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What a Mess! : Illegal Dumpers Plague Michigan's Pristine Forests

Environment: Activists and forest rangers mount cleanups as melting snow lures influx of detritus of consumer culture. Catching them is virtually impossible, officials say.

June 29, 1997|JOHN FLESHER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

"You look at these piles and think we'd be able to catch these folks," says Don Mikel, a Forest Service ranger in Sault Ste. Marie. "But with nights, weekends, the huge territory, thin staff . . . it's very hard to do."

Hart, based at the Forest Service office in St. Ignace, is more blunt: "It's like hitting the lottery."

Although catching people in the act is rare, officers sometimes get tip-offs. Or they might sift through a garbage bag, find a bill with someone's name on it, confront the person and win a confession.

Fines for illegal dumping on federal land range from $250 to $5,000. On the state level, a law enacted two years ago authorized fines ranging from $100 to $5,000 plus additional civil penalties, such as impoundment of vehicles used for illegal dumping by repeat offenders.

The law is to expire next year, although the Legislature is considering a bill to make it permanent.

In the long run, the answer is to educate people and change their attitudes, Wilson says. That's the goal of the Michigan Coalition for Clean Forests, which brings together state and federal agencies and groups representing business, environmentalists, law enforcement and others.

Formed three years ago, the coalition has developed a slide program, brochures and other materials to get the word out. There also are two "trash teams" that organize volunteer cleanups.

The "Adopt-a-Forest" program puts groups in charge of keeping specific areas clean. They removed 60 tons of scrap metal and 200 freezers and refrigerators, among other trash, from state land last year.

Tom and Billie Briggs of Royal Oak were put in charge of volunteer cleanup in Mackinac County after complaining to the Forest Service about trash near their hunting cabin north of St. Ignace. In the six years since, most of the county's about 30 known sites have been cleaned.

"It's very offensive to me that some people have so little respect for nature," Tom Briggs says. "I think it's a small minority of bums that make it bad for everybody."

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