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Column: Trash sullying city treasure

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The edge of the field adjacent to the People Trail along Jonathan Moore Pike became a catchall for a winters' worth of blowing litter. A crew dispatched by Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett was to remove the trash this week. Crews recently policed the city's right of way.
The edge of the field adjacent to the People Trail along Jonathan Moore Pike became a catchall for a winters' worth of blowing litter. A crew dispatched by Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett was to remove the trash this week. Crews recently policed the city's right of way. PHOTO BY JOE HARPRING

One of the more pleasant rewards of Columbus’ People Trails system is the ability to commune with nature mere steps from the city proper.

I, for instance, live in the downtown residential area, but by walking three or four football fields to the west, I can find myself along the banks of the Flat Rock River under a mix of trees and clear skies.

It’s that way in just about any direction on the People Trails. Some take the user past housing developments and businesses, but much of the system is open space.

Sadly, those open spaces have fallen victim to the blight many of us experience around town: litter. One of the most victimized areas is that stretch of walking and biking path that runs alongside Jonathan Moore Pike west of the downtown — the city’s front door.  

A lot of money was spent on that front door back in the 1990s — tens of millions of dollars in federal, state and local funds, not to mention a pretty significant amount in contributions from the private sector. Much of it had to do with aesthetics, especially the development of the trail that would connect the western fringe of the city to the downtown.

People who use the trail have to walk alongside traffic on Jonathan Moore Pike, but especially during warm weather months, the sights and sounds of vehicles take a back seat to the nature on the other side of the trail — farm crops. Unfortunately, those crops have that look of nature only through the growing season.

Around this time of year, they take on another look: trash ... garbage ... litter. It was especially bad this past weekend along one stretch of the trail near Walgreens, where a long line of brown cornstalks had served as a net — catching and holding plastic bags, cups, cardboard boxes and a variety of other manmade items.

There was a certain irony to the sight of the litter-filled fields over the weekend. On the other side of the trail — the space between the walkway and the highway — was a staggered line of bags containing trash. That trash had been picked up earlier within the right of way by a volunteer group from the Atterbury Job Corps Center.

“Actually, it’s pretty amazing how many volunteer groups work with us in picking up litter along the People Trail and other public property,” said Nick Rush, director of maintenance for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “We get a number of groups from Cummins Inc. as well as other companies and community organizations. Picking up litter is one of our main focuses; and often when a group calls to volunteer, we’ll choose a spot for them to do that.”

Last year, for instance, an estimated 324 hours of volunteer time was dedicated to picking up trash around the city, according to statistics compiled by the parks department. Unfortunately, there are limits to what can be expected of the volunteer groups. Venturing into those farm fields is one of them.

“Muddy boots,” Rush said. “We’re really reluctant to ask volunteers to go out into barren farm fields at this time of year when the ground is pretty muddy. That’s liable to discourage them from coming back.”

Volunteers aren’t the only weapon in the community’s arsenal for fighting litter.

In another piece of irony, a crew of nonviolent offenders assigned by the Bartholomew County Court Services office and the sheriff’s department was working on the other side of Jonathan Moore Pike from the Job Corps over the weekend. Although there is no People Trail on that side of the road, it is the location for a grove of trees lining the roadway and a busy street leading to the westside Walmart. Behind both those roads is a farm field that also served as a catchall for trash.

“It’s a never-ending problem for us,” Sheriff Mark Gorbett said. “We’ll send in a crew to clean out that area, and a few weeks later another pile of trash will have collected.”

When told about the mess in the farm field across Jonathan Moore Pike from where his work crews were operating, the sheriff volunteered to put that area on a to-do list.

Some of the areas in need of policing are private property, although the Columbus Park Foundation does own a stretch of the farmland on the north side of Jonathan Moore Pike. In private property situations, Parks and Recreation Director Ben Wagner suggests that the department could negotiate with the owners to get permission to police the area.

In the meantime, Rush has indicated he will work with the county’s work crews to help out with policing in areas along the People Trails.

The problem is that litter is a vicious cycle, especially alongside Jonathan Moore Pike. While it might be popular to blame it all on idiots tossing garbage out of passing cars, the reality is that much of the trash that gets hung up alongside the People Trails is blown there from other areas, especially some of the businesses on the highway.

Perhaps the owners and operators of those businesses should consider what they can do to reduce the trash that ends up spoiling a lot of good walks along the People Trails.

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