Melanie Wilson has lived in many places across the United States and believes the Pacific Northwest is, “hands-down,” the most gorgeous place in the country.
However, since moving to Washougal three years ago, Wilson says she has become increasingly frustrated over what she sees as an unacceptable amount of garbage piling up on the sides of local roads, marring the area’s natural beauty.
“The trash issue had been bothering me personally for quite some time, up to the point where I could hardly go down the road as a passenger without wanting to put my hands over my eyes. It was just so depressing, really,” Wilson said.
“Then my husband and I drove down the length of most of California back in February. I know that Interstate 5 in California hasn’t always looked good and doesn’t always look good, but it was pristine when we were driving up and down it,” she added. “I thought, ‘It’s possible for a state to prioritize clean highways.’ As we drove back and got into Oregon and then into Washington, the roadsides just got trashier and trashier, and more depressing as we went along.”
Now, Wilson — the founder of the East County Citizens Alliance — is turning her frustration into action.
Wilson, along with other members of the alliance, launched the “Great Route 14 Trash Cleanup” in March. Since then, the group has managed to collect and dispose of over 2,000 pounds of trash along Highway 14 in the Camas-Washougal area.
Wilson started the East County Citizens Alliance earlier this year to “support and protect our community and public institutions through relationship-building, education, advocacy, and volunteer initiatives that grow positive relationships and build a vibrant, healthy east county.”
“I went out there (after returning from California) and picked up four bags of trash,” she said. “I went back and talked to other folks in ECCA, and they said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us you were going to do this? We’ll do it with you.’ We thought that we had more power to organize cleanups under the ECCA umbrella rather than just myself alone, so that’s what we did.”
A group of volunteers ventured onto the sides of Highway 14 for the first time on March 5, and has returned “almost every Saturday” since then to collect trash, sort it into piles, put it into bags and take them to the Washougal Transfer Station.
“I’ve learned that if we’re really committed to a cleaner environment, at least concerning (Highway 14) — an important shared, communal space so many of us drive down — then we need to take control ourselves,” Wilson said.
So far, about 30 Camas-Washougal residents have donated their time or money — or both — to the trash-cleanup efforts.
“I think there’s been a real hunger among all of the volunteers to do something positive for our community, and I think we want to harness that and nurture it,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of benefits to doing this work. We not only get a cleaner environment, a place we can feel proud to live in, but we get to know one another, and we learn that we can make a positive difference. We’re not just waiting for some official to make something for us or a bureaucracy to make space for us. We’re doing it ourselves.”
Wilson has reached out to Washington State Department of Transportation officials about the possibility of the group adopting the stretch of Highway 14 through the state’s Adopt-a-Highway program. Typically, an assigned section includes 2 to 4 miles of roadside. WSDOT provides traffic-control equipment, safety equipment, safety training, litter bags and disposal services to the volunteer groups.
“The Adopt-a-Highway program will make it easier and cheaper for us to run this project,” Wilson said. “The ideal scenario, from everything that I’ve been thinking about and what we’ve learned over the last couple of months, is that if we took more local control — either through Adopt-a-Highway, or perhaps a city-run litter-collection program like Vancouver has — we would be able to work more cooperatively with WSDOT, and that would be a good thing.”
Wilson said she was told the Adopt-a-Highway program was put “on pause indefinitely” in Clark County while WSDOT conducted a road study but that the program will soon start again.