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Guest editorial: Concerns over a new type of litter

Let's talk about litter.

We know in the grand scheme of things littering may not seem that big of a deal. But littering is no longer such a little problem. We're not just talking about a pop can or a fast food bag here and there. We're talking about much bigger items that conservation officers have been finding lately on roads and lakes.

"We're seeing everything from wooden fish house blocking materials on lakes to old appliances in roadway ditches," said Colonel Jim Konrad, enforcement division director with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Littering is a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000.

Konrad wants everyone to keep roadways and waterways clean by properly disposing of used materials with their local refuse haulers or at their local landfills.

As he pointed out, litter tarnishes nature's beauty, destroys wildlife habitats and ruins many opportunities for recreation.

Littering is a timely topic right now. Minnesota's fish house removal deadlines were March 5 (in Otter Tail County), and spring cleaning is soon to get under way around many households.

That's why conservation officers make a concerted effort this time of the year to monitor and identify possible problem areas.

Conservation officer Jeff Humphrey of Cromwell just completed a litter investigation where numerous bags of household trash were dumped along a rural road. The contents were revealing.

"In this case they made significant effort to remove labels with names and addresses from their garbage, but I found a child's name on a piece of homework and a wrist band from a local hospital," Humphrey said. "A few phone calls and I identified my suspect."

The reasons for the littering were likely economical.

"They said they did not have garbage service and usually take their garbage to their employers to get rid of it," Humphrey said.

Sometimes a citizen helps a conservation officer solve a litter case. Officer Jeff Johanson of Osakis recently issued a citation to a man caught on a trail camera dumping waste on private property.

The individual was always very careful about removing items with any sort of identification on them. Finally, the property owner had had enough. He put up a trail camera and was lucky enough to capture the guy and his vehicle on the camera, littering.

"With the electronic evidence, the interview went pretty smoothly and the guy admitted to it right away," Johanson said. "I made him clean up the waste and issued him a citation. Of course, he knew nothing about the countless other times things were dumped there; must have been somebody else."

Sometimes, the DNR says, the litterbug is just a phone call away.

Last year, Johanson found a bunch of garbage and fish house blocking material left on the ice after an angler removed his permanent fish house.

"One of the fish house blocks was a piece of wood that said: 'For Sale - call...' Well, I called and got a confession from the litterbug."

Officers also use technology to catch litterbugs.

"While on patrol, any fish house that had litter outside or had cardboard skirting the edges of it was photographed and GPS (Global Positioning Statement) coordinates taken," said conservation officer Matt Frericks of Virginia.

Excuses like, "I was going to go get that later," will not work, Frericks noted. Anyone who leaves garbage on the ice will receive a citation for littering.

Conservation officers also have solid waste civil citation authority. These civil citations are "by the pound" or "by the cubic foot" penalties.

Since they are not criminal charges, they don't require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The person suspected of littering must pay the penalty and clean up the mess.

The DNR offers the following tips to keep Minnesota roads and waterways clean:

• Set an example for others, especially children, by not littering.

• Properly dispose of any materials that could trap or injure wildlife.

• Check with a local refuse provider or landfill for disposal of household items.

• Keep a litter bag or trash container with when traveling or outdoors.

• Secure trash container covers to prevent wind or animals from spreading litter.

• Cover and secure any vehicle, truck or trailer carrying refuse.

• When visiting any recreation area, make sure to leave the area clean for the next person to enjoy.