Earth Day volunteers wage war on trash along Middle Deschutes River

April 22, 2021
Earth Day volunteers wage war on trash along Middle Deschutes River

Two trucks worth of debris — including a couch, tires and bags filled with trash — hauled away from scenic river area near Crooked River Ranch

On a stretch of canyon high above the Deschutes River near Crooked River Ranch, Marilynne Keyser stoops down, picks up someone’s discarded belt, and drops it into a plastic bag. Moving along, the retired CPA scoops up more refuse — cans, shotgun shells, plastic bags and other bits of junk.

Keyser was doing her Earth Day duty of cleaning up the Steamboat Rock Recreation Area, located around 5 miles west of Terrebonne. She was leading a group of around 30 volunteers to restore an area that has been covered in waste left behind by weekend off-roaders and campers.

Keyser’s group of volunteers — the Friends and Neighbors of the Deschutes Canyon Area — focus their cleanup efforts around the Lower Crooked River, Lower Wychus Creek, and the Middle Deschutes River. Her group was one of many that spent Earth Day cleaning up parks, streets, and public spaces in Bend, Redmond and other communities in Central Oregon.

“Every Earth Day we do something special,” said Keyser.

The group has grown in recent years since its founding in 2012 and now conducts a variety of environmental activities, including cleanups, graffiti removal, native plant restoration and trail maintenance. The group also leads guided hikes and maintains monarch butterfly way stations.

“This year we have moved our efforts to clean up land that has been abused by people who are driving illegally into areas of public land that have been designated as nonmotorized,” said Keyser, a former Oregon deputy secretary of state. She is retired and has lived in Crooked River Ranch since 2000.

“There hasn’t been adequate education, signage and control over the creation of illegal roads,” she adds.

The Earth Day cleanup was just one phase of a larger effort to restore Steamboat Rock back to its natural condition. For years the area has been degraded not just with trash from illegal dumping and homeless camps, but also off-highway vehicles, which tear up the earth, ruining native grasses and plants that hold the soil in place.

The side of the road closer to the river is designated for nonmotorized use, but it’s clear that plenty of vehicles enter the area. The Friends and Neighbors of the Deschutes Canyon Area group is working with the Bureau of Land Management to post more signs and close off roads with fences and boulders to protect the fragile ecosystem.

“The major trouble is camps leaving garbage behind, the illegal dumping and the use of motor vehicles, which is not authorized,” said Nick Weber, outdoor recreation planner for the BLM. “Cutting off access to motorized (vehicles) will be the key to cleaning this area up.”

That’s important because just down the hill is a stretch of Deschutes River designated to protect it from degradation. Weber offered some advice to people who want to keep this land pristine.

“Take care of these areas. That is the message on Earth Day,” said Weber. “Leave no trace, leave it better than you found it for future generations.”

Further along the trail, Keyser points out abandoned campfires, trees with limbs cut off for firewood, and haphazard roads that cut through the area. Off in the distance, the Deschutes River rushes past with Mount Jefferson forming a dramatic backdrop.

“This was part of the (camper) village. It’s all weeds now,” said Keyser, pointing out the spoiled land. “The trash was tossed off the rim, old mattresses, tents. It’s going to take a long time to get it back, but you have to start somewhere.”

Nearby, volunteer Susie Garland, a part-time Crooked River Ranch resident, was picking up trash amid the juniper trees with her husband, Jerry. Tires nearby had been collected in a pile.

“It’s sad. We used to bike here, but then we stopped because it didn’t look good. There was a lot of garbage, a lot of dead deer carcasses. It took away from the experience,” said Garland. “But it’s already looking better than it looked the last time.”

The efforts by Friends and Neighbors of the Deschutes Canyon Area on Earth Day resulted in dozens of trash bags hauled away, plus the removal of larger items, including tires, a vacuum cleaner, a satellite dish, a microwave oven, a barbecue and wooden palettes. The volunteers also found a couch in a cave and buckets filled with human excrement.

“It’s a shame that people treat our environment this way,” said volunteer Mary Zabilski, a Redmond resident who volunteers every Earth Day. “You come to enjoy it, but how can you enjoy it when there is broken glass everywhere?”

Another volunteer, David Dalton, was blunter when asked how he felt about the condition of the area.

“Disgusted, angry,” he said. “It’s not too bad right here, but at times I have seen huge dumps.”

A nearby sign that warns of a $100,000 fine and one year in prison for dumping has largely been ignored.

Near the end of one of the trash runs, a truck pulled up along the side of the road and out jumped local resident Rob Windlinx, clad in a flannel shirt and wide-brimmed hat. Windlinx, one of the original founders of the group, had earlier cleaned out the nearby cave, emptying it of the couch, a barbecue, and tires.

“There was a young osprey watching us. That made it enjoyable,” said Windlinx. “We’re bringing back the beauty of Central Oregon.”

By the end of the day, the volunteers had loaded up enough garbage to fill up two transport trucks, said Jeff Scheetz, one of the organizers.

For the volunteers who put in the long hours in the sun, it was a chance to give back to their community and restore lands they and others want to enjoy while hiking, biking and horse riding.

“We like to use these lands and keep them clean,” said Garland. “We didn’t realize it was Earth Day, we just wanted to help clean up.”

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