In an instant, the motive of the passenger in the truck in front of me was clear. With his arm out the window, a beer can in his hand, he made several practice tosses before hurling the can onto the shoulder of the road. As a certified state peace officer at the time, I slapped the bluelight dome on top of my truck and pulled the vehicle to the side of the road. After issuing the passenger a citation for littering, I went back and carefully collected the can for evidence, elated that I had finally caught a litterer.
That was long ago, and I wish I could say that such enforcement actions have made a difference, but I doubt I can. Just this last weekend, I visited two popular and beautiful places—Market Lake Wildlife Management Area and the South Fork of the Snake River—locations that should inspire awe and respect, and found that littering is alive and well.
With little effort at all, I collected dozens of shotgun shells, aluminum cans, boxes and plastic bottles. Some of this trash was very old, indicating that people had been walking by it for a long time. It is almost as if we have come to accept litter as part of the landscape.
Partiers and target shooters seem to be the most common offenders, but trash ranged from everything from baby diapers to baling twine. Drink containers were the most common item, with beer cans leading by a large margin, then energy drinks, pop cans and bottled water. Of course there were the ubiquitous grocery bags, candy wrappers and other sundry items carried easily by the wind.
The worst offenders are the cheapskates who don’t want to pay a fee to dump their trash at the landfill and throw it on public land instead. Taxpayers are then stuck with cleaning up an ugly, expensive and dangerous mess.
Trash dumping ultimately results in more restrictions on public land. The area west of Menan Butte is a good example. This area is no longer open to target practice largely because landfill cheapskates were dumping trash and shooters were using the trash for target practice creating a huge mess. Targets included appliances, sofas, glass doors, televisions, hazardous waste and household trash scattered over hundreds of acres.
Litter is more than unsightly. Trash, even small pieces of plastic or cigarette butts, can plug up wildlife and fish digestive systems when they mistake indigestible trash for food. Other animals can become entangled and face an agonizing death. I’ll never forget the merganser duck I saw dangling from a fence, strangled by baling twine twisted tightly around its neck or the great blue heron floating lifelessly down the river, ensnared in fishing line. Even humans aren’t immune: over 800 deaths each year are attributed to roadside trash hazards.
Treating our public lands like the treasures they are is everyone’s business. Not only should we, “pack out what you pack in,” but pack out more as well.