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Roadside Rubbish : Adopt-a-Highway volunteers are putting a dent in trash, but their task is Sisyphean. Drivers need to take part too.


"Where's the sheriff? Why are you guys by yourselves?" These are questions suspicious motorists sometimes stop and ask when they see members of the Alpha Gamma Sigma Society cleaning the roadside on the Simi Valley Freeway as part of the Adopt-a-Highway program.

These are not jailbirds. These are honor students from nearby Moorpark College--students who may have the best chance of going on to UC Berkeley or UCLA.

"We very much want to have this honor society and this kind of public service on our resume when we apply for transfer," said Chris White, vice president of the group in charge of the monthly cleanup. "We have a great time--and pizza afterward, paid for with club funds."

Lest readers think this column is going to be a recruiting effort for environmental cleanup of county roads, let me say that there is already a waiting list for almost every two-mile stretch of our local Adopt-a-Highway program.

"Ventura County's volunteer program is phenomenal," said Joel Fonseca, the Caltrans coordinator for the area. Of the 64 permit holders whose names appear on signs along the highway and who have regular work schedules in the area, only two have decided to hire crews to do the work for them.

In Los Angeles County, it's 40 out of 150, and in Orange County one out of three that use contract help. It can run from $300 to $900 a session, in case you're interested in organizing or hiring a contracting company.

My suspicion was that there were interesting stories behind many of the Adopt-a-Highway signs. After all, when you drive into L.A. and see Bette Midler's name on a sign, you know she's not going to put on a hard hat, goggles and safety vest and pick up aluminum cans near the Laurel Canyon off-ramp. She hires a service to do it.

But in Ventura County, what you see is, for the most part, what you get. According to manager Mark Smith, if you see the name McDonald's on signs along the Ventura Freeway in Newbury Park, the crew doing the environmental work is the same one you may have seen serving Quarter Pounders.

They've been offered the option of collecting their pay and benefits by doing the roadside work. Smith also manages a cleanup program at a McDonald's in Simi Valley, and remarked that it is "dirtier on the roads over there than in Newbury Park. We have our name up on the highway in both places and have to keep things clean, so we notice the difference."

Maybe this column should be addressed to Simi Valley residents, urging them to litter less. But nobody's perfect.

The Lions Club in Saticoy, committed to cleaning up a two-mile stretch of the Santa Paula Freeway near that community, complained that "only two days after we've been there, it's littered again." Dr. Gary Frick, the group's coordinator, said the litter was mostly "your paper and the other one."

I think I can get everybody to think twice about strewing paper around public spaces by reporting the experience of the Adopt-a-Highway crew from the Communications Workers of America local in Camarillo. These telecommunications folks, who keep a stretch of Pacific Coast Highway clean near Calleguas Creek, found a love letter the other day. According to Vicki Pallan, the union's vice president, they sat around reading it after the cleanup session. I'm going to keep my car windows shut so things don't blow out of my car. A fella could get into trouble that way.

A whole state can get into trouble. California taxpayers cough up $30 million annually to clean up roadsides. If it weren't for the Adopt-a-Highway volunteers locally and statewide, the bill would be $17 million more. There are 2,700 permit holders statewide, involving almost 30,000 individual participants.

As successful as the program may be in terms of volunteerism, it isn't, alas, stemming the rising tide of trash on the roadsides.

Dave Servaes, Caltrans Regional Manager in Ventura County, said he is going to have to get permit holders to go out more frequently. When they signed up one or two years ago, the deal was to show up for duty at least every 90 days. Many are already on a monthly schedule of their own volition. Some fortnightly, even. When he sends out "renewal notices" to the people whose two-year hitch is about up, he's going to be asking for monthly cleanups.

Servaes and Fonseca are optimistic that Ventura County volunteers will respond. But I'm here to say that those of us who do not have our name or affiliation on a sign out there on the highway must do our part too. Don't litter.


Service clubs, companies and individuals who want to get on Caltrans' list for the Adopt-a-Highway program should call Dave Servaes at 654-4651 or Joel Fonseca at (213) 897-3871.

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