Volunteers sought for river cleanup

By David Lias

david.lias@plaintalk.net

People who love the Missouri River will have an opportunity to help return much of it that flows through Clay County back to the way that nature intended.

A river cleanup at the Clay County Park southwest of Vermillion is planned for the morning of Saturday, Sept. 14.

Volunteers are asked to arrive at the Clay County Park Boat ramp shelter by 8 a.m. for signup. Work will then commence until noon.

For approximately the last decade, a similar cleanup effort has focused on the Missouri in the Yankton area. Dugan Smith, a park ranger with the National Park Service at the Missouri National Recreational River in Yankton said it’s time to also give some attention to the downstream stretch of the channel in Clay County.

“We’ve cleaned up over 100 tons of debris and garbage from the river there (in the Yankton vicinity), and this the first year we’ve done cleanups outside that area,” he said. “We’ve done one at Ponca, at the Ponca State Park this last spring, and now we’re going to this one here at Clay County Park.”

There are also plans to hold a cleanup near the Vermillion boat ramp area at Niobrara State Park in Oct. 5.

To make the plans for river cleanup become a reality will depend on the willingness of volunteers.

“We need volunteers to come out to the event,” Smith said. “That’s the backbone of it – the volunteers, to help with the cleanup. A bonus is this gives a lot of people who normally don’t go out on the river a chance to do just that.

“This is a chance for people who really appreciate the river to get out there on the river and get out on a sandbar or an island or a piece of land on the river,” he said. “A lot of people don’t have boats and have a chance to go out on the river like that.”

“Everybody who comes out will get to go out on a boat, and you’ll also get a t-shirt,” said Chris Wilkinson, chief of interpretation and education at National Park Service’s Missouri River Recreational River office in Yankton. “And there’s food at the end, and coffee at the beginning.

“A lot of the people who come to our cleanup in Yankton don’t have a boat, and they like that one time during the year when they can come out and come and help us pick up trash,” Smith said. “People really enjoy getting out on the river, and that way get to appreciate the river and learn why it’s part of the National Park Service.”

People may also be surprised at the volume and the types of material that the cleanup will remove from the Missouri.

“You don’t see anything from the boat,” Smith said, “but when you get out there and start picking up, pretty soon you have a bag here and a bag there until you have a boatload.”

This week, Smith and Wilkinson have been busy conducting a survey of the river that flows through Clay County, taking note of areas in special need of cleanup.

“We estimate how many people may show up, and we target these different sites where we know there might be things,” Smith said. “If there are big things out there, we’ll GPS them, and then maybe cut them into smaller pieces that can be more easily picked up.

“When we go back to that spot on Sept. 14, we’ll be able to go back to that spot and dump a crew off to start bringing that close to the shore so a boat can come up and pick it up,” he said.

One may assume that people who use the river are also guilty of the trash that’s collected in it over the years. That isn’t always the case, Smith said.

“The river is a big area, and it just collects things,” he said. “The wind blows, and something may blow off of someone’s property. Trash will get blown into, and once it’s in the river, there’s trees and brush, and there’s the river and sand. It collects, and once the trash gets in there, it stays.”

Volunteers will likely find remnants of the massive flooding of the Missouri that occurred in summer of 2011.

“The flood, especially, tore up a lot of docks,” Wilkinson said.

The continued efforts in the Yankton area have begun to have a noticeable effect, at least in terms of the volume of refuse removed from the river.

“The first few years, we’d remove about 10 to 15 tons of materials – things like tires. We’d remove boatloads and boatloads of used tires, because they were used in the past to stabilize banks. We’d also find pieces of car bodies – hoods and things like that – the old ‘Detroit rip rap’ type of items.”

Fortunately, thanks to a cooperative effort involving the National Parks Service and other agencies, those car bodies have been removed. Occasionally, parts that have shed off those old cars are found during more recent cleanup efforts.

“That is part of this whole effort of getting the river back to the way it once was, for the esthetics of it,” Smith said, “and people are starting to recreate more on it, with canoeing and kayaking, and getting out on the sandbars that are accessible during the summertime.”

“It is considered a wild and scenic river, and we fall under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and one of the things that we are mandated to protect under that act is water quality,” Wilkinson said.

The National Park Service staff is grateful for the assistance they are receiving from the Vermillion community.

“We’ll have staff there that will help sign up the volunteers, and once they’re signed up, they get a t-shirt,” Smith said. “And then we’ll be on our way.

“This is new for the community and this area, and we’ve been getting great help from community members, such as the Vermillion Chamber of Commerce,” he said. “We’ll start out small, and work our way up to hopefully have this be an annual event.”

“We’d like to have this year after year after year,” Wilkinson said. “It’s not just that we need help, but the river needs help in trying to reconnect (a strong relationship) with Vermillion. If the river came up to the bluff or Cotton Park, I think people would be a little more attached to it.

“This is a way for people to get out on the river, and there’s a lot of trash that needs to be picked up,” he said. “The Clay County Park is probably one of the best county parks in the region; it’s a jewel.”

For more information, contact Smith by phone at (605) 665-0209 or by e-mail at dugan_smith@nps.gov.

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