Dozens of local residents spent their Saturday morning cleaning up trash on Polecat Bench north of Powell. As perhaps a testament to both their hard work and the scope of the illegal dumping in the area, the volunteers filled an industrial-sized roll-off container and a trailer within a couple of hours. Everyone seemed a little bit shocked at how much trash they’d picked up.
“Obviously the community came out [and] they’re super interested in cleaning up this area,” said Rebekah Burns, executive director of the Powell Economic Partnership (PEP)/Powell Chamber, which organized the cleanup.
Burns added that event “is really PEP’s kickoff to developing some more outdoor opportunities on the bench.”
A total of 44 adults, plus some young helpers, split into a half-dozen teams and participated in a friendly competition to see who could collect the most trash in two hours. Teams included representatives from Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Rotary Club, the Northwest College volleyball team, AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), PEP staffers and board members and Burns’ own family.
A group of local mountain bikers, going by the team name CFH, wound up crushing the field by returning to the collection site with two trucks crammed full of rubbish — including a futon and multiple mattresses.
The bikers have been unimpressed with the amount of people using the Polecat Bench’s patchwork of public and private lands as a personal dumping ground; CFH team member Ben Borcher wrote in a Facebook post ahead of the event that, “dumping a mattress or appliance off out there for dead is just one step above punching puppies on the lowlife scale.”
Compared to a trip to the Powell landfill, “it takes more of an effort to come out here, find a ridge, to drive out in the mud and kick it off the [vehicle],” Borcher said Saturday — shortly after helping heave a bullet-riddled water heater into the bin.
“Everyone likes to shoot a washing machine, but just pick it up,” he said.
For its part, the Bureau of Land Management would prefer that folks use a gun range or, alternatively, bring a target system they can take with them when they leave.
“I have a, ‘You catch it, you clean it’ model,” said local BLM Ranger Robert Lind. “And that is, if you shoot someone else’s mattress and I drive up and you’re shooting that mattress, it’s your responsibility to take it home with you.”
Fines for illegal dumping can vary based on the weight or the material being abandoned. The citations and fines that a person risks far outweigh the cost of a trip to the landfill, “so it’s definitely not worth it by any means,” said Lind, who assisted with Saturday’s cleanup as part of “Team Awesome.”
Lind praised the Park County Sheriff’s Office for the regular presence it provides on the bench, but it still remains difficult to catch people in the act of dumping trash across the area’s vast amount of public lands — which is one reason why he said education is key.
“Our community does a good job of keeping the area clean as much as they can,” he added, commending recreationists for their efforts in “maintaining order out here” and helping to clean up messes left by other users.
The BLM ranger also said that dumping on public land tends to beget more dumping.
“When they see trash, then that brings more trash,” Lind said, adding, “Ideally, if we can keep it cleaned up and do more events like this, it helps out.”
PEP hopes to make the clean-up an annual event, Burns said, “but potentially not pick up as much trash” in subsequent years.
Beyond cleaning up the area, PEP hopes to work with the BLM and the Bureau of Reclamation — which owns much of the land on Polecat Bench — to develop some official, maintained trails.
As PEP seeks to boost outdoor recreation in the Powell area, “one of the biggest hurdles for tourists and for residents is knowing where to go,” Burns said, “where’s safe, what lands they’re on and what trails they should ride.”
The ultimate aim for the economic development group, she added, is “you build trails, you build an attraction, then comes the rentals, the retail [business] and at the very end of the game is an outdoor rec manufacturer” coming to the area.
“That’s the long game, for sure,” Burns said.
Keele Sanitation donated the 30-cubic yard roll-off bin for Saturday’s cleanup, while Park County waived the tipping fees for the load of trash.