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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Woman Takes On Trash 60-Year-Old Volunteer Scours Miles Of Roadside And Sometimes Hunts Down Litterbugs

Twice a year, Virginia Prieber dons old clothes, arms herself with dozens of trash bags, and begins the assault of Mount Hall hill, north of Bonners Ferry.

“It’s a mean hill,” she said. “You have to plaster yourself up around the rock when a truck comes. I’ve dived for the bushes many, many times. If they can whack a moose, maybe they won’t even see me.”

Prieber, 60, singlehandedly scours litter from 30 miles of U.S. Highway 95 near the Canadian border. She cleans both sides of the road. It takes two months.

Although few cover as much ground, Prieber is among thousands of volunteers who pluck debris from beside Idaho’s roadways. There are more than 1,210 individuals, groups, companies and clubs registered with the state’s six-year-old “Adopt-a-Highway” program.

Their ranks include members of Earth First! and the American Nuclear Society, the National Rifle Association and the Moonshooters Pinochle Club. They include Buddhists, Baha’is and Baptists. The Internal Revenue Service maintains a stretch of land south of Coeur d’Alene.

All told, volunteers clean 2,560 miles of Idaho road. So far this year, they’ve picked up 6,051 bags of trash. Each bag averages 35 pounds.

The Idaho Transportation Department, which runs the program, picks up the bags and erects a small sign telling motorists who maintains the road.

“Some groups have community service in their charters, and businesses do it for morale. It’s also free advertising,” said Sherie Sweaney, ITD’s volunteer coordinator in Boise.

Some people maintain the medians as a memorial to dead friends or family.

Musician Cody Taylor was accidentally shot to death in 1994 by a hunting partner. Once a month, Taylor’s family and friends pick up trash along stretches of road near Bayview and Athol.

“It’s keeping his name and memory alive,” said his mother, Anne Taylor of Coeur d’Alene.

Someone recently stole the two “In Memory of Cody Taylor” signs near Naples.

“My heart just sank,” Anne Taylor said. “They can’t let him alone.”

Most of the trash consists of paper, cardboard or cans. But the volunteers also turn up tires, dead animals, refrigerators, mudflaps, bed frames … Oh, and the artillery shell.

About five years ago near Boise, volunteers found a live 16-inch-long artillery shell in the median, according to ITD roadside manager Gene Ross.

“That one was armed. Somebody must’ve just pitched it out the window,” he said.

The three-inch diameter shell was picked up by military munitions experts from nearby Mountain Home Air Force Base, he said.

Volunteers also have found money, although it’s not clear how it got discarded.

Ada County jail inmates cleaning a strip of Interstate 84 kept finding dollars, he said.

“I believe they ended up with $800 in one summer. I heard they threw a pizza party,” Ross said.

Virginia Prieber said she hasn’t found much money - just a $20 bill lost by a motorcyclist who crashed.

Prieber adopted a stretch of highway years before the state program existed. In the early 1980s she was disgusted at the garbage piling up along U.S. 95.

“Trash. King-sized. It was like the big trash wave from Spokane to the Canadian border,” she said.

Every April and September, Prieber heads out with trash bags and sun hat, gathering fast food wrappers, water bottles, smashed furniture and beer and pop cans. She recycles what she can, and ITD picks up the rest.

“I’m like a little vacuum cleaner,” she said.

Prieber becomes enraged whenever she sees someone lobbing trash out a car window. She’ll pursue them in her old Toyota pickup and scold them.

“I’ll track them all the way to the Canadian border,” she said. If there’s an address in among a pile of trash, she’ll mail the debris back to its owner.

Shortly after signing up for the program, Prieber ran into an unexpected problem. ITD set up the usual Adopt-a-Highway sign with her name on it.

Neighbors thought that was uppity.

“One neighbor called it a monument to myself,” said Prieber.

So she had the sign replaced. Now it reads “Clean Sweeps.”

“That sounded more like a group,” Prieber said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ROAD WORK People or groups committing to clean up a stretch of highway must pick up litter at least four times a year. Trash bags and road signs are provided by the state Transportation Department. Most groups care for a mile or two. The state will put up a sign with the group’s name. Discriminatory groups and political candidates are not permitted, although political groups are. To find out more, call the department at (800) 443-2878.

This sidebar appeared with the story: ROAD WORK People or groups committing to clean up a stretch of highway must pick up litter at least four times a year. Trash bags and road signs are provided by the state Transportation Department. Most groups care for a mile or two. The state will put up a sign with the group’s name. Discriminatory groups and political candidates are not permitted, although political groups are. To find out more, call the department at (800) 443-2878.

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