Helping out in the Hollow

Jim Fisher is a volunteer with the state's Adopt-a-Highway program

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Groups, organizations individuals or businesses interested in participating adopt a 1 to 2 mile stretch of state highway, then pick up litter one to four times a year. Volunteers are recognized with their names printed on a roadside sign. Training as well as some tools and supplies are provided. For more information, contact Bill Morrison at 905-2139 or morribi@wsdot.wa.gov, or visit www.wsdot.wa.gov/Operations/adoptahwy/information.htm.

Groups, organizations individuals or businesses interested in participating adopt a 1 to 2 mile stretch of state highway, then pick up litter one to four times a year. Volunteers are recognized with their names printed on a roadside sign. Training as well as some tools and supplies are provided. For more information, contact Bill Morrison at 905-2139 or morribi@wsdot.wa.gov, or visit www.wsdot.wa.gov/Operations/adoptahwy/information.htm.

It’s a sunny spring morning in Fern Prairie, and Jim Fisher is ready to hit the pavement. He is dressed in grubby jeans, sturdy work boots and a white T-shirt covered by a bright orange reflective vest. With work-glove protected hands, he places a white hard hat atop his head of shoulder-length gray hair.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

With garden clippers, grabbing tool and white plastic bags in hand, we set out on Northeast Everett Road — a two person clean-up crew aiming to make the area along state Route 500 a little bit cleaner than we found it.

Fisher, 71, who refers to himself as “the old hermit at Skunk Hollow,” is a volunteer with the state’s Adopt-a-Highway roadside clean-up program. It’s a job he officially took on in the fall of 2013, but keeping things neat and tidy in the rural community began long before.

“A long time ago I started doing mowing and weed control along our area,” he said. “As I was doing that, I would notice that there was so much litter in the ditches. I had known about the roadside litter program and how it works. So I thought well, shoot, I’ll just go ahead and sign up for it.”

Volunteers with Adopt-a-Highway have worked to beautify communities around the state.

According to WSDOT, from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014, 1,387 volunteer groups with 23,519 volunteers spent 19,037 hours collecting 23,519 bags of garbage along state roadways. In addition, 245 sponsored contractors picked up 6,909 bags of garbage. If WSDOT workers had completed the same amount of work, it would have cost the state an estimated $846,000.

Southwest Region Roadside Maintenance Supervisor Bill Morrison said there are currently 55 Southwest Washington Adopt-A-Highway volunteer groups. Their participation has an impact.

“We don’t have the resources to put people out on the highway picking up litter,” he said. “We have other priorities, so litter slides to the bottom. There would be a lot more litter out there if it wasn’t for the volunteers. They do a great job for us.”

According to Morrison, volunteers are typically responsible for stretches of 1 to 2 miles each.

“We are willing to work with them on whatever area they want to tackle,” he said.

Sections of state Route 500 as well as Higway 14 are currently in need of litter pickup volunteers.

“There are plenty of options out there,” Morrison said.

‘Don’t be a litter bug’

According to Fisher, as a child growing up in rural Wichita, Kansas, his mother instilled in him values illustrated by the classic catch phrase “Don’t be a litterbug.” He remembers riding in a car with her once when he thoughtlessly tossed some garbage out the window. Mom was not pleased.

“The one-time admonishment I got, I always remembered it,” he said. “That incident from long-ago, it had a lasting effect.”

Fisher first purchased his Everett Road property in the early 1970s. His work for BNSF Railways took him around Washington, Oregon and Idaho, so he didn’t live in the house full-time until 2001 when he retired as a locomotive engineer after a 36-year career.

“I think they were happy to get rid of me,” he said with his signature sense of humor.

Since then Fisher has become a fixture in the area, recognizable to neighbors and public employees who often spot him out and about.

In addition to picking up garbage, he maintains nearby walkways by clipping overgrown blackberry bushes and other vegetation and removing debris.

“The cops drive by, but they don’t even notice I’m on the side of the road,” he joked. “They know I’m just off in my own little world.”

Just feet from his front yard, a bright blue roadside sign recognizing the Adopt-a-Highway volunteer reads, “The Old Hermit at Skunk Hollow.”

“It’s been called Skunk Hollow ever since people first started inhabiting the area,” Fisher explained. “It almost disappeared. There were fewer and fewer people who knew about it. Because of my mischievous nature, and part of that mischievousness is enjoying irritating people sometimes, when I moved back onto the property I immediately started promoting the name Skunk Hollow. I think it’s because of the skunk cabbage, because I’ve only smelled a skunk in the area once or twice in the many years I’ve either lived on the property of been on the property.”

As part of his work with the Adopt-a-Highway program, Fisher aims to complete litter patrol four times a year.

“The area I cover is probably one of the safer areas to do, because so very seldom do you actually have to walk on the pavement,” he said.

Fisher has found cigarette butts, liquor and wine bottles, beer cans, small car parts and candy wrappers, among other things. The strangest item he’s ever found? A pile of dead fish hidden behind a guard rail.

“After a few days, those things smelled real ripe,” he said.

Fisher said he does the unpaid work because he cares about the community, and its citizens.

“Each year that I live here I get more and more interested in seeing things get done,” he said. “I like the way it looks to the north when the ditches are all clear and the blackberry bushes are clipped back instead of growing out over the edge of the guardrail and the fog line.”

He is particularly concerned about pedestrians and bicyclists who frequent the area, which has no officially dedicated bicycle lanes or sidewalks.

“I just don’t want to see them get hit and hurt,” Fisher said. “I tell people I would like to make it safer for them so I don’t have to go down there with a spatula and scrape them off of the road.”

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