Public-lands littering widespread

They had two choices: Clean it up, or just rename it Trash Canyon and let it go.

Bureau of Land Management officials opted for the former. On Saturday, April 10, they’ll be hosting a community clean-up effort in the Cash Canyon area near roads M and 31 in Montezuma County.

If the announcement has a déjà vu feel to it, that’s because there have been several clean-ups at Cash Canyon before – including one in 1995 and another about a decade before that. In each case, however, new detritus promptly began to accumulate.

This time, officials are hoping things will be different. They’re planning to put up approximately one-half mile of fence along Road 31, with a gate, to limit motorized access into the area.

The right way to dispose of trash

By Gail Binkly

In our throwaway society, tossing litter out of car windows and dumping garbage on public lands may seem like a minor problem. But refuse is more than an eyesore; it can be harmful to people, wildlife and the environment.

Cigarette filters, for instance, are made with acetate, a form of plastic, which takes years to degrade. Eating just three cigarette butts can prove toxic to small children, according to anti-littering websites.

Battery acid, paint, automobile oil, pesticides and other chemicals can leach into the groundwater and damage surface soil. Discarded computers and monitors contain a number of hazardous metals. Old tires trap moisture that can become a mosquito-breeding ground.

And animal carcasses, household garbage, dirty diapers and RV wastes spread germs and mar the beauty of open spaces.

Litter is being taken seriously in many places nationwide. Seven states reportedly have some sort of tax on litter-generating products such as beverage containers, cigarettes and paper products, and some states, including Arizona, have litter hotlines for reporting offenders.

There are proper ways to dispose of anything, though disposal may cost money, noted Deb Barton, manager of the Montezuma County Landfill.

“Some people don’t think they can afford it, but I feel if you have bought something, you’re responsible for its proper disposal,” she said.

Some of the biggest items commonly dumped in remote areas are appliances. It costs $11.75 to take a non-freon or non-ammonia appliance to the landfill, but owners have a better option, Barton said. “What’s sad is the owners could take them to Belt’s Salvage (in Cortez) and get a few cents for them.” Belt’s will take metal appliances that do not contain freon or ammonia, she said.

“The more metal we can reclaim and recycle, the more we don’t have to disturb our natural resources,” she said.

For appliances containing freon or ammonia, such as refrigerators or RV units, the cost to bring them to the landfill is $28.50. If the chemical is removed by a certified technician they can then be taken to Belt’s, but the salvage company should be consulted first, she said.

Tires cost $5.75 to $28 apiece, depending on size, if they are brought to the landfill intact, but if they are split they can be disposed of as regular trash, she said. Most local car dealers will take old tires or split them for a small fee.

The landfill offers burial for dead animals for a fee that ranges from $3.25 for small pets up to $14.50 for livestock. Several private companies locally also offer pet burials and cremations. Animals can be buried on private property that is not within city or town limits.

Anyone with hazardous chemicals to dispose of should call Barton at 565-9858.

“We’re hoping by cleaning it up, along with the fence and a gate, that it will stay cleaned up,” said Penny Wu, outdoor-recreation planner for the San Juan Resource Area and the Mancos-Dolores District of the San Juan National Forest.

In addition to the trash problem, vehicles have been driven all over the site, destroying vegetation and creating new roads that enable illegal dumpers to reach more spots.

“Two-tracks have sprung up everywhere, and it’s getting worse,” Wu said. “There are health and safety issues out there.”

She added that the project “will in no way preclude any future resource-related decisions.” At least one recreational group has applied to use the area.

The Cash Canyon/Stinking Springs area lies east of Cortez, a jigsaw-puzzle piece of BLM land mostly surrounded by private. It has long been a popular site for unfettered, unregulated trash disposal.

Roughly bounded by county roads L, M, 31 and 32, it offers visitors the opportunity to wander in solitude amid sagebrush, piñons, juniper – and a stomach-turning accumulation of trash. The refuse includes dirty diapers, rotting animal carcasses, non-functional appliances, living-room furniture and tires.

“There are lots of washers and dryers, couches, miscellaneous household trash, automobile oil, oil filters, five-gallon buckets of concrete, dead dogs and a horse, a half-dozen coyotes and a dead sheep,” Wu said. Bones from deer and elk also litter the area.

The locale is rumored to have been a county dump site in the distant past, but County Administrator Tom Weaver said that isn’t the case. “It was never official, but from the amount of trash out there, it’s obviously someone’s personal dump site,” he said.

Helen McClellan, a former county commissioner and a lifelong resident of the county, agreed. “It don’t think it was ever official, but it’s been an ongoing dump forever,” she said. “I think one person just did it and another one saw it and thought that was a pretty good idea, and it spread that way.”

The San Juan Mountains Association is helping to organize the clean-up, and a Boy Scout troop from Durango is offering assistance. Montezuma County will allow the collected refuse to be brought to the landfill free of charge.

The area to be cleaned, near roads M and 31, involves about 40 acres, Wu said, but that won’t be the end of the problem. “There are some other areas south of Cash Canyon off County Road L that are receiving the same kind of dumping,” she said. “So this will probably be a phased-in project over the next couple of years.”

Cash Canyon has seen the most illegal dumping in the local area, but the problem of trash on public lands is widespread.

Keith McGrath, area BLM law-enforcement officer, said debris is scattered across the 800,000 acres he patrols in Southwest Colorado, although some sites are more popular than others, with Cash Canyon topping the list. “Cash Canyon’s a dump,” he said. “It’s a disaster. It’s as bad as it gets.”

Nearly every type of garbage imaginable can be found on public lands.

“Household trash, beer bottles, alcohol containers, washing machines, refrigerators, couches, carcasses, yard waste – you name it, it’s out there,” McGrath said. “And, of course, most of the washing machines and hot-water heaters are full of bullet holes, along with a lot of our signs.”

It’s rare that anyone is caught littering, he said. “Sometimes landowners adjacent to some of the more popular places will call us, but it’s just luck whether they spot somebody out there,” McGrath said.

Aleta Walker, law-enforcement officer for the forest’s Mancos-Dolores District, echoed McGrath’s sentiments.

“These cases are very difficult to solve,” she said.

However, perpetrators are nabbed on occasion. On March 24, a large pile of trash appeared on the Dolores-Norwood Road just inside the forest boundary. Through a little investigation, the Forest Service was able to figure out who had done the dumping.

“Dolores is a small community and we recognized some of the debris from a residence in town,” Walker said. The offenders received three citations for a total of $175 and also had to clean up the site.

Lloyd McNeil, trails coordinator for the Mancos-Dolores District and a part-time law-enforcement officer, said the trash was mainly “stuff out of their backyard.”

“Their landlord told them to get it cleaned up but instead of taking it to the landfill, they hauled it up here,” he said. The debris included an old rocking horse, swamp-cooler pads, yard debris, magazines and household garbage. “It was a mess,” McNeil said.

Walker said the incident was an example of the most common motive for trash-dumping – avoiding fees at the landfill.

“People don’t want to pay the cost of getting rid of their trash properly,” she said. “They load it up in their trucks and bring it here instead. This isn’t very many people, but it affects all the forest users and it impacts the environment, and it’s something I’m real serious about as a law-enforcement officer.”

It costs $8 to bring a truckload of household-type trash of up to 600 pounds to the Montezuma County Landfill, according to Landfill Manager Deb Barton.

“I know people think it should be free, but we’re an enterprise fund,” Barton said. “We’re self-supporting, not funded by the taxpayers.”

Weaver agreed. “I know there’s some connection (between landfill fees and illegal dumping),” he said, “but that’s just the way it is. You have to have money to run a landfill.”

Not all the dumping on public lands involves whole truckloads of trash, Walker said, but even small amounts can cause health and environmental problems.

“Often it’s batteries, tires, and oil,” she said. “People change their oil on the forest a lot. And they dump old washers and dryers and refrigerators – basically, things they don’t want to pay to dispose of.” Drivers also frequently empty the sewage from their RVs, she said.

McNeil said spring brings a new type of debris to public lands – the remnants of revels involving area youths.

“From the time the snow melts till it flies again, it’s an ongoing thing with kids and parties,” he said. “We call them pallet parties because the kids like to use those wooden pallets for fires. They burn really well – they let a lot of air in. The kids throw trash, beer bottles, and cans in the fire. And if they do it in a parking area, all the nails from the pallets are left behind.”

He said public lands are used for these “woodsies” because “no private landowner wants the parties on his land.” The Sagehen area is a popular site, but any place without snow will do, he said.

Hunters can also be a problem, often leaving considerable trash after they’re through with their camps, McNeil said. “In this day and age, some people are in such a hurry, they just don’t want to deal with their stuff. They put it behind the bushes and figure, out of sight, out of mind.”

Some cases of littering are particularly difficult to understand. One of McNeil’s favorite tales is the time he was at the stunningly beautiful West Mancos overlook near Transfer Campground and spied some discarded paper.

“I saw some litter in the brush,” he recalled. “It looked like wadded-up pieces of paper. I picked it up and starting looking through it, and it was some story about how beautiful the place was, from somebody’s notebook. Talk about irony.”

Most offenders can be cited under one or more of three regulations, according to Walker. The first forbids hauling refuse or debris from private property onto public lands, and carries a $75 fine.

Another usually involves people who are already on public lands camping or recreating. It forbids leaving trash in an exposed place or under unsanitary conditions, and carries a $50 fine.

The third regulation involves failing to properly dispose of garbage including paper, cans, bottles and sewage such as from RVs. It also has a $50 fine.

Perpetrators can be cited for any combination of the three offenses, something that was done in the recent incident on the Dolores-Norwood Road. In extreme cases, the officer can issue an order for a mandatory appearance before the federal magistrate, who can sentence a person to six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine, Walker said.

Law-enforcement officers and local leaders said it’s difficult to tell whether littering and dumping are on the increase. “I don’t know that it’s any worse, but it doesn’t seem to be any better,” McNeil said. “You’d think people would be more environmentally conscientious now, but I guess not.”

Weaver, however, believes littering is on the decline, at least in rural parts of the county. “There are too many people living out in the county any more,” he said. “The old days of just being able to dump things anywhere and not be seen are over.”

McClellan said the overall quantity of material thrown away has increased dramatically over the decades, though not all of that is illegally dumped. “As a kid, I don’t remember us having as much trash,” she said. “You know the old adage about use it up, wear it out, make it do. And we didn’t have all the plastic and paper and the blue bags from Wal-Mart.”

Cleaning up Cash Canyon won’t solve the problem of garbage on public lands, but it’s a start, officials say.

“This project is primarily being implemented to stop the dumping and all the miscellaneous two-tracks that have appeared out there,” Wu said. “It’s to provide the public a safe environment where they can access public lands.”

McNeil said it’s unfortunate that such efforts are even necessary.

“There is no excuse in this world why people do that sort of thing (littering),” he said. “It’s neat to see people cleaning up along the side of a road or somewhere, but they shouldn’t have to be doing that. They should be able to spend their time doing something else.”

From April 2004.