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MASTERSON ONLINE: Scouring streams

by Mike Masterson | September 7, 2019 at 1:59 a.m.

Cowper Chadbourn of Conway has spent years devoted to gathering litter, loose trash, castoff tires, appliances and even junked hot tubs along Arkansas creeks and rivers. Why, we of lesser commitment might rightly wonder, considering he receives no compensation for his efforts?

He does it simply because he decided years ago to turn his strong sense of caring into actions that benefit our waterbodies and those who use them.

A graduate in mechanical engineering from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Chadbourn, now 64, spent 33 years in the engineering field at the nuclear plant in Russellville before retiring in 2012. He and his wife, Debbie Doss, spend a lot of their time trying to clean the waters around Arkansas.

"I've been doing trash pickup wherever I go for decades, often focusing on picking up around various river and creek access points, in part because I have heard again and again from landowners that they didn't mind people enjoying the river accesses; what they hated was the trash and litter," Chadbourn told me.

"So collecting trash became my way of sending the message to landowners when they see our boats or boat racks, you're not going to find a bunch of trash on your property. We are the good guys." He said he's become more focused on the Buffalo National River during the past three years, partly because that's where his love of rivers began many years ago.

Chadbourn and others who volunteer regularly travel to Arkansas streams. He also has friends who also have joined this clean-waters crusade. "Right now," he said, "Bob Tyler is concentrating on the Caddo, the owners of Saline River Canoe are hitting their home stream weekly, Little Red River Outfitters is helping on the Archy Fork and the Middle Fork of Little Red, and I'm getting to Cadron Creek and the Buffalo a lot."

On the Buffalo he said he covers a section from Dixon Ford to the White River. "But 95 percent of our work is from Ponca to Rush, since those sections have [abundant] water more often and can be covered in a series of day trips."

According to Chadbourn, there are a lot of caring volunteers working regularly to protect our rivers from environmental challenges.

He quickly adds that it can be hard, frustrating work, filled with political challenges. "My wife Debbie has done that type of work more than 20 years, so I've seen how frustrating it can be firsthand," he said.

Debbie even created a nonprofit organization, Arkansas Water Trails Partnership, that now works with Arkansas Game and Fish in establishing new water trails around the state, like the Bayou DeView Water Trail. "She sometimes helps me with the ACC BOATR cleanups, and I help with some of her trails, including cleanups along those. My work on litter cleanup is just a fun retirement job that keeps me off the couch. Nobody argues that litter is good for the river. You can work hard and end each day knowing you made a difference."

Cleaning a river takes technique. And the enormous loads of trash and castoffs can be exhausting work, which translates into long days. "Our tools vary a bit from day to day, according to what we expect to find. If we guess wrong, we will geo-locate the item and come back another day with the right tools," he explained. "Some of our most common tools are a shovel more for prying than digging, a Sawzall for making big things small enough to load in a canoe and for cutting a hole in tire sidewalls, a grappling hook for pulling tires off the bottom, and a long pole with a screw in the end for snagging trash hanging from tree limbs out of reach."

Chadbourn said I'd be surprised at the refuse he loads inside or onto the canoes, especially for the middle and lower Buffalo where the rapids are more forgiving. "We can balance tires totaling up to about 200 pounds across the gunwales. I and most of those who work with me will take a tandem canoe, but paddle it solo. I've seen one friend carry up to about 15 car tires in a single load. I've also had about a 300-pound tire balanced on my 12-foot jon boat.

"When things get bigger than that, we generally try to make them float, then tow them down the river. That's what we've done with one hot tub, two different dumpsters weighing 1,100 pounds, and larger industrial tires weighing up to 2,200 pounds." He removed a second hot tub by cutting it up into pieces then working with the National Park Service to jet-boat it away.

Another improvisation is to tie two canoes together to create a larger boat. "Half the fun with bigger items is plotting and scheming how we will do it," he said.

Overloading his canoes has twice led to shifting loads and capsized canoes. The tedious result was having to retrieve and reload every tire. "We normally load as much as we can, since that maximizes the overall effort. We load the boats to their max possible without it becoming a safety issue for the people or damaging the boat," he said. About half the time he undertakes cleanup journeys alone.

Chadbourn said folks he meets on the streams assume he and helpers are being paid. People ask who they are working for. "We get a few confused looks when we say we're not paid. But most of the folks we encounter, especially on the Buffalo, figure out pretty quickly what we are doing. They thank us profusely and usually tell us about what trash they also have picked up that day." He said a number of people they meet begin following Chadbourn's posts on his informative Facebook page.

There have been weeks when he has gone trash-hunting five times. Usually he makes it once or twice. "The fun factor goes way down if it is 40 degrees and raining instead of 55 or warmer and sunny. We don't have any set days or times--we basically look at river gauges and weather forecasts for about the next 48 to 72 hours, and talk about what options are likely to be available," he said, adding that his core message for everyone on the rivers and creeks is to pick up litter each time they are out.

"Anyone can bend down and pick up four or five small pieces of trash at the access point," he said. "Anyone can pick up a couple of beer cans on the gravel bar where they stopped for lunch, and stop at least once during the day to grab a piece of trash on the bank or hanging from a tree limb."

So where is all this trash dumped? "While anybody can get rid of four car tires per month free, it gets expensive when you start talking in dozens, and looking at charges for truck tires, tractor tires, and industrial tires," he said. "Saline County will now take anything Saline River Canoe brings them. The National Park Service will take anything we bring them off the Buffalo, and helps with pickup when we need that. Caddo River Camping and Canoe takes anything my friend Bob Tyler brings them.

"Where we take it depends on which river we're working," he said. "At the Buffalo, we try to get it to one of the three maintenance stations, where they let us stack tires and use their dumpsters. At the Saline, the county landfill will take whatever we bring them. And the city will pick up smaller loads at Lyle Park. On light days, we just take it home and put a little out each week with our home garbage collection until it is gone."

Those cleaning a river with Game and Fish access can get their help in picking up what you collect. "This will sound strange, but if someone wants to get in on the act at the Buffalo, you can literally leave it right under the signs that say '$200 fine for dumping here'--the key is you have to phone it in, let them know it is the result of a river cleanup, not your own litter. They will say thank you and send someone to get it," he said.

Since he began keeping detailed records in 2016, Chadbourn says he has collected about 3,313 tires weighing about 176,717 pounds. "It's important to note that includes rivers wherever we go, not just the Buffalo. For this year to date, our Buffalo River count stands at about 300 tires and about 12,000 pounds."

For Arkansas' long-term goals, Chadbourn thinks litter and trash problems will continue until our state creates economic incentives to do things differently. "If I had four wishes, I think it would be: Pass a container deposit law, where people can get a nickel for each soft drink or beer container they return to the store; Arkansas needs to look at the polystyrene [Styrofoam] ban just enacted in the state of Maine, and do something similar; more counties need to fund landfill costs as a 'required' public service just like police and fire protection (It's not a popular idea because it means some type of tax funding is required, but the alternative illegal dumping. Searcy County already does this.); and establish a deposit system for waste tires, where the end user gets cash back when they turn in a used tire. If people can get a little cash in hand, those used tires won't be thrown away illegally and into our streams. They will be turned in."

Our state and nation sorely need more Cowper Chadbourns.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at

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