SKULL VALLEY, Utah – During a warm spell this fall, vandals hauled 18 decrepit televisions and computers down a narrow gravel road in Utah’s picturesque Skull Valley, dumped them on a hillside, blasted them with guns and left them for dead.
Nearby on the scrubby valley floor, other items have met the same fate: a hot water heater, paint cans, a candy vending machine, a couch and even a pile of mannequin heads.
Illegally dumped garbage is piling up on federal lands, often creating toxic hazards and costly cleanups. And nowhere is it more apparent than on the vast, often-stunning tracts owned by the Bureau of Land Management.
“We can’t keep up with it,” Ray Kelsey, a BLM outdoor recreation specialist, said on a recent trip to an outlaw dump site about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City.
The BLM doesn’t keep a nationwide tab on the number of illegal dump sites, but hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent each year to clean them up, said Georgette Fogle, who oversees the BLM’s solid waste program from Washington, D.C. “Every state has a problem,” Fogle said.
That includes junk from meth labs in Alaska, solvents in Idaho, tires in Wyoming, burned-out cars in Colorado and washing machines in New Mexico. BLM officials fear more TVs will be abandoned as part of the switchover from analog to digital signals.
And where one pile of garbage shows up, others follow.
“If there’s trash there already, (people) feel like they can dump their own trash,” said Beth Barrie, project manager for Take Pride in America in southern Nevada.
Faced with mounting dump sites and expenses, BLM is now preparing a national appeal to the public to halt illegal dumping. A nationwide campaign could launch next year.
It’s no sure bet though. In many places, the BLM has put up signs asking the public not to litter. Many end up vandalized, destroyed or shot to pieces.
Catching the litterbugs in the act, however, has proven difficult, with rangers being outnumbered by the illegal dumpers and charged with patrolling millions of remote acres.
One area popular with shooters outside Billings was littered for years with bullet-riddled computers, microwaves, fire extinguishers and oil drums.
Chuck Ward, a former BLM staff ranger who led efforts to clean up the site, theorizes a connection between testosterone and blowing things up.
“They like to see stuff break,” Ward said.