Earth Works

By Caroline Kettlewell
Friday, September 29, 2006

There's nothing like a couple of hours on a perfect autumn weekend afternoon spent picking up garbage. Or so seemed to suggest the remarkably cheerful spirit of the volunteers -- about 40 -- who showed up at Barcroft Park in Arlington on a recent Saturday ready to clean up a half-mile stretch of Four Mile Run, a meandering stream that runs through the park. Dressed in jeans and shorts and T-shirts, looking much cleaner than they would a few hours hence, they milled about on the sidewalk at the entry to the park, listening to instructions from Margaret Kertess of Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment.

The cleanup, organized by the group, was held in conjunction with two larger events: the International Coastal Cleanup and National Public Lands Day. The former, sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy, is a worldwide event held each year on the third Saturday of September to clean up shorelines and inland waterways across the United States and in dozens of nations around the globe.

The latter, a program of the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, with major sponsorship by Toyota, officially takes place nationwide Saturday, and it's your chance to join about 100,000 volunteers who will be turning out, like the Arlingtonians, to spruce up public lands from coast to coast.

Chances are there's public land near you. From tiny urban pocket parks, playgrounds and playing fields to vast federal wildernesses and wildlife refuges, public lands are all around us, owned by all of us. They are oases of green in the heart of our cities -- habitats for birds and wildlife, natural groundwater filters, tourist attractions, and historic, natural and cultural legacies. But possibly because they are everywhere, they're easy to take for granted. We expect them to be there when we need a place for a picnic or a weekend camping trip or for the kids to run and play, without ever really stopping to think just what a luxury such public lands are.

Yet they are increasingly under threat from forces as varied as invasive species, budget cuts, pollution and development. Many federally owned public lands, particularly in the West, are open to mining, livestock grazing, logging and drilling for oil and gas. And there is pressure to access resources in previously undeveloped natural areas, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. In a market-driven economy, the value of recreation and open spaces can be overlooked. Imagine a world, though, in which entry to every beach and forest was barred by a "Private Property" sign, in which there were no pickup soccer games on a neighborhood field, no wilderness camping trips, no national Mall, and it's far easier to recognize just what our public lands mean.

National Public Lands Day is a democratic opportunity for those of us who use these lands to give back a little, to protect, to preserve, to take ownership. "The inspiration for Public Lands Day was that the initial organizers saw a need for a celebration of and education about public lands, to raise awareness of what public lands are and also to encourage volunteerism on those lands," says Robb Hampton, director of the Public Lands Day program. This is the 13th annual National Public Lands Day. In its first year, there were three participating sites; this year there will be more than 1,000.

To find a site near you, start with the organization's Web site ( ). A pull-down, state-by-state menu on the home page leads to a detailed listing of locations and contact information. Of course, cleaning up is on the agenda at many locations. But other common activities at local sites include invasive plant removal, trail maintenance, erosion control, planting and sign painting and installation.

"No special skills are required," Hampton says, adding that people of all ages are welcome. "Normally our organizers can find something for anybody to do." In most cases, any training (to identify invasive plants, for example) and equipment will be supplied as well. Participants should dress for outdoor work, with long sleeves and long pants, a hat, sunscreen and sturdy shoes, and bring water and snacks (or lunch for full-day events).

Volunteering can be an enjoyable few hours of hard work, a different way to meet people (participants at the Barcroft event included members of Single Volunteers of DC), an educational opportunity and even a chance to see a local public land you've never explored before. Never visited Great Falls Park or Sligo Creek in Silver Spring or Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in the District? Go, discover and make it a better place while you're there.

Even without the budget and staffing cuts affecting many public lands in recent years, parks still depend on volunteers to help protect and maintain the grounds.

For example, notes the National Park Service's Alan Spears, who is organizing the cleanup event at Kenilworth, on the Anacostia River: "Trash washes in from the river and from streams that wash into the river, and once it gets in the wetlands, it stays, and the Park Service doesn't have enough staff to keep up with cleaning it up." When 200 volunteers show up, however, as they did last year at Kenilworth, a great deal can be accomplished in just a few hours.

Back at Barcroft Park, Kertess asked the volunteers to divide into groups and handed out an International Coastal Cleanup checklist. The groups were asked to tally every bit and piece they collected. That information was to be combined with tally sheets from every coastal cleanup event for an annual snapshot of what's littering waterways around the world. For example, between 1999 and 2004, the International Coastal Cleanup yielded 8.2 million cigarettes and filters, 3 million food wrappers, 1.9 million plastic bottles, 1.8 million glass bottles and 1.7 million bags (mostly plastic).

Armed with the checklists, latex gloves and trash bags, the Barcroft Park volunteers trooped off in groups of three and four past the soccer and softball players and down to the stream, where they spread out on both banks and in either direction, and the harvest began.

The water burbled over cobbled stones, beneath the shade of overhanging trees. But Four Mile Run, as most urban waterways, is far from pristine. Although the water seemed clear and sparkling -- no scary technicolors or sinister odors -- a sign at the edge of the path approaching the stream warns against drinking, wading or fishing -- not that there was any evidence of fish or any other living thing to be had in the water. When the rain washes nearby streets clean and the storm sewers carry the garbage and cigarette butts and dog waste and leaked oil and antifreeze and heavy metals and random toxins, it is deposited here, unfiltered, to make its way downstream to the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay, the beaches where we play and the ocean beyond, where your seafood dinner swims.

It's hard not to think of these things while the evidence is being picked, piece by piece, from between rocks, out of the weeds and off the streambed. Indeed, nothing says "teachable moment" quite like 45 trash bags -- the haul from about 90 minutes' work at Four Mile Run -- bulging with the detritus of civilized society. To wit: cans; drink bottles; plastic bags; cigarette butts; three pairs of underwear; a winter coat; a tweed suit jacket; a pair of shorts; a hypodermic needle; a spark-plug cable; a circuit board; a cellphone; a lacrosse mask; a tire, a muffler, a steering wheel and column; a rusted bicycle fender; the partial remains of a foot scooter; a tricycle; a long plastic shovel; a baseball; a still-inflated volleyball with the initials G.F. in blue ink; a radio; cement-mix bags; one "Don's John" door; and a six-foot steel beam. Plus shreds of paper, plastic and foil, shards of broken glass and bits of plastic foam.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," volunteer Elena Nelson said.

Invisible contaminants -- bacteria and chemicals and other waterborne pollutants -- were of course unknown and uncounted, but Kertess advised anyone who had waded in the stream to shower off thoroughly.

That's the illuminating but undeniably depressing side to an event like the Barcroft cleanup, and it's likely to make you think twice the next time you're ready to toss out a plastic soda bottle (which, if set adrift in the sea, will hang around a mere 450 years before decomposing, according to the Ocean Conservancy). Or have a swim at the beach.

But there are rewards to participating in a cleanup event. At Barcroft Park, it was the refreshingly unfamiliar site of a stretch of urban stream picked nearly clean. No plastic bags dangling from tree branches, no beer cans wedged between rocks, no fast-food cups floating in eddies. You wanted to stop every passerby -- the people using the park, the kids on their bikes, the woman studying at a picnic bench, the family reunion in the shelter -- and say, "Look, it's clean!"

Possibly, volunteering for a public lands day event could make you something of a zealot. Possibly, that could be a good thing. There is a great bounty of public lands in this country, but they don't have an endless bounty of resilience. They can be degraded, neglected, their value as communal resources dismissed. But when you participate in a cleanup event, "there is a sense of accomplishment and ownership," Hampton says. "A lot of times people will want to go back to that place where they volunteered, take their friends and family, show them the tree they planted. There is that connection they then have with that place, and then hopefully a greater sense of stewardship for all the different public lands."

Caroline Kettlewell is a regular contributor to Weekend and can be found online at

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