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March 27, 2009

Poop Bags, Pot Farms, and Sacred Sites

Cleanupamerica
Last year, 800 volunteers helped remove 526 tons of trash from a section of the Colorado River in southern Arizona, including 2,253 tires, 46 abandoned cars, and 6 tons of scrap metal.
Photo: Take Pride in America

by Sara Tucker

There are those who trash the planet, and those who pick up after them. The litterbugs have left so much waste on Mount Everest that the Nepalese government has begun sticking climbers with a $4,000 penalty if they can't prove they're exiting the mountain with the same amount of metal and plastic they had on their ascents.

We're willing to bet there are people who would rather pay the fee than pick up after themselves.

The Everest trash heap was brought to our attention by World Hum, which cited Outside and Rock and Ice in its report. Clicking over to Rock and Ice tells us that "Everest is notoriously cluttered from climbers jettisoning oxygen canisters and gear they didn't feel like schlepping down, abandoning tents, ropes and food packaging, and leaving human waste. . . . According to some studies, more than 50 tons of non-biodegradable garbage was left on the mountain from the 1950s to the 1990s."

The sacred-site-as-human-toilet phenomenon made us wonder how much crap is cluttering up our own "pristine" wilderness areas. Curious, we started looking around our national parks and discovered an astonishing amount of junk--much of it dumped by Mexican drug cartels.

"America's most precious resources . . . are being devastated by an unprecedented commercial enterprise conducted by armed foreign nationals," a Forest Service agent told Associated Press reporter Tracie Cone last October. "It is a huge mess." Pollutants include weed killer, rat poison, and plant growth hormones dumped into streams. The Bakersfield Californian has called the crisis "an ecological disaster."

And who's cleaning up the mess? Volunteers, of course! The webzine National Parks Traveler reported last year that almost three tons of garbage were removed from remote areas of Sequoia National Park in one cleanup effort. The marijuana lobby has seized on the issue, claiming we could save ourselves a lot of bother by legalizing pot. "These rogue farms not only pose a threat to hikers and the environment, they cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars each year in eradication and clean-up efforts," pointed out Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project in an article published by AlterNet.org on Monday, as Mexico's drug-related violence made U.S. headlines. "It's time to put an end to U.S. policies that subsidize these murderous drug gangs."

Obviously, this is a bigger problem than can be solved by an army of trash collectors. On the other hand, you've gotta start somewhere. 

To help tidy up Everest, the mountaineering team Asian Trekking is offering a juicy carrot to go along with the Nepalese government's stick. The enticement is a dollar per pound of waste removed. Last year, the picker-uppers collected some 2,100 pounds of junk left by previous climbing expeditions. The group is also handing out poop bags, not only to its own clients but to anyone else who wants 'em. "Dawa Steven will be visiting the other expedition teams at Everest Base Camp to encourage them to use Restops," says Ang Tshering Sherpa of Asian Trekking's Eco Everest 2009, in an article at MountainEverest.net. "He is taking extra Restop bags for those who are interested to use them."

Across America, cleanup crews are already starting to fan out into wilderness areas in anticipation of a busy season. They seem to be having a helluva good time, perhaps moreso than the trashers. At Lake Powell, for instance, where "canyons and beaches have closed due to excessive human waste" in past years, the park service's Trash Tracker program is so popular that volunteers are fighting to get onboard. The trash-collecting expeditions have helped make Powell "one of the cleanest lakes in the country." With vacationers expected to place an unprecedented burden on our parks and wilderness areas this year, such volunteers will be sorely needed.

Further reading:
* Mexican cartels running pot farms in Sequoia National Forest (CNN.com): Illegal immigrants connected to Mexico's drug cartels are growing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of marijuana in the heart of one of America's national treasures. It's a booming business that feeds Mexico's most violent drug traffickers. (August 2008)
* Cartels grow pot on national treasures (Washington Times, July 2007)
* Pot farms ravaging Point Reyes National Seashore (SFGate, September 2006)
* War of the weed: Public lands are seeing an explosion in pot growing, and not by hippies (LATimes, August 2005)

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