Roadside trash at the intersection of Mountain View Road and Black Creek Road near Robbins, one of the entrances to the Big South Fork National River  & Recreation Area. (Independent Herald photo/Ben Garrett)
Roadside trash at the intersection of Mountain View Road and Black Creek Road near Robbins, one of the entrances to the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. (Independent Herald photo/Ben Garrett)

It’s a drizzly Saturday afternoon on a secondary street in southern Scott County. The raindrops plip and plop in a small puddle of water inside a child’s abandoned sand bucket on the side of the roadway. The bucket was tossed aside because it has a large crack on the bottom. Nearby, a stray dog looks up warily from his abandoned fast food wrapper, then, apparently deciding the passerby means no harm, goes back to his task of licking ketchup and mustard from the remnants of someone’s lunch.

On this dreary early spring afternoon, there are few cars along this stretch of roadway. But it is one of the main entryways into the southern portion of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

Along the roadsides, the busted sand bucket and burger wrapper are just a start. Scores of plastic bottles fill the ditches, along with disposable baby diapers, beer bottles and a sundry of other trash.

The fact that this scene is located on a stretch of roadway entering the Big South Fork NRRA makes local tourism promoters cringe. But the reality is that it is a scene that is repeated on virtually every back road in Scott County.

When Scott County Government organizes its annual county-wide cleanup event on Saturday, it will be called “Scott County Looks Good to Me.” It was once called, “Great Scott — Keep it Clean.” The unfortunate reality, some local officials admit, is that it’s hard to keep something clean if it’s already trashed up. Perhaps a more descriptive title for Saturday’s event in those old days would have been “Great Scott — Clean it Up!”

Rewind a few decades and a primary storyline playing out in Scott County was the illegal dump sites found along many of the community’s back roads. In the early 1980s, news articles in the Independent Herald, portrayed the negative consequences of those dump sites — which hailed back to an era when it was acceptable and even something of a tradition to throw out your trash at one of the many unofficial but well-known dump sites — and urged correcting the problem.

These days, most of those illegal dump sites are no more. You will still find some, of course; even a couple of active ones. And more than a few property owners in rural Scott County have found themselves seething upon discovering a load of garbage dumped on their land by someone too lazy to go to the landfill or too cheap with that trip to “the dump.”

But the far more prevalent problem is litter — everything from plastic soda bottles to cigarette butts flippantly tossed aside by motorists. And it is a problem that is not going unnoticed.

Staffers at Scott County’s visitors center in Helenwood and at the Big South Fork NRRA’s visitors center at Bandy Creek will tell you the same thing: Visitors to Scott County say roadside trash is a major issue.

“They tell us how beautiful our county is, but their complaint is, ‘your roads are filthy,’” says Stacey Kidd of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce. In her role as the Chamber’s executive director, Kidd often interacts with tourists.

“When visitors start complaining, it’s time to change,” Kidd adds.

Poll: How big a problem is litter on Scott County's roads? 

It’s an important issue at a time when Scott County is working harder than ever to grow its fledgling tourism industry. The Chamber of Commerce is hosting new festivals, such as the BSF Vintage Train Fest that was held at Oneida City Park just this past weekend and welcomed more than 450 guests from the Chattanooga area, while the county is working to establish an adventure tourism district around Huntsville — with additional districts to follow — in an effort to spur tourism-related job growth and tax revenues.

But the issue of trashy roadsides extends beyond the potential for lost tourism dollars. Economic development, at a time when Scott County is still struggling to recover from the crippling recession that began in late 2007, could also take a hit. While it hasn’t happened in Scott County, so far as anyone knows, economic development professionals at the Tennessee Valley Authority and the State of Tennessee say that trashy roadways can leave a lasting negative impression with prospective employers. There have been counties where industrial prospects turned around and left due to the unkempt roadsides they encountered there. Fairly or unfairly, their reasoning is that a community too lazy to properly dispose of its trash is a community too lazy to work.

“We’re told by economic development officials that if companies are coming in, we need to make sure our county is clean,” said Kidd, who also serves as secretary of the Scott County Industrial Development Board. “There have been counties that have lost companies just due to trash.”

It’s hard to pinpoint which roadside ditch the plastic bottle that broke the camel’s back wound up in, but several Scott County officials have decided that enough is enough.

At last week’s meeting of the Chamber of Commerce’s directors, Kidd urged business owners and community leaders to get involved and help clean up Scott County’s roadways. On the Chamber’s website — scottcountychamber.com — this week, the organization unveiled a new campaign urging local residents to take a pledge to help clean up Scott County and keep it clean by getting directly involved.

“If every family in Scott County picked up just one grocery bag of trash each week, imagine what a difference it would make,” Kidd said in unveiling the campaign.

The campaign is merely a tool to get Scott Countians thinking and talking about ways to clean up their neighborhoods. But, Kidd added, if even 500 people in the community are willing to take the pledge, it is a positive sign that Scott Countians are uniting behind an effort to eliminate roadside trash.

Garrett: It's time for Scott County to clean up its act

For those wanting to get involved, there is no better time than this weekend, the annual county-wide cleanup event. Volunteers can pick up trash on their own roads or any other road. Signups will be coordinated by county commissioners in each of the county’s seven civil districts, and the county will foot the bill for a community-wide cookout with door prizes at the County Office Building in Huntsville at lunchtime. The event is named for the late Vivian Smith, who worked hundreds of hours to encourage Scott Countians to keep their community clean.

Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals said last week that while the county-wide cleanup is an opportune time to take the initiative to get involved, it cannot be a one-day effort.

“One day a year is not enough to take care of the litter problem in Scott County,” Tibbals said. “It is very critical that we start taking a new attitude towards litter.”

Kidd said that new attitude can go a long way towards a brighter future for Scott County.

“I hope we’re all at a place as a community where we’re not willing to settle for talking about the problem and fuss about it, but that we’re ready to do something to change it,” she said.

Fighting back: How one family meets litter head-on

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Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.