Washougal group spearheads Highway 14 trash cleanup

East County Citizens Alliance hopes others will join in local beautification project

Washougal resident Melanie Wilson has lived in many different places across the United States and believes the Pacific Northwest is, “hands-down,” the most gorgeous place in the country.

However, since moving to Washougal three years ago, Wilson has become increasingly frustrated over what she sees as an unacceptable amount of garbage piling up on the sides of local roads, marring the area’s natural beauty.

“The trash issue had been bothering me personally for quite some time, up to the point where I could hardly go down the road as a passenger without wanting to put my hands over my eyes. It was just so depressing, really,” Wilson said. “Then my husband and I drove down the length of most of California back in February. I know that Interstate 5 in California hasn’t always looked good and doesn’t always look good, but it was pristine when we were driving up and down it. I thought, ‘It’s possible for a state to prioritize clean highways.’ As we drove back and got into Oregon and then into Washington, the roadsides just got trashier and trashier, and more depressing as we went along.”

Now, Wilson, the founder of the East County Citizens Alliance’s (ECCA), is turning her frustration into action.

Wilson, along with other members of the ECCA, launched the “Great Route 14 Trash Cleanup” in March. Since then, they’ve managed to collect and dispose of over 2,000 pounds of trash along Highway 14 in the Camas-Washougal area.

Wilson started the ECCA earlier this year to “support and protect our community and public institutions through relationship-building, education, advocacy, and volunteer initiatives that grow positive relationships and build a vibrant, healthy East County.”

“I went out there (after I got back from California) and picked up four bags of trash,” she said. “I went back and talked to other folks in ECCA, and they said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us you were going to do this? We’ll do it with you.’ We thought that we had more power to organize cleanups under the ECCA umbrella rather than just myself alone, so that’s what we did.”

A group of volunteers ventured onto the sides of Highway 14 for the first time on March 5, and has returned “almost every Saturday” since then to collect trash, sort it into piles, put it into bags, throw the bags into the back of a pickup truck and take them to the Washougal Transfer Station.

“I’ve learned that if we’re really committed to a cleaner environment, at least concerning (Highway 14) – an important shared, communal space so many of us drive down – then we need to take control ourselves,” said Wilson.

So far, about 30 Camas-Washougal residents have donated their time, money or both to the trash-cleanup efforts.

“I think there’s been a real hunger among all of the volunteers to do something positive for our community, and I think we want to harness that and nurture it,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of benefits to doing this work. We not only get a cleaner environment, a place we can feel proud to live in, but we get to know one another, and we learn that we can make a positive difference. We’re not just waiting for some official to make something for us or a bureaucracy to make space for us. We’re doing it ourselves.”

Wilson has reached out to Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) officials about the possibility of the group “adopting” the stretch of Highway 14 through the state’s Adopt-a-Highway program, an anti-litter and highway enhancement campaign that allows individuals and groups to “adopt” a section of state highway by agreeing to take care of it for a two-year period. Typically, an assigned section includes between two and four miles of roadside. WSDOT provides traffic control equipment, safety equipment, safety training, litter bags and disposal services to the volunteer groups.

“The Adopt-a-Highway program will make it easier and cheaper for us to run this project,” Wilson said. “The ideal scenario, from everything that I’ve been thinking about and what we’ve learned over the last couple of months, is that if we took more local control — either through Adopt-a-Highway, or perhaps a city-run litter collection program like Vancouver has – we would be able to work more cooperatively with WSDOT, and that would be a good thing.”

Wilson said she was told the Adopt-A-Highway program was put “on pause indefinitely” in Clark County while WSDOT conducted a road study but that the program will soon start again.

“I’m just hoping for the best,” Wilson said. “What I know for sure is that this section looks so much better than it did two and a half months ago, that we’re not going back. I’ll be out there with other volunteers maintaining this stretch of road.”

“My interest is getting folks to work together to really maintain the natural beauty of this area,” she added. “We’re willing to work with people who are going to be out there anyway. We’re willing to coordinate with the Youth Ecology Corps. But now is the time for more conversation and more transparency about who’s going to manage what. There’s some effort, but it’s not consistent. It’s not that nobody is doing anything. It’s that whoever is doing something can’t do it consistently enough to make the difference that we want.”

Wilson said that, while she’s heard several different theories about why Highway 14 may or may not be in worse shape than other highways or freeways, she has a good guess as to why some local stretches of the road are, in her opinion, “a terrible mess.”

“I can only assume that’s because it’s a hard area to work in,” she said. “(There is more traffic). There’s a guardrail there. It’s narrow. There’s a steep slope. And there are a lot of blackberry bushes. A lot of trash is down that slope so far that there’s literally no way to get to it. I’m all scratched up, and I know other volunteers are all scratched up from digging into the blackberry bushes with our trash pickers.”

Wilson said roughly half of the trash the group has collected has consisted of items like coffee cups, fast food bags, aluminum cans, glass bottles, pieces of paper and “things that clearly flew out of someone’s (vehicle) window.”

But she’s been more surprised by some of the other things the volunteers have plucked off the side of the road, such as bar-coded tags and labels, plastic wrap and chunks of Styrofoam. She believes those items most likely flew off of trucks carrying lumber or manufacturing materials.

“When we think about ways to reduce trash, a more effective way would be eliminating it at the source and changing the way labels are fixed and tags are stuck,” she said. “We could also enforce litter laws. … I don’t think you end up in the mess that we ended up with on (Highway 14) if there’s not something really wrong somewhere. The pandemic can only be blamed so much for this. There’s something wrong somewhere, so we need to do something different.”

Wilson said she also would like people to care more about not littering in the first place.

“After two or three weeks, we start seeing trash accumulate again on any stretch that we’ve cleaned … If we don’t want to just clean up things and maintain … we (need to think about) policy changes that could reduce the amount of trash that ends up on the road. We all … have heard: ‘Don’t litter. Don’t be a litterbug.’ Well, that message clearly isn’t working as well as we want it to. It’s totally frustrating.”