The Gifford Pinchot Trash Force goes the extra mile — 22 of them and counting, to be precise.
Dedicated to the environmental stewardship of their namesake national forest and surrounding Packwood area, the group is an informal collection of local retirees and residents looking to keep their neighboring U.S. Forest Roads clean with a focus on the ever-popular, 22-mile long Skate Creek Road between Packwood and Ashford.
The group’s Facebook group — founded in May of last year with more than 260 current and past members — is littered with photos of trash hauls, smiling volunteers, sites of natural beauty, recreational resources and, of course, the principles of “leave no trace.”
Sheryl Hall, a 64-year-old retired Packwood resident of 21 years, is the mastermind behind the informal trash-picking collective. In 2017, she founded the Packwood Outdoor Women’s group, which aimed to get more women into hiking and local recreation.
“I started it because women were afraid to get out on their own and do hiking, or they needed encouragement to get out on their own and were afraid to do hiking,” she said.
The group eventually got into roadside cleaning and adopted 3 miles of U.S. Highway 12 between mileposts 128 and 131. Those efforts grew as Hall, an avid outdoorswoman, found a need to coordinate cleanup on Forest Road 52, also known as Skate Creek Road, and its dispersed camping spots.
Since they started their efforts, it has been a labor of love fueled by frustration and a deep desire to see U.S. Forest Service lands kept in pristine condition.
“People come there and camp — and they’ve been doing this for years — and there’s no services. So we got fed up with all the trash and what was going on … We’re trying to be stewards of the area and help the Forest Service,” she said of Skate Creek Road. “They come out of the woods and absolutely trash the place. A lot of them come to camp and don’t remove their garbage. They leave pop cans, bottles, sometimes they leave their tents — everything.”
The U.S. Forest Service allows for people to disperse camp on non-serviced lands, with rules in place, for no cost. The privilege is seen as an inexpensive way to pop up a tent without filling out a camping reservation, with many taking to Forest Roads during the summer.
The Trash Force is responsible for an annual one-day roadside cleanup event that happens before the Forest Service opens up Skate Creek Road each spring. That effort is expected to take place before Memorial Day, likely within the coming weeks, though a specific date hasn’t yet been set.
From camping trash, to dumping sites, to human waste — the Trash Force, for better or worse, has seen it all.
“My idea is to make it look pretty and keep it that way so that people don’t think it’s OK to dump, because when people see a pile of trash other people come to it,” she said. “We’re trying to promote education. ‘Leave no trace’ is huge.”
Hall said she’s not sure exactly how much they’ve collected over the last year since they started. People involved with the group say, though, that littering and dumping along Skate Creek Road has gotten worse with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
With people opting for either their couches or the great outdoors last summer, Hall and others say a greater number of inexperienced recreationalists likely took to the Forest Roads and dispersed spots along Skate Creek. That increase in trash is what partly fueled their Trash Force effort.
“Once COVID hit, it was something to focus on even more, with everyone staying home. So us outdoor lovers, we made it a bigger effort to clean up,” Hall said, adding later: “We have seen an increase with COVID. I volunteer at the visitors center at Packwood and, all summer long, we had people coming in saying, ‘Where do we go? Where do we camp? Everything’s full.’”
Ann Harrington, 51, a part-time Packwood resident since 2001, is a volunteer with the Trash Force. She said she started getting more involved in trash collection during the pandemic and started picking up trash with her son, stepson and friends, who quickly learned to make a game out of who could collect the most trash the fastest.
“Everyone was stuck inside and I was like ‘forget this. I’m going to do something,’” she said.
Harrington shares the same frustrations with Hall about campers leaving their trash and dumpers finding ideal spots to stowaway their junk. The Trash Force, in one instance last fall, discovered an entire trailer filled with a roofing project off a hillside off Forest Road 21.
She said that’s incredibly frustrating, especially when you consider the low fees for dumping at the nearby East Lewis County Transfer Station in Morton.
“That’s the super frustrating thing for me. You can dump it for like $50 in Lewis County, but for me up here (in Edgewood, Pierce County) you’re talking probably $250,” she said.
Bill Serrahn, a volunteer at nearby Packwood State Park and president of Friends of Skate Creek Park, a nonprofit that oversees financials for the Gifford Pinchot Trash Force, said it has been nice to see the cleanup coordination that’s been going on locally.
“I think it’s just a matter of pride in our community, wanting to keep things clean,” said the 71-year-old Packwood resident. “It just kind of becomes a little addicting after a while. Basically, when you see stuff on the side of the road, you can’t stand it.”
He hopes those who travel through the area and recreationalists will be more conscientious about taking care of their garbage and waste. He also said he would like to see the anti-littering campaigns from the mid-century make a return.
Trash Force volunteers also say dumpers might have been emboldened recently by the fact that the U.S. Forest Service is sill in the process of hiring new law enforcement out of Packwood to ticket illegal trash dumping.