Earth Day: Retired wildlife biologist encourages residents to stop littering on the Glenn Highway

It’s not just about beatifying the area, it’s about maintaining habitats
Cleanup efforts begin to remove garbage in the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge along the highway.
Published: Apr. 21, 2022 at 6:48 PM AKDT
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PALMER, Alaska (KTUU) - A dedicated group of volunteers have begun their spring tradition of clearing what others have left behind — litter strewn along the shoulder of the Glenn Highway within the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge.

A sign that reads “Litter Crew Ahead” and a string of vehicles parked along the highway precede the volunteers who put on orange safety vests and work for hours to remove trash from along the picturesque stretch of the Glenn Highway between Reflections Lake and the Parks Highway interchange. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game organizes the crew every year. Among the volunteers is Barb Johnson.

This area is so beautiful,” Johnson said. “I love seeing it and spending time out here, and I love that all the birds are just coming back and stuff, but It’s always such a mess here when the snow melts,” Johnson said.

Johnson has been volunteering to help clean up for at least six years. She’s a retired teacher that used to teach her students about birds and wetlands, as well as understanding the value of natural land. She also runs a community Facebook page called Clean Scene- Alaska that focuses on local cleanup efforts.

Springtime in Alaska means cleanup season in many different aspects. Every year, the snowmelt uncovers months worth of cans, cups, bags, and bottles that have either been thrown out of vehicles or fallen out of unsecured loads. Whatever the reason for the discarded trash, Johnson said the problem is largely avoidable.

“It makes me feel good to help clean up,” Johnson said. “It’s such a pretty area.”

Johnson said that their efforts are not just about cleaning up an eyesore. Volunteer Jerry Hupp — a retired wildlife biologist — said it’s important to pick up the trash before it blows out into the wetlands and impacts wildlife.

Cleanup efforts begin to remove garbage in the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge along the...
Cleanup efforts begin to remove garbage in the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge along the highway.

“It’s not just about making it look pretty, It’s about keeping stuff (out) that can degrade and release toxic chemicals in the wetlands that are important to birds,” Hupp stated.

During the spring, thousands of migratory birds including ducks, geese, and swans stop to refuel in the refuge area during their migration to northern nesting grounds. Many species of water birds remain in the refuge for the summer to nest and raise their young. When litter ditched by humans is left unchecked, chemicals can leak out and pollute the soil and nearby water.

While efforts could be made by humans to help keep trash out of the refuge, there has been some good news in recent years. The volunteers say that the plastic bag ban enacted in Palmer seems to have had an affect on the number of bags they are picking up along the highway each spring.

“That has made such a difference,” Hupp said. “When I first started out here plastic bags were the biggest item — most numerous item we picked up — and now they’re not as common.”

The people who make up this particular litter crew have been doing this every spring for years. Some were even a part of the Cottonwood Creek bathrooms cleanup effort that took place earlier in April. The group will continue to go out and pick up litter until both sides of the highway between the interchange and Reflections Lake are cleaned up. The Palmer office of the Department of Fish and Game can be contacted for information on how to volunteer.

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