Group pitches in to clean up Manistee National Forest

By Howard Meyerson, Press Outdoors Editor

They found 356 tires, 23 gallon jugs of used motor oil and a couch. They picked up piles of discarded shingles and the makings of a meth lab. In fact, they collected 18 tons of trash last Saturday, but Jeff Traynor remembers the little things. “The smallest, nastiest thing was a trash bag that stunk all day,” said Traynor, the external director for the Two Trackers Four Wheel Drive Club.

Last weekend the 75-member club, working with help from other off-road clubs from as far away as Ohio and Detroit, completed its eighth annual trash pickup in the southern tip of the Manistee National Forest. That’s where the group has adopted 10,350 acres of forest. “For a long time, I thought this event was an excuse for these guys to go four-wheeling, but they have hauled huge amounts of garbage out of the forest,” said Les Russell, the district ranger in Baldwin.

“What they do really helps. There’s no way that our agency would have the money or manpower to clean up the trash. It’s a really massive job.” Traynor, his girlfriend and the others spent the day driving down dusty, two-track roads. Where they saw trash, they stopped to pick it up. They moved it to one of three strategically placed dumpsters put out by Forest Service staff. From there, staffers had the dumpsters taken to a landfill.

It was a nasty job, but one that can get people laughing, Traynor said, when they meet in the woods to compare notes about what they have found. “We only found one washing machine this year,” said Pat Brower, of Fruitport, the vice president for the organization. “Normally we come out with 10 washing machines.”

The group has picked up more than 46,000 shingles over the years along with three junk vehicles, 1,500 tires and an estimated 92 tons of trash. But that is just a pittance of what lies out in the woods, according to Ada Takacs, the volunteer program coordinator for the Department of Natural Resource’s Adopt-A-Forest program. New mobile GPS technology being employed by state conservation officers is helping to create maps that pinpoint trash piles in the woods. Conservation officers on patrol push a button in their vehicles to mark a spot. “Last year was the first year and conservation officers identified 700 sites. At last count there were 1,293 sites with at least a truckload of trash,” Takacs said.

Surveys conducted by other states show that most forest dumping occurs within 10 miles of where the dumped material is used, according to Takacs. Most is local, both commercial and residential. “We are not seeing people drive up from Detroit to dump in the northern forests,” said Takacs. “A lot of home projects get dumped in the woods.” The Two-Trackers club is one of 1,200 volunteer groups which pitch in each year and participate in the statewide volunteer program that began in 1989 to address a growing problem.

Despite the efforts of the off-roaders, Boy Scouts, horseback groups and many others, Takacs believes only 70 percent of the sites have been identified. Traynor said trash pickup is a way for his group to give something back. Club members regularly use public land for recreation, whether that is traveling to designated scramble areas such as Silver Lake State Park, or touring the two-tracks of the national forests.

Almost all are aware of the image problem the sport has developed because of the errant behavior of the rogues in the off-road community. There are those who ride where they are not supposed to and create serious environmental damage around the state. “A lot of our members are sick of the yahoos on the trail,” said Traynor, 43, the owner of Traynor Construction. “Our group isn’t a bunch of rednecks and we don’t drink. “We’d like to keep the sport (of off-roading) healthy. We aren’t in to knocking down trees to have a little fun.”

Russell said the northern Muskegon County area where the Two Trackers worked is one that gets hit pretty hard. There are several communities in close proximity and the forest has become a convenient dumping ground. “It’s pretty amazing and disgusting,” said Brower. “If someone redoes a room we end up with their drywall. If they redo their living room, we end up with their couch. This was the first year that the ravines were clean. We used to find tires in them every year.”

Russell said the tires the two-track group collected are suspected to be part of several thousand tires that have gone AWOL from firms which were paid to legally dispose of the tires but cut corners by dumping them in the forest. “The tires we found were singles and doubles. They were spaced out along the lengths of the trails as though someone had them on the back of a truck and pitched them out as they drove,” said Brower.