Belated Earth Day event cleans reservation roadsides

Children from the Arapaho Immersion Preschool pose with two of their teachers, Alvena Oldman (left) and Mary Ann Headley, in front of the litter they helped clean from the streets of Ethete. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to view)
By Ron Feemster
April 30, 2013

More than 300 residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation, from senior citizens to preschool children, collected at least two trailer loads of trash from the roadsides at the main intersection of Ethete on Monday in a belated celebration of Earth Day.

“We cleaned a half mile in all directions from the stoplight,” said Danelle Thunder, the manager of the Ethete Store, which sponsored the event. Middle school students and preschoolers from the Arapaho Immersion Preschool took part of the day off to help pick up trash.

Danelle Thunder helps serve lunch to the cleanup crew outside Blue Sky Hall in Ethete. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to view)

Litter is a vexing problem on the Wind River Indian Reservation, where highway roadsides are often strewn with beer bottles, soda cans and fast-food wrappers. The contrast can be stark when leaving Lander, a town that seems to take “Leave No Trace,” the backcountry mantra of the National Outdoor Leadership School, as its unofficial environmental motto.

“From my own perspective, the NOLS philosophy stems from a different social and economic status,” said Patrick Goggles, who represents the reservation in the state House of Representatives. “It’s a different level of awareness than you find with Native people.”

Goggles acknowledges the paradox when leaders aim to make environmental decisions with the well-being of the next seven generations in mind, but drivers toss trash out their car and truck windows.

“I’m not sure in general why people do that,” Goggles said. “It’s a behavior that has been around a while. I do think that Native American people should be more environmentally conscious.”

The problem is most obvious this time of year, when the snow melts and reveals piles of debris discarded during the winter. Spring winds scatter the litter along the roads.

“It’s not all tribal people who are that way,” Goggles said. “People passing through the reservation seem to think it’s a way to throw stuff away.”

Wherever the litter comes from, it is usually up to local government and residents to clean it up. County and state budgets do not cover much cleanup besides the collection of road kill and larger objects like tires, which could be safety hazards, said Wyoming Department of Transportation public relations specialist Cody Beers.

Ira Eagle Road says life is good on the Wind River Indian Reservation. “There’s trash,” he said. “But there’s the mountains. And there are jobs here, too.” (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to view)

“Maintenance crews don’t usually pick up trash unless it’s big stuff,” Beers said.

Ethete Store organizes the cleanup every spring, usually on Earth Day. The staff helped organize the work crews, ordered T-shirts and served a lunch of hot dogs and hamburgers at Blue Sky Hall.

“When I woke up on Monday, it was snowing big flakes,” said Thunder. “We had to push it back a week.”

Thunder did not know exactly how much trash was collected, but a truck and trailer made at least two trips to the dump.

A few reservation residents take it upon themselves to clean sections of highways near their homes. Goggles said that he and his grandchildren try to keep the roads in front of their home clear of litter.

Ira Eagle Road, who lives outside Ethete just south of the Wyoming Indian Elementary School, was out picking up trash on Sunday morning. He filled three white trash bags with litter. Eagle Road thinks the reasons for the littering problem are simple.

“People don’t care,” he said. “I’m not sure why. Maybe alcoholism?”

There were enough beer bottles scattered around Eagle Road’s feet to make that a plausible explanation.

Eagle Road, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe who grew up on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota, is a commercial roofer who works for a Powell company. He meets his crew at the McDonald’s in Lander and travels to job sites in southern parts of the state. At the end of the week, he is back on the reservation, ready to pick up a few more bags of trash.

“It’s usually just me and my girlfriend out here,” he said. “We try to pick up this part of the road.” He says life is better on the Wind River reservation than in South Dakota.


Ira Eagle Road keeps a stretch of Highway 132 clear of litter. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to view)

“There’s trash,” he said. “But there’s the mountains. And there are jobs here, too.”

Such private cleanup efforts are often more formal off the reservation. Around Fremont County, volunteer groups “adopt” some 86 sections of highway at least two miles long, according to Beers. That comes to at least 172 of the 380 miles of state and U.S. highways in the county.

Groups who put in the time to clean their section of the roads twice a year include “school organizations, businesses, families, hospital and medical groups, WyDOT personnel, banks, farmers and ranchers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, service clubs and fire departments,” Beers said in an e-mail. If they stick to the project, WyDOT will put up a sign honoring their efforts.

In Ethete, the cleanup crew does not have high expectations for keeping the roads free of litter.

“It might last until tomorrow,” Thunder said. “Then we’ll see more McDonald’s wrappers.”

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at ron@wyofile.com.

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