Monumental piles of trash


SCA interns in Ironwood NF spend much of their day cleaning up after border crossers

By Randy Metcalf, The Explorer

Note from SCA: We’ve been doing this on the border for awhile now

Fifteen large garbage bags fill the beds of two pickup trucks after one morning spent cleaning up the desert.

The mess consists of backpacks, shirts, shoes, toiletries, pants, plastic bags, water bottles, ID cards, letters, photographs, bandages and aspirin, left behind by people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Interns for the Bureau of Land Management clean up the Ironwood Forest National Monument as part of their duties. The 129,000-acre national monument is home to Ragged Top Mountain, a large population of desert tortoises, ironwood trees and Turk’s head cacti. It is also a hotspot for people waiting for their pickup vehicles after crossing the border illegally.

This morning’s haul of trash was about average for interns Daniel Morgan, 22, and Christina Perdos, 25, who are set up with the BLM through the Student Conservation Association. The closest location on this day was about 10 miles west of Marana and Interstate 10 as the crow flies.

Morgan and Perdos spend 40 hours a week cleaning up after not only illegal smugglers, but also people who go to the monument to shoot, leaving their targets and spent shell casings behind. They also do road and trail restorations, and clean up after people who illegally dump household and construction garbage.

“They pick up a workload that would be very difficult for us to handle on our own,” said Mark Lambert, the monument’s manager. “They’re strictly tied to basically addressing the affects of illegal traffic that comes through Ironwood.

“They have made a world of a difference,” said Lambert, who estimates three-fourths of the trash comes from illegal immigrants traveling through the park. “The place would look totally different if we did not have that workforce out there.”

At times during their year-long paid internships, Morgan and Perdos go out with a ranger to repair a fence or put up a barricade. Other times, they scout the monument for trash.

For now, they know where they’ll find trash. That will change when law enforcement changes its patrol positions, dispersing or funneling the “lay-up” sites where piles of garbage are left behind.

Perdos is from New York, where she worked with a parks department. She has been with the BLM since late February.

“I am really enjoying being outside,” Perdos said. “I really do like the city and I was working in New York for a bit dealing with things that were outside. I just didn’t get much field time. I think I just wanted to be outside.”

Some people might not find her work to be “enjoying the great outdoors.”

“I could see how people could said, ‘oh, you’re just picking up trash’, but the bottom line is it needs to be done,” Perdos said. “It’s just part of the things that need to happen.”

On this particular day, the group moved into a wash they know is frequented by people making their way into the country illegally. On they way, Morgan stopped his truck to pick up a sleeping back lying slightly off the dirt road. Under it were about a dozen centipedes, and surrounding it were the scattered bones of what was most likely a coyote. Nearby, there were remnants of an illegally dumped mattress.

At the wash site, they filled three large, bright green garbage bags with backpacks, playing cards, water bottles and even a small half-filled bottle of cheap tequila. There are bottle of herbal medicine lying beside an unraveled wad of bandages. Hats, socks and tuna cans speckle the landscape. They only came across the remnants of people resting. The interns have yet to encounter people making their way into the country illegally.

For the past eight years, the BLM has been using interns. In doing so, it has set up certain protocols for interns to follow so they don’t end up in a troubling situation. They always take two vehicles, in case one breaks down or gets stuck. They don’t travel alone, and don’t investigate anything they find wary. They stay in communication with law enforcement and let officers know of any suspicious activities.

Earlier in the day, the two were cleaning up an area when they saw a vehicle sitting out in the desert. They backed away and notified law enforcement. Though the person they called told them it was one of their people, Morgan and Perdos were cautious.

“We aren’t walking up to abandoned vehicles or anything,” Morgan said. “We are here to pick up trash.”

Every week, the interns make their way to desert sites polluted by humans. Each time they clean it up, they come back to find trash once again.

“I don’t think of it as an endless battle because I think about how much of it would have piled up if somebody wasn’t here to pick it up,” Perdos said. “And also we have seen pictures in the past of how much was there in previous years.”

Dealing with all the garbage left behind has changed Perdos’ view on her own life and what she uses and buys. Whenever possible, she doesn’t want to buy containers.

“I kind of want to buy everything in bulk and have them just put it in my hands,” she said.

For Morgan, who has been interning since early February, the experience working with the BLM has been an introduction to working with people and achieving goals that are beyond an individual.

“It has taught me that through planning, and organization, and manpower, you can get a lot done,” Morgan said.

“We are working with ranchers, working with volunteers, and people who are willing to donate their time and energy to achieve something bigger.”

Those workers include people from the Tohono O’odham tribe who have a clean-up crew of their own. They meet where their properties border one another and work together to clean up the surrounding areas.

All the interns are overwhelmed when they begin, Lambert said. But they soon find a groove in their routine. Then, in their day-to-day routines, they are faced with the complex issues that surround their duties.

“There are some real political, emotional, and other issues associated with this and I think that they learn quite a bit from those experiences and they grow because of those,” Lambert said. “And that is really what we want to see, is an intern come in and have an experience that helps them figure out what they want to do in the future.”


Student Conservation Association