On a windy December afternoon, Jim Gast walks through Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, the place where he has worked in one capacity or another for nearly 13 years. Now, the park will officially become his.
After former superintendent Scott Schulte’s retirement in March, Gast, 45, became the acting superintendent of the park. He will be officially named superintendent today.
The new job has reduced how much time Gast is able to spend in the park, which is near the southeast border of Columbia.
“I spend more time in the office now,” he said. “I’d rather be out here every day.”
Although spring is his favorite season, he enjoys the look and feel of the park in winter.
“I don’t know every inch of this park, but the places I don’t know are getting fewer every day,” Gast said.
It wasn’t easy for Gast to determine his career track. After earning a master’s degree in American diplomatic history from MU in the early 1980s, he worked as an intern for a state senator in Jefferson City. He did carpentry and yard work between jobs until taking a position at Rock Bridge State Park as a part-time clerk-typist.
After a promotion to interpretive resources technician, a position he held for six years, Gast became assistant superintendent. Today is the first time he will officially occupy the top spot in the 2,273-acre park.
Walking near the Sinkhole Trail, Gast points out remnants of the town of Rock Bridge Mills, which once occupied the land where the park is today.
Among the artifacts are the foundation of a 19th-century spring house that drew air from the cold-water spring and circulated it around the building, allowing the building to be used for storage in the summer. The area also features the remnants of a whiskey still.
In addition to its historical significance, the park is unique because of its diversity of attractions, including varied topography and the sixth-longest cave in Missouri.
Among the park’s most popular attractions are the Devil’s Icebox Trail and the Gans Creek Wild Area, although Gast said he enjoys some of the less well-known spots.
“Everyone always takes the boardwalk on Devil’s Icebox,” said Gast, making his way down a hill across from the boardwalk. “I like the view from across the stream.”
Gast said that unlike many other parks in Missouri, Rock Bridge State Park is close to a growing urban community. Because the park is at the edge of Columbia’s expanding southern tip, some in the community worry whether the beauty of the park, along with its water quality and wildlife, will be preserved as the city grows.
“When I was in school here, there were 60,000 people in town. It took maybe 10 minutes to get downtown from here,” Gast said. “Now, we have to worry about the increasing amount of people in our watershed.”
Gast said urbanization has put pressure on park resources, especially over the past seven years.
As part of the city’s effort to combat the effects of urbanization, Gast points to the Gans Creek Wild Area, which has been set aside as an area off-limits to any modern technology that could disturb its natural state. Visitors can hike or ride on horseback, but bicycles are not allowed.
As superintendent of the park, Gast will also be responsible for the ecological preservation and operation of 75 miles of the Katy Trail, the Jewell Cemetery and Sugar Loaf Rock, a site made famous by Lewis and Clark.
Gast said he’s happy about his promotion but said he anticipates some early difficulties.
“There’s always something new happening at the park, it keeps you on your toes,” he said, “but I really like problem solving, so I think we’ll be all right.”