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Maintaining the Beauty of Southern Illinois, One Trash Blast at a Time

A no dumping sign pinned to a tree at ripple hollow.
Ethan Holder

The glistening water of Lake of Egypt invites you to take a boat out for a spin. The bright light emanating at the end of the Tunnel Hill tunnel urges you to keep going. The lush trails full of trees and steep hills of Ripple Hollow offer you never ending possibilities. These are just some of the natural beauties located in southern Illinois. However, their beauty is being covered up by mounds of filth.

“When they came out here they found over 2,000 pounds of trash. That consisted of really large things like tires and stoves that we had pulled out of the ravine and tiny little cigarette buds and plastic” Anne Townsend, the Extension Program Coordinator of University of Illinois’ Natural Resources, Environment, and Energy team said.

All of this trash has been dumped throughout the natural wonders of southern Illinois, but Townsend and other organizations are doing what they can to bring the beauty back to the region. U of I’s extension, the Shawnee National Forest, and the Friends of the Shawnee National Forest have gotten together for many years to host Trash Blasts which lead a group of volunteers down trails, around lakes, and deep into forests to find whatever rubbish they can get their hands on. Townsend says she loves nature but she doesn’t do these events solely for herself.

“As you can see, I have a child. I enjoy the outdoors and want to be able to go out into nature and be able to see it in its beauty. I want to maintain the ecosystem that makes southern Illinois so rich for my children and other locals to be able to enjoy” Townsend said.

She wants her kids to be able to enjoy nature for decades to come, and that hope sprouts from her own experiences.

“When I was a little kid, I remember sitting in the backseat with my dad driving and a piece of trash that got captured by the wind in our car would fly out and he would be like ‘NO, you just littered that!’ He would turn the car around and make me go pick it up. I learned from a young age that littering wasn’t the best and growing up in parks and camping, I got an appreciation for the natural beauty” Townsend said.

Her appreciation for the land has led to her efforts in picking up garbage around southern Illinois. Over the past three years, the trash blasts have removed over 7,000 pounds of trash from the region, with the most recent endeavor at Ripple Hollow collecting over 500 pounds. This seems meager compared to the 2,000 pounds collected in 2022, but Townsend says this is amazing to see.

“It has been going pretty good. The trash has gone down from this year to last year so that is really exciting for us to see. Our efforts are doing something and we have been very successful when you look at it collectively as so many people have come out and we are making an impact on the forest” Townsend says.

None of this could be possible without the volunteers who show up and work together to keep their home in the best state it can be in. Many of the volunteers, including Joe Littleton, have been caring about nature for decades.

“I hated seeing the trash everywhere when we fished at Kentucky Lake. Everything floated up in the back of the bays where we were fishing and I just hated it. I wanted to pick it all up but my dad didn’t let me because it was gonna disturb the fishing. So, I would get off on the bank and pick up a bag worth of trash on my way back to the truck back when I was ten or twelve years old” Littleton said.

Being outdoors with his father growing up gave him a personal connection with nature that knew no bounds. He both admired nature and did what he could to give back to it. Sometimes however, he would find things that could range from disturbing to even dangerous.

“The things that I hate are needles in parks. I geocache and we would go try to find geocaches, crawl underneath a bridge, and find a stash of drugs within sight of where the cache was. We would find needles lying around where kids were going to play. I’ve seen those in western Kentucky, Southern Illinois, Missouri, and even Virginia” Littleton said.

While there have been some bad experiences when trying to pick up litter, this does not stop the volunteers from coming out. Barbara Innis, a regular volunteer at the Trash Blasts, says the work they do is needed to keep the Earth not only beautiful, but also healthy.

“This is nature and if we don’t take care of it, it’s going to be toxic. People don’t realize with the trash, it may take forever to deteriorate but then it poisons the Earth. Then you lose trees and all the vegetation that keeps the top soil and the Earth functioning for us to live on” Innis said.

Many people have stepped up to display their passion for nature by cleaning up their local trails and parks, but more volunteers would never hurt. Anne Townsend invites anyone with a love for nature or who just wants a way to meet people in their community to join her when the trash blasts start back up this September.

“I think that these events are really something amazing. We get to see people from all over. This event we had people from Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois who have all come together just to pick up trash. So if you’re looking for a way to meet new people and get out in your local woods or parks, these are great opportunities” Townsend said.

Many people come from all over the midwest with all different backgrounds and reasons for investing their time as a volunteer. But they all have the same goals in mind.

“I think it is different from everyone but pretty much what it all comes back to is wanting to care for the land and making sure that others get to experience the beauty and majesty of what we have here” Townsend said.

Ethan Holder is a student contributor for WSIU Public Broadcasting located at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Contact WSIU Radio at 618-453-6101 or email wsiunews@wsiu.org
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