I'm in a bad mood by the time I reach the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newsroom in downtown Little Rock most mornings. It's not because of anything that has happened at home or work. It's because I drive Cantrell Road (which doubles as Arkansas 10) from west Little Rock. From the top of Cantrell Hill to the Episcopal Collegiate School, I must look out my window at the mounds of trash along the road.
There's the Christmas tree that has been in the ditch for more than a month. There's that large black bag of trash that has been there for weeks. There are dead trees, pieces of lumber, a white plastic stool and too many bags and cups to count. It's a deplorable sight when you consider that this is a major entrance to the downtown business district of the state's largest city. Those who call government agencies to complain often encounter a classic case of the buck being passed. The city says it's the responsibility of the state since this is a state highway. The state says its budget doesn't allow for the stretch to be mowed and cleaned as often as it needs to be. Meanwhile, the trash piles up. I can only wonder what the runners who come from across the country for the Little Rock Marathon each March must think as they run along this stretch.
Cowper Chadbourn knows all about the litter problem in Arkansas. And he tells me that it's getting worse.
"With all of the public education campaigns you would think that things would be better, but it's more of a problem now than it was 20 years ago," Chadbourn says. "We didn't have all of these plastic bags, plastic bottles and Styrofoam cups back then."
If you don't know Chadbourn's story, you should. He's the king of picking up trash in Arkansas. In 2017, Chadbourn and those who help him gathered 1,282 tires and 66,668 pounds of trash. Chadbourn, an avid floater of Arkansas streams and a longtime member of the Arkansas Canoe Club, started picking up litter more than two decades ago when he was on float trips.
"I would spend about five minutes before the float and five minutes after I took out cleaning up what I saw on the ground," he says.
What began as a simple good deed soon turned into an obsession. Chadbourn, an engineer by training, took early retirement in 2012 and now averages 1,400 hours a year making Arkansas cleaner. Do the math and you'll find that it comes to almost 27 hours a week.
He takes trash out of the Buffalo River. Targets in the Arkansas Delta include the Wattensaw Bayou and the Bayou DeView. His main stream, however, is Fourche Creek in Little Rock. Fourche Creek's 112-square-mile watershed drains 73 percent of the state's largest city. Rock Creek, Otter Creek and Brodie Creek run into it. Bottles, Styrofoam cups, floatable toys and other trash wash into the creek each day. Residents dump tires and appliances along its banks. What should be a beautiful, cypress-filled creek is instead an eyesore. A team led by Chadbourn pulled a tire estimated to weigh 2,200 pounds from the creek last year.
Chadbourn doesn't mind spending several days each week cleaning up streams, but he would like to see long-term solutions. He says state government and cities across Arkansas need to institute "systematic changes so we don't have to keep doing this year after year." He points to a program in Albuquerque, N.M., known as "There's a Better Way" as an example of what Arkansas cities might do. Chadbourn believes that such an initiative would be particularly effective in Little Rock, where panhandling has reached epidemic proportions.
"This program seeks out the homeless who are panhandling and offers them day work picking up litter around the city," he says. "They get about $9 per hour, are fed lunch and are offered a place to stay for the night. The program has been a huge success at both reducing panhandling and putting some of those it touches back on a path to regular employment. While everyone we have mentioned this to has expressed mild interest, to the best of our knowledge there has been no further investigation aimed toward actually bringing the program to Little Rock. I've spoken with the person who has responsibility for the program, and he's more than willing to travel to any interested city in Arkansas to do presentations about how it has worked in Albuquerque. All he asks is for the host city to cover expenses."
With a heated Little Rock mayor's race on tap for later this year, it would make sense for one or more of the candidates to promote such an effort. One of the things I always urge cities to do when I speak to their chamber of commerce banquets is to form a strong chapter of the Keep Arkansas Beautiful program and also make sure that each civic club in town adopts a stretch of road.
In an era when cities fight to attract talented young people, the amount of trash can say a lot. If I were a visitor to Little Rock, the drive down Cantrell Road would scream: "This is a place that's stagnant with residents who just don't care."
In 2015, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry was driving around town when he saw a man holding a sign that read: "Want a Job. Anything helps." Berry often would visit with homeless residents. The easy thing would be to tell them to look for a job. Berry decided to instead offer them a job. In less than a year, 932 jobs resulted in almost 70,000 pounds of litter being picked up while weeds were cleared from 196 city blocks. Berry told The Washington Post: "They've had the dignity of work for a day. Someone believed in them."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 02/17/2018