The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Clean sweep: Volunteers remove tons of trash from Smokies in largest one-day cleanup

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Clean Up PileVolunteers who helped with the Save our Smokies cleanup on April 23 are shown here among their booty. Anna Lawrence/Hellbender Press

Amid the booze bottles and toilet paper, it’s ‘incredible what we found here’

Cleanup crews cleared garbage Earth Day weekend across Great Smoky Mountains National Park from mountain crests to the shores of Fontana Lake.

Save Our Smokies, which organized the April 23 event, called it the largest single cleanup ever attempted in the park. Volunteers wrangled some 5,000 pounds of garbage.

Save our Smokies Vice President Benny Braden said the organization removed 10,133 pounds of trash in all of 2021.

“Litter is a big problem. We can clean up a location and two months later we have to be back there because it’s worse than when we started,” Braden said in an interview Saturday morning at the Tremont section of the national park. “What gives us hope is our volunteers showing up,” he said, citing their tireless dedication.

He listed the many different places the cleanup teams went on Saturday: Clingmans Dome area; Newfound Gap Road; Deep Creek; the “Road to Nowhere” in North Carolina; Cades Cove; Foothills Parkway; Little River Road; and the Fontana Lake shoreline, all within the park boundaries. He said the effort was driven by 250-300 volunteers.

The volunteers are doing more than policing aesthetics in the park. Braden said litter and discarded garbage damages water quality and soil and harms animals who eat it or otherwise come into contact with it. He spoke of plastic grocery bags being found in bear feces. Eating these bags can kill the bears. He also said some types of litter, like diapers, do not readily decompose.

Hellbender Press visited with volunteers along the Foothills Parkway as they waited for a ride when their day was done. They talked about what they found.

Nichole Durham said the crew had picked up “a couple of truckloads full” of trash, including car parts, a wheeled cooler and “a can that is older than me.” Another volunteer from the party, Sandra Jacome, described a crib mattress. Volunteers Pam Wilson and Misty Barker mentioned a toilet seat and multiple alcohol containers.

“Incredible what we’ve found here,” Wilson said.

Braden said previous cleanup efforts have turned up unusual items, including clothes driers, shower stalls, queen size mattresses, and a sex doll. “We find it all,” he said.

He said the most common items encountered are alcohol containers and used toilet paper, which he recommends be removed from the park with a small plastic bag. Bacteria from the discarded tissues can leach into soil and waterways, especially when they are concentrated, such as along the Appalachian Trail.

The Save Our Smokies group teamed up with many other organizations to make the cleanup possible, Braden said: Responsible Stewardship; Keep Sevier Beautiful; Keep Blount Beautiful; Swain Clean; Fontana Village and Marina; and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Ben Pounds’s Book “Wildly Strolling Along: Father-Son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail” is available through Barnes & Noble and other online book sellers.

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