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Nearly 700 Inactive Groups Purged From Washington's Adopt-A-Highway

You’ve seen the Adopt-A-Highway signs by the side of the road. But have you ever seen a volunteer group picking up trash? In the past three years, Washington state has purged nearly 700 inactive organizations from the program – and taken down their signs.

On a Saturday morning along I-5 near Olympia, five members of a motorcycle club called the Street Invasion Ryders fan out to pick up trash along a two mile stretch of the freeway. Almost immediately, Derrick Fontaine encounters one of the perils of this particular brand of public service.

"Some sort of dead animal," he says. "Doesn’t smell very good.”

Fontaine leaves the unidentified carcass behind and continues his search for trash.

Instead of biker leather, the group wears orange vests for visibility. Everyone has gloves, a trash picker and several plastic bags. The Street Invasion Ryders are volunteers for Washington’s Adopt-a-Highway program. They joined about a year ago.

Member Brenna Grove says it’s one of several ways her club gives back to the community and maybe busts some stereotypes about motorcycle clubs. "We’re hoping that if somebody gets a bad impression of us that maybe the next time they’ll see our name on the side of the freeway and be like ‘oh maybe those people do care.’”

Litter pick-up is something the public cares about, but it’s a low priority for highway departments. So was born the idea of having small armies of citizens pick up trash along the road.

Adopt-a-Highway started in 1985 in Texas. It’s since spread to almost every state in the country including Oregon and Idaho. Washington joined in 1990. But like a lot of volunteer opportunities, Adopt-a-Highway is a program paved with good intentions.

“It’s not a fun job, so you really have to have a passion for community service,” says Ray Willard, a landscape architect with the Washington Department of Transportation. He was also the initial coordinator of the state’s Adopt-a-Highway program.

He says it’s common for groups to start out strong, but then lose steam. “It gets old after awhile. You’re out picking litter on the highway. And there’s cars whizzing by. It’s dangerous.”

Volunteers are supposed to pick up trash four times a year and submit a report after each clean up. But the Washington Department of Transportation didn’t track participation closely. So it wasn’t clear how effective this $184,000 dollar a year program was. That started to change in 2009 with a new centralized database.

The DOT’s Ray Willard says it quickly became clear there were a lot of inactive groups. “They have a sign up there, but they’re not doing anything for years. They don’t go out and pick litter. And if they’re not doing anything they’re getting free publicity for their group and looking like they’re doing a great job.”

It took three years to weed out the inactive groups. First there were warning letters. Then personal phone calls to group leaders – are you still in? Finally termination letters went out. As of last year, 662 groups – or 44 percent of the participants – had either voluntarily withdrawn or been dropped from the program.

One of them: Burlington Lutheran Church.

“We enjoyed doing it,” says longtime church member Pat Anderson. She remembers when they joined Adopt-a-Highway back in 1992. “You felt like you were doing something good. I just hate to see trash along the road. It just drives me nuts.”

Anderson says the group kept it up for more than a decade. The reward at the end of each clean up: cinnamon rolls and hot coffee provided by a fellow church member who lived along the clean-up route.

“We had a really good deal there,” Anderson says.

But overtime, Anderson says the church volunteers got older lost their momentum, and “It just kind of petered out.”

Anderson concedes she never got around to calling the highway department to tell them to take down the church’s Adopt-a-Highway signs.

“I’d just go by the signs and think ‘oh somebody needs to tell them’ and then I’d forget it,” she says.

In recent years, another church member took over but he says trash pick-ups were sporadic at best. In the end, Burlington Lutheran withdrew from the program last year.

It’s a very common story. For comparison, I checked on the Oregon and Idaho Adopt-a-Highway programs. Oregon relies on its district managers to ride herd on the volunteer groups. One manager I spoke with says he sends out warning letters followed by termination letters to groups that fail to pick up trash twice a year. Idaho’s coordinator says she has a strict policy of dropping inactive groups every two years.

Back out on Interstate 5, the Street Invasion Ryders Motorcycle Club is making good progress on its two-mile stretch of adopted highway. On this day, there’s not much litter to pick up.

“Usually by this time we have 20 bags by the side of the freeway,” says Brenna Grove. She says this is an easy day especially since the weather’s nice. But she can understand why many groups lose their drive.

“It’s not always easy to get all of us together at one time to do this. And the last time we were out here it started pouring down rain on us and we were out here for three hours.”

Now that so many groups have dropped out of Adopt-a-Highway, Washington is looking for new volunteers. If you’re interested, there are more than 2000 miles available for adoption statewide.

On the Web:

Washington Adopt-a-Highway - Washington state Dept. of Transportation 
Oregon Adopt-a-Highway - Oregon Dept. of Transportation 
Idaho Adopt-a-Highway - Idaho Transportation Department 

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."