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Tired of the mess: Three North Bay counties to collaborate on coastal Leave No Trace campaign

The 7 Leave No Trace principles

1) Plan ahead and prepare

2) Travel and camp on durable surfaces

3) Dispose of waste properly.

4) Leave what you find

5) Minimize campfire impacts

6) Respect wildlife

7) Be considerate of others

In 2008, Richard James escaped from Silicon Valley to get closer to nature, moving to Inverness, an unincorporated town on the shoreline near Point Reyes Station.

“I moved up here because it's beautiful, and I love it,” James said. “And I think a lot of people come out here because it's beautiful. So, it's really ironic that when people come out to such a beautiful place, and then defile it, and tarnish it.”

The wind-swept Northern California coast, with its dazzling views and biological diversity, has always been a tourism mecca, but that has been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic as people looked to escape their homes for the outdoors.

And with the tourism comes trash. And lots of it, according to officials and residents who say they are fed up with the leftover takeout containers, abandoned camping gear and even human waste that litters the coast.

A new effort in Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties hopes to address the issue by educating the public on the seven principles of the Leave No Trace movement, which aims to minimize the human impact on the environment through education, rather than restoration.

Some of those principles include disposing of waste properly, respecting wildlife and being considerate of others.

In partnership with the Leave No Trace nonprofit, the counties will create educational resources such as signs, QR codes and digital packages with the guidelines for North Bay tourists. The effort begins later this month.

“In the past, our park signs have been kind of focused just on the rules,” said Meda Freeman, a spokesperson for the Regional Parks Service. “Please do this. Don't do that.”

But Leave No Trace’s expertise is really on how you can tell the public more about what you're asking for and why, she said.

The projected expense for Sonoma County is $10,000 to support the cost of advertising, graphic design services, partnership contributions and more, Freeman said.

Two federally recognized tribes, the Graton Rancheria and the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, are also supporting their efforts, citing their shared goal of protecting the coasts which their ancestors once called home, according to the memorandum of understanding signed by the counties.

Also in the memorandum, the three counties committed to “significantly” reducing coastal trash by July 1, 2027, though did not set specific goals.

Trash ‘everywhere’

In Sonoma County, almost 39,000 pounds of trash were collected in the most recent California Coastal Cleanup Day, according to a Coastwalk report.

In Marin County, an average of 11,522 pounds of coastal trash is picked up every year and 3,052 pounds of trash in Mendocino County.

More than 24 trillion pounds of plastic are dumped into oceans ever year, according to a 2020 study from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The trash, which ends up scattered in the sand and bobbing in the tides, bothers one resident so much, he’s made it his goal to pick up as much as he can, calling himself a “coastodian.”

James, the Inverness resident, is well-known in the community for his efforts to clean up trash everywhere he goes. He can’t help it, he says.

“I try to go there for the original purpose to enjoy the beauty and ignore the mess like most people do, but it’s hard.”

In recent years, James has become more of an advocate for weeding out the problem at its root, rather than spending tax dollars cleaning up the problem.

He said that when he heard about three-county initiative, “I applauded it.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the coastal pollution increased like it never had before with high visitation to the coastlines, James and public officials said.

“It emphasized that we don't have the infrastructure to deal with solid waste is being brought in by visitors and residents in coastal areas,” said Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni.

That burden was placed on many unincorporated towns, Rodoni and James said, which don’t have the resources to clean up all of the trash.

On top of that, many of the people looking to explore the coast were just beginners at outdoor activities and unaware of the Leave No Trace philosophy, James said.

Many didn’t know about the impact of their leftovers and exposed feces, or maybe they just didn’t care, James speculates. Either way, it’s a threat to wildlife and public safety. That’s why it’s important to educate people, he said.

In Marin County, the Leave No Trace Project builds on their Reusable Foodware Ordinance, which was passed in Marin County in early May and bans most single-use plastic utensils and other takeout foodware in 18 months, Rodoni said.

In Sonoma County, the Leave No Trace Campaign is also a continuation of a partnership with Sonoma County Regional Parks and their nonprofit supporters, Sonoma County Tourism.

Signs and information have already been placed in many of the river and beach parks, said Kelly Bass Seibel of Sonoma County Tourism.

The agency plans to work closely with both coastal land managers and the hospitality business, both on shore and inland, to spread the message.

Waste knows no boundaries

The coastal campaign may be the first of its kind to involve three counties in protecting such a large stretch of the California coast, said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who introduced the initiative with the regional parks.

Hopkins, who grew up along the California coast, has also been picking up trash since she was a kid. She describes litter as “a life-or-death situation for our wildlife.”

Many sea animals die every year when they suffocate, become strangled or starve when they consume plastic particles.

“It's just really, really critical for the health of our ecosystems to keep that trash out of the coastal zone,” Hopkins said.

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

The 7 Leave No Trace principles

1) Plan ahead and prepare

2) Travel and camp on durable surfaces

3) Dispose of waste properly.

4) Leave what you find

5) Minimize campfire impacts

6) Respect wildlife

7) Be considerate of others

Alana Minkler

Breaking news & general assignment reporter, The Press Democrat

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering breaking news, tribes and youth, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

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