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Director of DNR's Southeast region to retire
POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- An engineer by trade, Gary Gaines wanted to broaden his perspective when he joined the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, an agency where he has spent more than two decades overseeing the state's environmental resources.
Having owned and operated a consulting engineering firm in Dexter, Mo., for more than a decade, "I wanted something else; I wanted some new challenges and some variety," Gaines said. " … My partners felt the same way, so we decided to go our own way and close the company."
Gaines said he applied with DNR and was "lucky enough to get a job" as the supervisor for the water pollution unit at the department's Southeast Regional Office in Poplar Bluff in February 1987.
About five years later, Gaines was promoted to the regional director for the local office, a position he held for nearly 20 years and one he is retiring from on Thursday.
"I had mixed feelings because I still really like the job and still feel fully able to do it," said Gaines, who recently turned 66. "My health is good, but I think it's time for me to move on and try something else."
Gaines said he found the director's job to be "challenging at times (and) stressful at times, but I feel most fortunate to have had the job and to have had the position this long.
"There is a lot of satisfaction in it. It allowed me to get involved in a lot of environmental issues and work with a lot of good people."
Making his director job easier, Gaines said, has been the "great staff," which he described as hard working and dedicated.
"When you have a group that works hard to do their job, it just makes the director's job a lot easier, too," he said.
Protecting the environment, according to Gaines, is both satisfying and important work.
"I know we get criticized … but protecting the environment, seeing that the environmental laws and regulations are followed, is pretty important work," Gaines said. "Most people agree with that; even the ones where we find violations, once they find out what the laws and regulations are, they want to comply.
"Everyone knows we've got to protect the environment and do certain, basic things to keep the environment safe and healthy."
Occasionally, Gaines said, they will deal with a few "knuckleheads," who resist, but "for the most part people are good, and they want to comply."
Over the years, Gaines said, "the environmental controls have gotten gradually more stringent. … Anytime the regulations change, become a little more restrictive, there's some resistance to it.
"It causes people expense and causes them to pay more to comply, but, in general, the public sees the need for it."
Gaines said the changes are not DNR "saying lets do this; it's the legislative process. It's the reflection of the people's desires.
"The Clean Water Law, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, all of those are the reflection of what the people wanted."
Gaines described the state's natural resources as "our heritage. A lot of people live where they live because the air is clean, the water is fresh and the land is free of pollution.
"If you take that away, they're not going to want to live there. They're not going to like it."
The Current, Jacks Fork and Eleven Point rivers, Gaines said, are some of the most pristine in the world, and "we have an obligation to future generations to protect them … It would be an absolute travesty if we let those streams get contaminated and polluted the way some streams are."
Gaines said he finds the 28-county coverage region has a "lot of different environmental issues, from air, to water, to solid waste to hazardous waste."
That variety offered in Southeast Missouri is one of the aspects Gaines has liked most about his job.
Located in the region is the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a very "protected and pristine area," as well as the Bootheel region, a former wetland, now full of drainage ditches, which is "very agriculture intensive," Gaines said.
"You have two very distinct types of environments, where agriculture is king in the Bootheel, and maybe tourism is king in the Scenic Riverways," Gaines said. " … I like dealing with the different issues" associated with both.
The biggest challenge of the region, Gaines said, is the fact all the active lead mines in the United States are found in Southeast Missouri in Bunker, Ellington and Viburnum.
"The lead companies, for the most part, do a good job, but there are a lot of environmental challenges associated with the lead mines that people in this immediate area don't see or realize," said Gaines. "Up in the old lead belt in the Farmington/Flat River area, you can see a lot of results of historic lead mines."
One of Gaines' concerns has been and continues to be agricultural burning.
"Agriculture burning is exempt from the air regulations, so there is nothing we can do about it, yet it causes people a lot of problems," said Gaines, who has talked with people with asthma, emphysema and allergies that really suffer during the burning period.
The burning, Gaines said, also is a traffic hazard and can result in accidents, such as one involving nearly 20 vehicles in which one person was killed and several others were injured.
"Ag burning has concerned me for a long time, and I think we're going to have to find a better way to deal with it," said Gaines, who emphasized the department's priority should be working with people to solve problems, not taking enforcement action.
"It's sometimes too tempting, and maybe too easy, to just sit back and issue the notice of violation and refer people to the Attorney General's Office and let the lawyers hash it out," Gaines said. "There's better ways to solve problems in most cases by working with people and giving them some time to recognize the problem and solve it on their own without getting enforcement people involved."
Many see DNR as "beating up on people, (but) truly we're not like that," Gaines said. "We've tried hard to work with people and revolve problems without taking enforcement action.
"I think I would point to that as the thing I'm the most proud of."
Gaines said he also is proud of the relationships "we've been able to develop with people while still improving the environment."
Poplar Bluff, MO