Recently we were able to catch up with one of our River Captains, Damon Plant, about his experiences chatting with river-goers on the weekends this summer. The following is his letter to visitors recreating at the Yuba.
Empty cans and bottles, dog waste, and microtrash littering the rocks and trails are all unfortunately common sights at the South Yuba River State Park where I have the privilege of spending my weekends, working as a River Ambassador.
Amongst my responsibilities on the river, which consist mostly of welcoming people, telling them where it is safe to park and swim, and reminding them not to do anything that is going to burn the forest down, is picking up trash—one of the less glamorous aspects of the role.
Most visitors who are local to Nevada County that I speak to see the litter and refuse left behind after a long, hot Saturday night, and will confide in me their frustrations about the state in which the Yuba is left. Often these conversations turn to lamenting the fact that so many visitors from outside the county come to the river, take their enjoyment of it, leave their litter, and then disregard the state of the river until the next time they come to trash the river again. This letter is for those locals who view the trash left on the river as the consequence of allowing disrespectful out-of-towners to come to the river and make a mess of the place.
I have talked with a lot of people during my days as ambassador, many of whom are traveling from Yuba City/Marysville, the Sacramento region, the Bay Area, and even further. The majority of people I talk to, regardless of where they come from, take pride in taking care of the river, or in the very least understand that if they leave their litter behind, it will be there for them when they come back. With that said, many of the folks who I offer trash bags to as I watch them drag their large coolers down Kneebone Beach Trail will smile and say that they brought some with them (some have even gone so far as to pull the bags they brought and wave them at us in a display of pride). Other folks we offer trash bags to will sheepishly take one and walk away, perhaps embarrassed that they didn’t have one to begin with.
Though awareness is increasing, not everyone from out of the area knows what they are getting themselves into when they come to the South Yuba, and it is this lack of preparedness that often leads to trash being left behind. Folks from urban areas like Sacramento or the Bay Area are not necessarily used to green spaces that are not outfitted with trash cans and other services close-at-hand. Having lived in both of these areas recently myself, I can say that packing in and packing out one’s trash is much easier along the more developed waterways of urban areas, where trash cans are as ample as the squirrels who try to chew through your backpack to get to your lunch.
Lack of preparedness is not the only factor that leads to trash being abandoned along the South Yuba. A gap in understanding the river’s health and the impact litter has on it is another contributor to folks not cleaning up after themselves. This is evident in one visitor’s response to my request that he pick up the waste from his dog who had just relieved itself in front of our booth: “It’s all nature, bro.”
Without the knowledge that dog waste carries E. coli, which can make humans and wildlife sick if it gets into the river, the understanding that plastic waste can leach harmful chemicals into the soil, or that spray paint left on rocks can damage wildlife habitats, many people will not see these behaviors as problematic. While I agree with many locals that microtrash and piles of dog poop takes away from the aesthetic beauty of the wild and scenic South Yuba, aesthetics are just one aspect of the river that suffer.
What is the point of bringing all of this up? Regardless of what peoples’ reasons are, the Yuba is still getting trashed. The purpose of writing this letter is not to excuse folks from packing in what they pack out. We all have a responsibility to pack in what we pack out and to care for the Yuba like it is our home.
What I hope to show is that the vast majority of folks visiting the river do not leave litter and waste behind with mal intent (some do, unfortunately, but that is a topic for another letter). With better preparation and education, the large numbers of the Yuba’s visitors coming from distant places will become better stewards of the river, especially with River Ambassadors there to talk to them about stewardship, provide resources for keeping the river clean, and of course picking up after folks who fail to do so themselves.
What I’m hoping I can count on from Nevada County locals is patience with visitors as they learn how to care for a resource they may have never been taught how to care for, and for locals to remember that the majority of visitors are not being consciously disrespectful of the river. We need to educate if we are to change behaviors, and this is what I am doing every Saturday and Sunday at the river. We hope more people will get involved in these efforts to educate the people coming in as River Ambassador volunteers.
Best regards and much love,