There are more than 600 illegal dump sites in Michigan. The pandemic has only made matters worse.
Just south of Traverse City lies Hoosier Valley, an area known by locals for its natural beauty.
Blair Town Hall Road rides right along the valley, and the deeper in you get, the more you sink into nature. The road shifts from pavement, to gravel, to a dirt path.
Beside the road, there are smaller trails branching off into the woods.
These are two-tracks: largely unlabeled back roads traversed by four-wheelers, snowmobiles and pick-up trucks — and people who come to Hoosier Valley to dump their trash.
“It's disgusting. It's not very pleasurable,” says Ray Leavitt, a business owner from Grawn.
He recently bought a four-wheeler and has been riding it up and down the two-tracks with his son.
“I'm disappointed in the people and I'm upset with the people that are doing it,” Leavitt says. “I don't believe that they're making an effort to find an alternate way of getting rid of it.”
For years, Hoosier Valley has been the target for dumpers. It’s secluded paths and close proximity to Traverse City make it an easy place for people to unload unwanted trash.
Illegal dumping is rampant across the forests of northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. There’s hundreds of reported dumpsites filled with couches, toilets, and shingles.
In the last year, Leavitt decided he had enough of the trash in Hoosier Valley — he was going to do something about it.
Leavitt and other members of the community organized a clean up day in early April to clear out the valley for the spring.
About 40 volunteers arrived with their four-wheelers, trucks, and trailers.
They hauled two large dumpsters worth of trash out of the valley.
Leavitt thinks some of it showed up the night before.
“People knew that we were going to do this and they hurried up and dumped stuff at the last second. A lot of furniture, tires, a bathtub, I think somebody said half a boat,” he says.
And Hoosier Valley isn’t the only place in need of a tune up.
“Pretty much every place there’s a two-track,” said a father and son duo from Fife Lake.
“There's a lot of two-tracks and snowmobile trails around us and they seem to be a dumping ground as well.”
They came in for the day to help with the clean up and have traveled around the state toclear out illegally dumped trash.
Conor Haenni helps organize events like this.
He serves with AmeriCorps for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The DNR has a database of around 600 reported illegal dumpsites. It’s an interactive map that details what kind of trash is at each site.
The state relies on volunteers to clean them up.
“There's no designated cleanup crew for the DNR and Adopt a Forest is essentially myself and my supervisor who manages the program,” Haenni says.
Last summer, the DNR hosted a challenge to clean up 100 dumpsites in 100 days. Volunteers met the call, and cleared out 151 dumpsites.
Adopt-a-Forest helps volunteers organize but doesn’t have a budget for equipment or to pay for hauling trash.
The state didn’t pick up any of the costs for the Hoosier Valley clean-up.
Leavitt owns a roadside assistance company, so he has a truck to help clear out the valley. However, the waste still has to be properly thrown out, which can be costly.
“I hope we get everything because it's a lot of money out of pocket,” he says.
Proper disposal of four old tires will cost you $60, $15 per tire. Mattresses or box springs are $30. A couch is up to $45.
For business owners seeing less customers during the pandemic or folks furloughed from their jobs, those costs quickly add up.
Tires are the most common item across all the sites. Couches and mattresses are other repeat offenders.
It’s not just the financial burdens of the pandemic making things worse.
“With people's spending much more time at home than recent years, they're generating more waste within their home and they have less money to pay for proper disposals,” says Haenni.
Some counties and townships provide free disposal sites a few times a year to try to get ahead of the issue. Hoosier Valley’s Blair Township is one of them, but Leavitt says they aren’t making that much of a difference.
Long term solutions are hard to come by, so Leavitt and other organizers are trying new tactics. They’ve donated deer cams to cover certain entrances into the valley in hopes of catching folks in the act, or deterring them altogether.
“It's not going to stop here. I'm going to keep going. I really want this to end permanently,” Leavitt says.
“If I gotta come off a monthly budget to help me come up with a way to do that, I'm going to do it.”