Trash piling up in Arizona's forests
Workers can't keep up with visitors' 'pigsties'
by Glen Creno - Aug. 23, 2009
The Arizona Republic
Trash is piling up in Arizona's forests, left behind by sloppy hikers, campers and people who just use the land as a dumping ground.
Forest workers find cans, bottles, paper plates, diapers - anything that would go into a trash can or a recycling bin back home. Some people pick up their refuse and leave it behind in bags to be picked up. Workers don't have the time or the staff to keep up with it.
"Frankly, there are areas out there that are pigsties," said Paige Rockett, spokeswoman for the Tonto National Forest, nearly 3 million acres of desert, mountains, lakes and other terrain northeast of Phoenix.
In July, the Coconino National Forest posted a plea on Twitter for people to pick up after themselves. "Trash problem. Campers are leaving bags of trash and human waste for someone else to remove! Bury human waste and take trash to Dumpsters," the note said.
Brienne Magee, a spokeswoman for the northern Arizona forest, said some people deliberately don't pick up their garbage. Then there are those that put it in big garbage bags and leave them next to forest roads as though there's a scheduled service to pick them up.
And when people leave human waste in their bags, forest employees with hazardous-materials training have to be called to handle it. Magee said that takes workers away from their main duties, such things as responding to fires and building and maintaining trails.
"There isn't a trash crew on the forest," she said. "Any trash you create has to go out with you."
Officials say there are more people using the forests, so there's more trash. The Tonto also contends with graffiti and vandalism.
Rockett called the Tonto an "urban forest" since it's so close to metro Phoenix. It gets an estimated 5 million to 6 million visitors a year, she said.
Rockett said people also appear to be getting sloppier, more careless, in throwing around garbage. She said that since people pay a fee for certain access, they might see the forest like a sports stadium or a movie theater, where some people think that since they paid to get in, someone will come in and clean up after them, Rockett said.
She also said the "broken window" theory of littering and vandalism might apply. That's the idea that there is a pattern of decay in neighborhoods that can start with a single broken window or uncollected trash and that the people there get detached and don't want to take on the problem.
"People bring their urban ethics to the forest and just toss things," she said.
Then there are the dumpers, people who leave old appliances, batteries, junked cars, dead computers. Magee said she once saw a trashed-out campsite that had had pieces of an old vacuum cleaner.
"We will continue to move as fast as we can to pick these things up, but it shouldn't be there in the first place," she said.
Rob Mannhard of Goodyear says he camps, hunts and fishes in the state's forests and other public lands. Mannhard, owner of Trailhead Outdoors in Phoenix, said there's too much trash out there.
"It's really sad," he said. "Every time I stop to go through a gate, I stop to pick some up. . . . There's a lot out there, and the stuff I'm picking up is old."
Mannhard thinks that the people who camp and hunt and fish often aren't the problem. Instead, he said it's the weekend party crowd that is throwing around the most stuff.
The trash isn't just bad to look at. It can hurt wildlife. Some of it takes years to decompose if it does at all. Aluminum cans don't break down and some plastics take decades to do so, according to Web site Environmental Chemistry.com.
The Tonto has a hired company that picks up garbage in developed areas such as picnic and camping spots. One of the employees, Gabriel Guerrero of Glendale, said the garbage bins are overflowing even though the crews pick up five days a week.
He said he thinks the lakes are looking better these days with constant attention. But he said people still leave things such as beer and soda boxes, meat packages, diapers, underwear and sandals.
"Once they are done partying, they leave everything there," he said. "It's lucky they don't forget their kids there."
Tonto holds its 30th annual volunteer trash pickup on the Salt River in September. Lynda Breault, spokeswoman for Salt River Tubing & Recreation, said her company hands out garbage bags to people heading out on river tubing trips.
"We tell the public this is your public land and you need to take responsibility for yourself," she said.
Sheryl Yerkovich, recreation field supervisor at Tonto's Mesa Ranger District, said she was shocked by the piles of trash thrown in ditches, stuck under trees and pushed into crevasses in rocks when she started working in the district four years ago and still is.
"We just didn't and still don't understand why people would treat their environment in this way."