By Tim Gardner
Avery County is generally considered to be one of the most picturesque and beautiful places anywhere on Earth as residents of, and visitors to this haven have long proclaimed. In fact, Avery County annually has one of the highest volumes of tourists of any destination in the United States of America to see and explore its tremendous beauty. And now this North Carolina High Country county is even prettier thanks to the efforts of nearly 400 coordinators and workers along with many county businesses who assisted with Avery County Clean Sweep, a community-wide trash collection effort last Saturday, March 20.
“I knew our ‘Clean Sweep’ would be go well as we had many wonderful coordinators and volunteers, but it even far exceeded my expectations for success. And as a result, our beautiful county is even more gorgeous.”
That’s how Jesse Pope, President and Executive Director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, who directed the Avery County Clean Sweep, summed up how successful the massive roadside litter removal effort in the 568-square mile county went.
Volunteers were assigned roadsides they wanted to clean and were provided with liberal supplies of trash bags, trash pickup tools, signs, safety vests, goggles and related items needed in the massive trash collection.
Pope said that more than 325 volunteers contributed to collecting 80-plus cubic yards of trash. He estimated that total included more than 1,400 large, lawn and leaf bags filled to their brims of collected trash.
Pope shared that many other items were recovered such as barrels, bath tubs, dishwashers, removed graffiti and a countless number of old tires. Additionally, trash and other debris were picked up from creeks and streams.
Pope added that the strangest item removed in the trash pick-up was a 1950’s Chevrolet Bel Air Car. He laughingly stated: “You never know what you might collect in a trash clean-up sweep and that Bel Air is proof.”
Avery County business, civic and community leader Jim Swinkola commented about the Clean Sweep project: “Participating in Avery Clean Sweep as a member of the Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk made me proud to be part of a well-coordinated community volunteer effort to improve the curb appeal of our county roadways. With the winter snows melted there were large amounts of visible trash and litter along the highways. In many ways it was like having trash in my backyard.
“It was great to see and hear about the many county volunteers giving hours of their weekend time to make a visible difference in how the community presents itself to those who live here and those who visit. Avery County has long been recognized as amazingly beautiful. Looking at plastic wrappers and empty bottles make it difficult to see the stunning views of the mountains, forests and ridges. Now, and thanks to countless volunteers, our light is more out from under the basket.
“The longer I live and participate in Avery County life, the better I feel about the people and their positive spirit about enjoying and celebrating life. I’m happy that Avery County is my home.”
Pope was quick to offer deep appreciation to many who were instrumental in “Avery County Clean Sweep.” The long list includes: Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr., Avery County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Lee Buchanan, Paul Buchanan, Lesley Platek, Tommy Oakley, John Caveny, Seth Yarber, Todd Jones, Eric Foster, Dewayne Krege, Eva and Eddie Clark, Travis Henley, Adam Henderson, Dane Phillips, Avery County, Avery County Sherriff’s Office, Avery County Emergency Management, Avery County Solid Waste, Avery County Schools, NCDOT, Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, Green Valley Community Center, App Regional Healthcare, Rotary Club of Avery County, Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk, Williams YMCA of Avery County, Elk Mountain Riding Club, Lees-McRae College, Eagles Nest, High Country Sanitation, Beech Mountain Community Center, Banner Elk Presbyterian Church, Newland Presbyterian Church, Heaton Christian Church, Linville Central Search and Rescue, Avery County DSS, Mayland Community College, Lodge at River Run, Church of Jesus Christ-Newland, Fifth Third Bank, Mountain Community Bank, Beech Mountain Community Development, Town of Banner Elk, Linville River Pottery, Avery County High School, GAPS, Blue Ridge Hiking Club, Carolina Window Fashions, Carolina Mountain Life, The Avery Journal-Times, Spectrum News, High Country Press, Caliber Marshall Arts, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Blue Ridge Conservancy, MountainTrue, Holston Presbyterian Camp, Wild South, Mountain Side Lutheran Church, BB&T (Trust Bank), Avery Chamber Of Commerce, Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce, The Farm, Eagles Nest Realty, Esseola Lodge, Linville Land Harbor, Village of Sugar Mountain, APPRHS Behavioral Health, various fire and rescue teams, law enforcement as well as countless individuals and families from across the county.
Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr., said that the accumulation of roadway garbage and related debris has become a regular occurrence—especially in late winter to early Spring each year.
“Trash lays along roadsides all winter, and when there is a break from the snow, you then notice how much of an eyesore it has become,” he noted.
Barrier, Jr. attributed part of the reason for the trash accumulation to changes at the state level in regard to how the sides of the roadways are maintained. Two years ago, the State of North Carolina switched from using prison labor and to hiring contractors to clean roadways. A contractor has been scheduled to conduct litter sweeps four times from June to July, but Barrier, Jr. said that the county has not been provided dates when those sweeps will happen.
In recent years, legislative stalemates over the state’s budget have only complicated roadway trash removal. Nevertheless, District 11’s Department of Transportation office is only responsible for cleaning US 321, US 221, Highways 19E, 184, 105, 194 and 181, leaving the side roads across the county up to the county and its residents or volunteers to maintain.
“It wasn’t DOT that switched, it was our senators and house of representatives who thought it would be cheaper to contract the service out,” Barrier, Jr. shared. “Three years ago, the state took it away from the Department of Corrections, and a bid was put out. Then the people who put in bids from all over the state had the thought process that they may have bid too low and one company even went bankrupt. Currently, there’s hardly any company to bid on it and do it. Last year, state leaders blamed it on Covid and budget restraints, so we only got picked up one time last year.”
Pope said more “Avery County Clean Sweeps” may be scheduled.
“Again, our efforts this time were extremely successful and I’m so thankful to all those who worked with it in any capacity. I would love to see it become an annual event and all of us involved in this year’s event will be in discussion about doing it again next year and maybe even sooner. It does take a lot of coordination and hard work by so many to pull off a happening of this scale. But I think there’s already strong sentiment to do more clean sweeps,” he declared.
Groups can also sign up with the state’s Adopt-A-Highway program to help clean up year-round in the regions in which they live by logging online to ncdot.gov.