(WJHL) – Earlier this year, COVID-19 restrictions caused many places to close their doors in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus which left people to resort to activities they might not have engaged in prior to the pandemic such as taking to the outdoors.
While getting outside is great for both mental and physical health, the current state of our national, local, and state parks is far from the norm as an increase in illegal dumping and vandalism has sparked since the pandemic began.
“The big problem we’re seeing is in public lands. So in Cherokee National Forest, state parks and city parks,” said Environmental Planner, Alaina Wood.
Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia are full of natural beauty but lately, it’s being neglected. “It’s just people that don’t have any respect for the outdoors or the beauty it has to behold,” said Big Stone Gap Resident, James Holcomb.
Trash has become a regular scene in the forests and illegal dumping has become so common that residents barely bat an eye to trash on the trails.
Officials with our area national forests said the worst part about the dumping is the fact that free convenience centers for trash disposal can be found scattered across the region, most open 7 days a week so there’s no excuse to dump illegally.
“Local residents for free can take their waste and dump it there. So we’re surprised because just one of our recent sites is only a quarter-mile from a convenience center so it’s just surprising,” said District Ranger, Michelle Davalos.
Davalos said recent cases of vandalism and dumping have been observed at High Knob Observation Tower, Birch Knob Observation Tower, and a recent report that their new partner-built amphitheater stage at the High Knob Recreation Area had been vandalized. She said the dumping and littering tend to occur along roadways, scattered throughout the forest.
The problem isn’t only trash in Southwest Virginia, graffiti distracts from the beauty of certain hikes and unfortunately, it’s a similar sight on a number of trails. “When you see stuff like this, it really takes away from the beauty of the outdoors because you know that wasn’t there. That’s something that someone has placed there,” said Holcomb.
Not only are graffiti and garbage an eye-sore, but it can also be damaging to the environment. “It can be dangerous in terms of the health of both humans as well as our safety and also for the wildlife that’s out there too,” said Davalos.
Area environmental officials told News Channel 11 they believe people are dumping because they know they can get away with it. “It’s so much area and there are so many places they’re able to dump at and so little personal to be able to constantly monitor those areas,” said Americorp Member at NETREP, Channing Taylor.
However, just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. A number of local groups are working to solve this issue by organizing monthly cleanups, but sometimes it’s not enough.
Alaina Wood hopes a new tool that was developed in May of 2020 and just launched in early September will help with this problem. People can use this tool to report litter and help beautify the region once again. It’s a site that was launched earlier this month that would allow residents to remain anonymous while reporting illegal dumping in the region.
“Where the location is and the severity and based on that, we’ll send it to the correct group or individual to go clean it up,” said Wood.