps and spent 1966 and 1967 in Malaysia teaching industrial arts such as electricity, power mechanics, drafting and wood and metalworking.

Those two years of living in transition between cultures brought permanent changes as well. It was in Malaysia that he met his future wife, who is of Chinese descent and native to Malaysia. She was teaching at the same school.

When his assignment ended, Schulte returned to the United States with a new perspective on life. But soon after his return, the Selective Service drafted Schulte into the Army, and the couple ended up marrying in Malaysia.

Schulte says his time in Malaysia changed his outlook considerably. “It surprised me how interested people over there were in the rest of the world compared to people at home,” he says. “Travel makes you more understanding of other lifestyles.”

Now Schulte concentrates on making others more understanding of the environment. His philosophy stems from years of experience teaching people about the world around them. “If I can get people to enjoy the outdoors, they will become stewards to preserve the outdoors,” he says.

Outdoor recreation

Schulte ventured into outdoor education at MU, where he helped create Wilderness Adventures, a student association-sponsored group that remained at MU until 1998 when the recreation department underwent several organizational changes. Schulte organized kayaking classes and trips and developed an equipment rental program.

“A lot of our experiences reinforced the mindset that the best way to get people involved is to go out and have a good time and teach people to be responsible while recreating,” Schulte says.


Ken Mitchell drops a quarter into a geocache that was later hidden under some rocks at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. Geocaching is a relatively new form of recreation, and the park held a training session for rookie geocachers.

Schulte remained active in Wilderness Adventures even after leaving MU by teaching classes and recruiting instructors.

His role as an educator continues at Rock Bridge. In addition to teaching the community about the park’s cave system, Schulte has also increased the community’s understanding about bats over the years.

“We have done educational programs about bats and the role they play in the ecosystems — how they can be helpful,” he says. “They are not animals to be feared. They eat a lot of insects and are pretty benign.”

Schulte says the cave system is the park’s most notable feature. During the 1980s, he developed the Wild Cave Tour Program and introduced thousands of visitors to the Devil’s Icebox, an extensive cave in the park.

In addition to caving, Schulte also developed an intense interest in mountain biking after ensuring that Rock Bridge would be one of the first state parks to sanction it. His love of the sport led him to travel much further than Rock Bridge in search of good biking trails.

“Utah is the place for mountain biking,” he says. “It has awesome scenery, it’s challenging — most of it is beyond my level.”

Although he visited Utah for several years during the ’90s, a knee injury in 2000 has prevented him from returning the last couple of years.

“I hope to go back,” Schulte says.

Jan Weaver, president of the board of the Friends of Rock Bridge, has worked with Schulte for three years. She says one of Schulte’s most notable accomplishments was setting high standards for trail use by bikers.

“It has led to the park’s highly regarded reputation as a place to trail bike,” she says.

Schulte also raced sports cars in the 1970s and is an experienced sailor and kayaker.

“I started paddling when I was 17 years old, and that evolved into kayaking,” Schulte says. In 1965, Schulte began sailing and went on to win two second-place national trophies and, more recently, a fourth-place trophy at the 2003 Windrider National Regatta for his boat class.

“They are small trophies,” Schulte says with characteristic modesty. He later admits that he has won more than 30 trophies in his lifetime, many of them for kayaking.

Lasting impressions

“Scott has made a lasting impression upon Rock Bridge Memorial State Park,” says Campbell, the naturalist. She has worked with Schulte for 12 years and says he also helped get permanent orienteering courses established at the park, and he guided the formation of most trails. Orienteering is a skill that requires using a map and a compass to navigate the outdoors.

More recently, Schulte sought to support geocachers who wish to hide caches in state parks. Along with Barbara Wilson of the Department of Natural Resources, Schulte developed rules for pursuing the worldwide game at Missouri state parks.

Recreational activities aside, Schulte is interested in preservation, especially as pollution threatens mid-Missouri’s delicate watersheds.

“Watersheds are definitely in danger, but we have more to lose here because of the state resources,” he says. “Both the Three Creeks Conservation Area and Rock Bridge Memorial State Park are of significance because of the quality of the land and uniqueness of it. A lot of the water resources are underground, which makes it a little tougher to protect.”

As an organizing member of the Southern Boone County Karst Team, a group focused on preserving water quality in the Bonne Femme and Little Bonne Femme watersheds, Schulte helped hire an Urban Watershed Conservationist in October with grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency. In June the Boone County Commission was approved to receive $700,000 from the Department of Natural Resources and the EPA to help curb nonpoint source pollution — pollution from many diffuse sources — in the Bonne Femme Creek watershed.

The money is being matched by work contributions from several groups including Boone County, the city of Columbia, employees and volunteers at Rock Bridge, and the Department of Conservation, Schulte says.

“Both Rock Bridge State Park and the Three Creeks Conservation Area have impacts on the watershed. It is important to have healthy water in the parks, including the cave systems,” Schulte says.

The fate of Rock Bridge Park

As Columbia has grown over the past 30 years, the park has nearly doubled in size.

“Since I’ve been here, it went from about 1,700 acres to 2,273 and there’s another unit we’ve purchased that will become the park eventually — so you add all those together, (and) there were at least four purchases of adjoining properties,” Schulte says.

Columbia’s growth may, however, signal a threat to the parkland.

“It’s hard to predict what will happen in the future, so we’re conscious of any development that might reduce the ability for the park to sustain itself or to sustain the experience that people expect when they come to the park,” Schulte says.

Thinking long-term is critical for the park’s success, Schulte says.

“One of biggest challenges is exotic species. The park is, like most areas, threatened by plants that aren’t native to the area, and they often out compete native species, overtaking whole areas.  Unfortunately, we don’t have much of a budget to deal with that in staff time or dollars,” he says.

“We are trying to maintain it as a state park and not a municipal park. So far, park policy has been one of preservation, trying to preserve Missouri’s natural landscapes. Who knows what the mindset may be years down the road,” Schulte says. “Fifty years from now will they still do that?”

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