Las Vegas, Nevada is a sprawling city of nearly two million residents. It is surrounded by natural
wonders on all sides, including Sloan Canyon, Red Rock, Sunrise Mountain, Rainbow Gardens and Tule Springs. These are just a few of the Bureau of Land Management’s designated recreation and special use areas bordering the city, which has extended its boundaries extensively over the past 20 years. Intermingled with this urban environment, both within and at the edges of the city and its nearby protected areas, are relics of earlier times – parcels of land still owned by the BLM but not designated for special use or consideration. These checkerboard squares, many once slated for sale during the city’s boom which ended nearly a decade ago, bear testament to problems that plague vacant public land throughout the Southwest. Most of these lots harbor scars from motorcycles, ATVs and other off-highway vehicles as well as scattered trash, piles of rubble and construction debris, even the remains of entire foreclosed homes. Limited agency resources combined with the sheer infeasibility of providing law enforcement and monitoring in this jumbled network of lands has produced an historic self-perpetuating cycle of dumping and illegal vehicle use. BLM’s Desert Cleanup Team, consisting of three Great Basin Institute Research Associates (Sedona Maniak, Nathan Coleman, and Eric Delynko), was created to help mitigate this blight.
The Bureau’s multi-faceted approach to the desert dumping problem consists of cleanup, mitigation and education. Utilizing resources from UNLV’s Public Lands Institute (www.publiclands.unlv.edu), the Desert Cleanup Team organizes an average of two volunteer cleanup events per month with schools and local interest groups. PLI’s website, www.getoutdoorsnevada.org, posts calendar events from several federal agencies enticing individuals and small groups of volunteers to cleanups with the promise of rewarding weekend outings. Nevada Conservation Corps crews and BLM fire crews also augment the team’s efforts at sites requiring concentrated long-term work or at sites requiring specialized equipment or training. Other volunteers for public lands cleanup activities include concerned neighborhood groups, national service groups such as the Boy Scouts of America, and local organizations like the Pahrump Valley Four-Wheelers and the UNLV pre-health student group. Partnerships with local organizations such as these are critical to the long-term sustainability of restored sites because group members gain a sense of ownership and stewardship for the land through their participation in cleanup events. On smaller sites, the team works alone to fill trash bins with dumped garbage or to remove debris by the truckload.
Dumpers don’t discriminate between public and private property boundaries, leaving costly messes at any convenient location. Many dumping problems also occur on land which is leased by BLM to businesses or to state and county agencies through right-of-way grants. In these cases, partnerships sometimes arise between BLM and businesses or stakeholders to mitigate dumping using shared resources and labor. Group events with the Hughes Corporation and Nellis Air Force Base have been among the most successful collaborations to remove acres of garbage on shared sites.
After cleanups are completed the team utilizes a variety of mitigation tactics depending on the scale, location and access to the cleanup site. At most cleanup sites, signs are posted stating regulated activities. Where feasible, roads are blocked with berms or barriers, or fencing is installed, and appropriate restoration plans are implemented.
Over the past few years, BLM has initiated educational programs to make students more aware of dumping and illegal vehicle use. Cleanups add a visceral component to these educational efforts, so several schools and school groups have coordinated ongoing cleanups. Bailey Middle School, for example, has taken on stewardship of a particularly heavy-use area along Lake Mead Boulevard which is home to a geological oddity known as the Great Unconformity. Several times a year, students from the school are bused to the location for trash removal, an interpretive geological trail hike and a wilderness walk. Bailey Middle School received a Take Pride in America award in 2009 for its stewardship activities at this site, and is a model for how community involvement and education can work to help protect public lands.
Since October, 2008, Desert Cleanup Team Research Associates have coordinated and contributed to the removal of 8,928 cubic yards of waste from Clark County and parts of Nye County. (For the sake of perspective, the average pickup truck bed holds about two cubic yards of material.) Roughly 2,000 acres of contaminated land have been cleaned up, eliminating the impacts these potentially hazardous contaminants can have on the desert’s fragile flora and fauna.
Due to logistics, much of this substantial mountain of garbage has historically landed in the nation’s largest landfill just north of Las Vegas. In the future, BLM and the Public Lands Institute hope to provide more recycling opportunities to large cleanup events. Extending this recycling trend will add a pertinent new educational feature to school cleanup events and show the commitment of both BLM and GBI to a more sustainable environment.
by Sedona Maniak