Before Steve Schnarr dedicated his time to preserving the Missouri River, he worked what he calls a “stream of odd jobs” in construction, at Olympic National Park, at vegetable and flower farms, at Ashland’s weekly newspaper and more. When he was working in southern Boone County, he lived close to the Missouri River and started recognizing its significance. He started volunteering with Missouri River Relief, a nonprofit that connects people to the river through cleanup events, hands-on education and recreation opportunities. He has been on staff for the past 14 years and in 2018 became the nonprofit’s executive director. He says his nonprofit’s mission is more than just cleaning up trash. The real core of the mission is to allow people to experience and connect with the river.
You’re in charge of education opportunities and introducing people to the river for the first time, applying for federal loans and organizing the Big Muddy Speaker Series. What part of your job gives you the most fulfillment?
The part of my job that is the most fulfilling is introducing people to the Missouri River who really don’t know much about it or have never had an opportunity to be on the river. (I like) to share some of the history and the ecology of the river with people. The Missouri River is one of the most important natural resources we have here in Missouri, but most people are pretty disconnected to it. I love being able to go out on the river with these folks, answering their questions and showing them cool stuff. I go home from a day like that feeling really good.
What is something about the river that people don’t know about?
The story of how we, as a nation and as a culture, have radically changed the nature of the river in the past hundred years, I think is a really important story for people to understand. If we’re aware of those changes that we’ve done, and the decisions that we’ve made, and the benefits and maybe negative impacts that that’s caused, then we can do a better job of managing the river in the future. About 43% of Missourians get their drinking water directly from the Missouri River. Most of those folks aren’t really aware that that’s where the water comes from.
In the Past 14 years that you’ve been with Missouri River Relief, have you noticed a change in the way people approach sustainability?
When people first do a Missouri River cleanup, they get out on the river. Maybe they don’t see a lot of trash at first, but then we take them to a place (on the river) where trash collects. A lot of people haven’t thought about where the trash is coming from, and they’re starting to connect those dots that this plastic bottle was probably tossed out of a car, and it got lost into the river. Also, the permanence of plastic, especially plastic that’s designed to be used once, used to be abstract to people. There’s just been a general growth of awareness of ways that we can reduce that now.
Is there anything that you found on the river that you want to know the story behind?
Not all the litter that we pick up is intentionally littered. A lot has to do with flooding. But, probably every cleanup, somebody finds a message in a bottle. One time, we found a bottle that had six letters to different people who impacted this person’s life, just talking directly to these people. It was very powerful to read these and wonder what that person was going through. The fact that somebody went to a river to process those thoughts speaks to the power that rivers have in opening up our mind to something bigger than ourselves. I mean, people were crying. It was intense.