Volunteer effort to clean up waterfront trail grows like weed

Retiree takes initiative and others follow suit

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 
photoSteve Smith

Want to help?

In the city of Vancouver, call volunteer coordinator Hailey Heath at 360-487-8316

In unincorporated Clark County, call volunteer coordinator Karen Llewellyn at 360-397-6118, ext. 1627

Steve Smith, a retired lumber broker, was pulling weeds along the Waterfront Renaissance Trail earlier this summer when a young couple walked by hand in hand.

"The boyfriend said, 'Do the crime, do the time,'" Smith said with a laugh Monday, when he was among a dozen volunteers weeding near the Water Resources Education Center.

They were not part of a county corrections crew.

For one thing, the city of Vancouver would have had to pay $450, the daily cost of hiring a corrections crew.

The city wasn't paying anything for Smith, who has taken volunteering to another level. Instead of signing up to participate in a work party at a park or trail, Smith — after contacting the city's volunteer coordinator — just started doing the work. And as he weeded, passersby would ask what he was doing. Some decided to join in.

Smith and his recruits have been working 9 a.m. to noon Mondays.

"Last week, I wasn't able to be here, and they still showed up," Smith said Monday. "This has been really wonderful."

He hopes his just-do-it approach will catch on with other residents.

As both the city and the county have cut budgets, weeds have been allowed to flourish.

Smith lives east of Wintler Park and walks the Renaissance Trail daily. Frustrated with the lack of care shown to the popular trail, he contacted the city and was told there's no money for maintenance. He eventually contacted city volunteer coordinator Hailey Heath.

Smith was told park and trails volunteers need to register and attend an orientation before signing up to help at a supervised clean-up event.

Why can't he just go out and pull weeds?

"It was can't, can't, can't, can't," Smith said. "It was just enough for me to say, 'Yes, I can.'"

Smith, who's already registered with Volunteer Connections, did fill out the paperwork for the city but never attended orientation.

His helpers include Marty Forsmann, president of the Tidewater Cove Homeowner's Association.

"It's good to be together with your neighbors," she said.

They hope that people will take notice of their work and take pride in the trail and stop littering.

The group has gone beyond weeding. One volunteer bought geraniums for four large planter boxes that are near educational signs, which volunteers cleaned. The city did contribute bark dust for the volunteers to spread, and volunteers were able to use a city wheelbarrow from the resource center's maintenance department.

Gail Welsh, who lives in the Old Evergreen Highway neighborhood, was cleaning moss off a pillar on Monday. She was apologizing for the scraping noise of her hand tool but, hey, as a volunteer, the city doesn't want her to use any type of power tool, including a washer.

Budget cuts

Loretta Callahan, spokeswoman for the city's public works department, said she appreciates the work done by Smith's team.

"They are making a real positive impact," Callahan said. "They've made it more than a one-time event."

The city's grounds maintenance staff has been cut by more than 50 percent since 2009, part of citywide cuts reflecting community input and priorities, Callahan said.

The 14 employees are responsible for 83 city parks (a total of 517 acres), 11 open space properties (50 acres), 58 special properties such as city facilities and fire stations (217 acres), three cemeteries (70 acres), 72 miles of trails and 577 miles of streets with rights-of-way on each side. Many streets also have medians that need tending.

The employees also tend to 108 acres of shrub beds and an estimated 13,250 trees, Callahan said.

Callahan said the city has identified areas where it makes sense for volunteers to help.

"We want to make sure our volunteers are safe when they are working," she said. "A median on a busy arterial is not an option."

For unincorporated areas, Clark County is planning to launch an "Adopt a Road" program later this year.

The county's four-member vegetation management team, which tends to 1,100 miles of roadsides, was cut in half at the start of 2009, said Jeff Mize, spokesman for the Clark County Public Works Department.

Director Pete Capell said the county has significantly reduced its budget for median and roadside vegetation, and most of the work that gets done is in urban areas.

Capell said he hopes the "Adopt a Road" program will help to make up the difference in what the county used to be able to provide and the current level of service.

Litter pickup would be the first priority, he said, but volunteers could do weeding, pruning, graffiti removal or other beautification.

Volunteers would need to check with the county first to make sure what they are doing in the median or roadside is appropriate, he said, echoing Callahan's concern about safety.

"We want to make sure that the volunteers and traveling public remain safe," Capell said. As to whether volunteers should be able to use power tools, he said the first answer will always be "no" but if someone demonstrates the ability to safely operate one, then the answer may change to "yes."

Volunteers are not allowed to spray chemicals, either.

The county does hire corrections crews to clean up litter along roadsides and tend to vegetation, Capell said. The $450 daily cost helps cover the cost of running the corrections program.

Previously, volunteers doing public maintenance work had raised issues with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents public works employees.

That hasn't been a problem since budget cuts have translated into a reduced level of service, and Capell said he doesn't anticipate a problem provided the county doesn't lay off any employees because volunteers are doing the work.

As for Smith, he said he and his crew aren't committing to do the volunteer work forever. He'd like to continue cleaning the stretch of the trail, and then do maintenance to keep it looking good.

He'd also like to see more people, when they go out for a walk, take a few minutes to pick up trash and pull some weeds.

"Quit looking for someone else to do what you're perfectly capable of doing," he said.