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What Can We Do About Trash In the North Fork of the Shenandoah River?

By adopting an attitude of stewardship–a caretaker’s approach–toward nature and the outdoors, we begin to see the world with new eyes, eyes that allow us to make thoughtful decisions about how we treat our immediate surroundings and the earth as a whole.  One of the most visual signs of a lack of care, but one of the easiest problems to correct (compared to global warming), is the presence of trash in our waterways.

Tires, oil cans, grocery carts, ovens, washers and dryers, refrigerators, bottles, plastic, and mattresses  – what do these things have in common?  They are all found in and along the banks of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River – on a regular basis.  This debris does not end up in our river and streams by chance; they are purposely dumped or carelessly left by people who, hopefully, don’t understand the consequences of their actions.   A local riverside resident tells of his regular clean-ups along the river, describing the six shopping carts he pulled out of the river in less than three weeks and of the oil containers that are left on the riverbank nearly every weekend.  The oil jugs likely mean that someone has changed his or her motor oil on the rocks that drain right into the river, into the water that Woodstock, Strasburg and Winchester residents depend upon as their drinking water source.

Based on the world’s, and our nation’s, history of disposing of waste, it’s hardly surprising that trash continues to turn up in our rivers and streams. For centuries, waterways and oceans were favorite and legal dumping grounds.  Well into the 1800s, citizens of Washington, D.C., dumped trash and slop directly into the street, feeding grateful pigs, rats, and cockroaches.  It wasn’t until 1934 that our Supreme Court banned the dumping of municipal waste into the ocean, which had been a common practice, particularly for large cities.

Fortunately, however, we steadily became aware of the problems associated with open dumps and uncontrolled dumping of waste.  Not only is improperly disposed of trash a health hazard, it causes problems for wildlife and aquatic life and it’s just plain horrible to see.  As we entered the 1970s, a campaign to beautify America began, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established, and the federal government began to support recycling and resource conservation and to mandate proper waste management.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard and traces of our historic dumping practices linger.  Our national forests suffer from dumping as well.  More than 145 dumping incidents were recorded on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in 2007.  The Daily News Record reported that 4 tons of trash and debris were hauled out of a site near Harrisonburg during a cleanup with volunteers from the Northern Virginia Jeepers Association and assistance from an organization known as 1-800-Got-Junk.  Dumping is a water health problem at one of the city’s water reservoirs as well.  Friends of the North Fork members and volunteers from Spotswood High School had a comparable haul in 2007 with almost 2 tons of trash from areas along the North Fork near New Market, Mt. Jackson, Woodstock, and Strasburg.  Obviously, this dumping is a water health concern for all of us – we all live downstream.  Moreover, even with mandates against dumping, the oceans are now under serious environmental threat. reports that “Right now, a mass of trash twice the size of Texas is floating in the Pacific Ocean.  It has accumulated in an area known as the ‘North Pacific gyre’ and it includes everything from tires to fishing nets, but the most common ingredient, by far, is plastic.”

What must we do to convince the last hangers-on that there is a better alternative to dumping trash in and along the banks of our river?

In addition to citing laws and local codes prohibiting dumping near waterways, we can lead by example and use every opportunity we have to share the benefits of good outdoor stewardship and water and land protection.  Recycling household waste, including use of county landfills for disposing of hazardous materials, construction waste, appliances, and tires is a good beginning.  Remember, there is NO FEE for taking household trash to the landfill and only a minimal cost for disposal of construction related refuse.

Friends of The North Fork has a long history of working to protect the North Fork, including offering many opportunities to volunteer on river clean-ups.  Join us!