Volunteers team with Adopt-a-Forest program to clean up Grand Traverse County

Volunteers cleaning up illegal dump site

Oct. 10, 2014

Pete Laplaca has broken a sweat. He's been stacking sheets of plywood and particle board onto a trailer and, with the assistance of a couple others, heaving large, water-soaked mattresses on top of them.

"Well, I wanted to get a workout today," said Laplaca, an engineering consultant from Traverse City. "I thought it would be on a bicycle, but this will suffice."

Laplaca is one of 17 volunteers who gave up their ordinary Saturday morning routines in order to help clean up illegal dump sites in Grand Traverse County.

Craig Leppien (left) and Pete Laplaca load rubbish into a trailer at an Adopt-a-Forest cleanup eventAn avid trail user who skis, hikes and mountain bikes, Laplaca has been volunteering on local trail improvement projects for more than a decade. He's worked on widening trails, controlling erosion, and removing deadfalls. But this Saturday morning marked the first time he enlisted in an Adopt-a -Forest project to clean up the woods.

Although illegal dumping is a problem occurring on public land in many parts of Michigan, Grand Traverse County, until recently, was home to more illegal dump sites than any other county in the state, with 45 known sites on public land in the county.

Now, thanks to the combined efforts of volunteers and the Adopt-a-Forest program - a joint effort involving several agencies and administered by the Department of Natural Resources - 25 of these sites were cleaned up over the past six months and additional work is planned to address the remaining 20 before the snow flies, squarely knocking the county from the top of that illustrious list within a matter of months.

"These trash dumps have been an eyesore for years," Laplaca said. "Nobody can figure out what to do with them," other than cleaning them up after the fact.

And cleaning up three of the dump sites is exactly what Laplaca and his fellow volunteers set out to do on a beautiful Saturday in early October.

To accomplish their task, the volunteers initially split into separate crews to tackle two smaller sites - consisting of mostly scrap construction materials, along with some old furniture, bedding, appliances and household refuse - found near popular trails.

Following those efforts, they regrouped at a county-owned parcel that has seen illegal dumping for many years.

Volunteers at a trash cleanup event in Grand Traverse County address a long-time illegal dump site.On an old well pad, illegal dumpers would back up to the adjacent ravine and throw the trash over the side, leaving the trash out of sight - until you walked up to the edge of the river and looked down.

Getting the stuff out of there would prove to be a Herculean task. But with a DNR fire truck, complete with a winch, the volunteers and DNR staff were able to lower a trailer down the slope, fill it with refuse, and have it winched back up.

When the cleanup was completed, DNR forest fire officer Dwayne Morse took the fire truck back to its base in Kalkaska and returned with a bulldozer to cut furrows in the pad site, making it impossible for anyone to drive up the edge of the ravine to dump trash ever again.

Volunteers remove illegally dumped trash from the bottom of a ravine in Grand Traverse County.By the time the mission was accomplished in early afternoon, the crew had filled a 20-yard dumpster with trash (well-compacted by a front-end loader provided by the county road commission).

The event was an unqualified success, said Jim Heffner, a retired engineer/real estate appraiser who brought the day's event to fruition.

"It's hard to get volunteers on a beautiful fall day, but we were able to come up with 17 people who were willing to come out and pick up rubbish," he said.

The volunteers ranged from young professionals to retirees, including a financial planner and a former community college teacher.

Volunteers pick up trash littering the slope of a ravine in Grand Traverse County."I enjoy being outdoors, but when I was working full-time, I didn't have time to dedicate for volunteering," said Paul Bolhuis, a former freight dispatcher who moved to Williamsburg from Holland after retiring. "So now it's my chance to pay back and make it enjoyable for others."

Craig Leppien, who brought his flat-bed trailer to the cleanup event, said he didn't think any of the volunteers knew how big of a job they would be undertaking.

"I heard about it and I knew they were cleaning up basically my backyard so I wanted to help," he said.

The Adopt-a-Forest program was launched in Roscommon County in 1989 by a pair of DNR employees from the former Waste Management Division (now part of the Department of Environmental Quality); the program then expanded statewide in 1991, immediately attracting partners from local, state and federal agencies, and continues today with a focus on cleaning up illegal dump sites on public land across Michigan.

Volunteers Craig Leppien (left) and Paul Bolhuis (right) work to clean up an illegal dump site."We estimate at least 200 sites are cleaned up annually, but that's a low-ball estimate," explained Ada Takacs, who manages the program for the DNR's Forest Resources Division. "Sometimes the local community groups - such as Scout troops and hunting, ORV and ski clubs - just take it upon themselves to join in the effort and take care of organizing and funding an event without getting the DNR involved, which is great."

But, Takacs said, for those groups that want to help but are in need of some assistance - technical or financial - the DNR and the other agencies involved in Adopt-a-Forest are available to help.

"Annually we spend about $15,000 statewide on disposal costs related to these clean-up events. It can cost up to $1,400 to rent a dumpster," she said. "But it's worth every penny, since the in-kind services - equipment donations, free landfill space and volunteer labor - are worth much more than what we spend."

Takacs said illegal dumping became a problem when state landfill requirements changed in the mid-to-late 1980s and townships had to close local dumps and begin routing trash to lined landfills. Citizens who were accustomed to the previous way of doing things and didn't want to pay for the use of improved landfills began dumping illegally at a noticeably higher rate.

"Years ago when we started this program, you couldn't drive through the woods without finding miles and miles of trash. Major, major trash piles," Takacs said. "Now, dumping does still occur, but the piles are smaller and less frequent."

In addition to the creation of the Adopt-a-Forest program, other changes have been made to curb the illegal dumping problem. Legislation raising the penalties for illegal dumping - up to $10,000 in fines and/or five years of incarceration - provided an incentive for paying for trash service or driving to a designated landfill. And most young adults today grew up with recycling as a societal norm.

"Disposal laws have also changed, which has addressed some of the items commonly dumped in the past," Takacs said. "We used to see a lot of car batteries; now you turn in your battery when you get a new one, so there are fewer of those being dumped. Scrap metals have become worth more, so we very rarely find scrap metal or metal appliances anymore."

Through the combined effect of changes in regulations and the marketplace, along with the increased efforts of volunteers like the citizens who helped with the recent Grand Traverse County clean-up, the outlook for illegal dumping in Michigan is certainly improving, but Takacs said there is still much work to be done in many counties across the state.

Anyone interested in supporting Adopt-a-Forest and being part of the solution can find more information, including a calendar of scheduled cleanup events, online at www.cleanforests.org.