More Trashing of the Forest

Ponderosa State Park is a jewel.

It occupies a big peninsula of land that juts out into Payette Lake. There are beaches, trails through the forest, campgrounds. The girls and I run the trails there frequently in the non-snow months, particular during hunting season when it's one of only a handful of public places in the state where hunting isn't allowed and we can relax. During the winter, I cross country ski there almost daily. While they have a dog-friendly loop for skiers, it's very short, so I don't take the girls; I prefer running with them on the snow in the forest closer to home.

My point: I probably use this park more than virtually anyone else living in this area.

In late February, the World Masters Nordic Ski Championships came to Ponderosa State Park. This was a big deal, with over 1000 athletes ages 30-90 competing in various events. The town salivated at the tourist dollars coming in. The park was unavailable for skiing to anyone else for ten days; totally off limits. I didn't complain, despite having paid for both a Nordic ski pass and a parking pass that were useless there or at any other Nordic ski area in town.

The event ended on a Friday afternoon, February 7th, with a big party (not open to the public) for the participants in town that night.

Saturday afternoon, around 5 pm, I went to Ponderosa to ski. I was excited to return, since I hadn't skied in ten days. My excitement first turned to annoyance when I realized the park hadn't been restored, and was groomed only for skate skiing - in fact, the race coordinators had purposefully groomed over the set tracks for classic skiing (my preference) on almost every trail in the park. They hadn't returned the park to its original condition.

Since I'd made the effort to drive up there and put on my skis and boots, I decided to ski anyway, on the flat groomed surface, without tracks. Annoying, but not that big of a deal. I figured they'd reset the tracks in the next day or so.

My annoyance quickly turned to anger when I came to the first major hill. There were over 100 energy gel and bar wrappers littered along the edge of the trail the entire length of the hill. Obviously the racers, knowing the downhill provided them an opportunity to keep moving without poling, leaving their hands free, chose this point in the course to quickly eat something. They also chose to simply toss their wrappers aside as litter, rather than stuff them in a pocket.

How rude. Inconsiderate. And disrespectful. I don't care where you're from - Europe, Canada, Mexico, US - you simply should not trash your host's park. There is no excuse. You're an amateur, for chrissakes; get over yourself.

But even worse is that the race committee didn't arrange for a sweep to come through immediately after the racers and pick up after them. Here it was a full 24 hours after the event ended and the park was reopened to the tax-paying public, and still no clean-up. What if it had snowed Friday night, or Saturday? All that litter would have been buried, impossible to find until the snow melted in June. And then who would pick it up? Me. You. Other conscientious park users.

And don't get me started on the condition of the parking lot.

Fuming, I went home and wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper. In short, I said while I would love to chastise the athletes for their rudeness, they're long gone, so I'll take the race committee and the park management to task for allowing such a wonderful public asset to be trashed in that way.

The editor's policy, upon receiving such a letter, is to give the person or group discussed in the letter an opportunity to respond; both the letter and the response would then appear in the same edition of the paper (which is a weekly). I was fine with that.

But rather than respond in writing, the committee chair, a man I know and have always liked, called to chew me out and blame me. "You just got out there too fast." "It's easy to take potshots at people." "You're an athlete, you know you can't control the racers from littering." "We were up until after midnight Friday."

I mentally responded "Bullshit!" to each. This was nothing but lame excuses, and blaming the messenger.

Verbally, I suggested that since the race committee knew in advance the racers would litter, there was no excuse for not having a sweep. It's such a simple, easy solution. I also pointed out - in my letter and to the race director in our conversation - that if races disqualify litterers, or fine them, or ban them from future races, the littering will stop. It has worked really well in trail running events. It's not rocket science.

People treat us as we teach them to. Racers litter if you accept and allow it.

The race director's reaction - to blame me for publicly pointing all this out - is endemic to this area. While I admit I was upset when I wrote the letter, I was also hoping to get the community as a whole to rethink how they do such events, whether Nordic ski races, trail runs, the summer triathlon, anything.

I've helped put on trail running events for years, and acted as sweep in many of them, taking down course markers and picking up any litter we find. I've seen the effect known and harsh sanctions have on littering - it quickly stops. I know what I'm talking about. I tried to volunteer for this Nordic race event, starting a year ago, even filling out their required form, but was never called. I tried. I really did. I would have been happy to sweep the course, had they allowed me. But I'm not a local, I'm an outsider, so I wasn't allowed to volunteer or participate. It's that kind of town. How dare I?!

And despite the verbal dressing down by the race director for my letter, I refuse to back down. So what if I'm a pariah?

I didn't ski Sunday, but I did on Monday and Tuesday. Monday I noticed the wrappers I'd seen on the hill were mostly gone (I picked up a couple), but I filled my pockets with yet more litter strewn randomly around the park by racers. By this time the groomer had come through (setting tracks again, finally) and many of the gel and bar wrappers were now ground into the snow, ripped into small pieces. Arrgghhh! Tuesday, I had my camera with me. The photos at the top of this post are what I picked up and stuffed into my pockets in about an hour's time on Tuesday. It has since snowed. Now what's still there won't show up until summer.