The Zero-Trash K9

Bigges the litter-retrieving Australian Shepherd.
Bigges the litter-retrieving Australian Shepherd.

Three years ago, Diane Petersen was hiking up the well-worn trail of Mission Peak Regional Preserve in Fremont. Accompanying her was her dog Bigges, a two-year-old Australian shepherd.

Bigges was a relative newcomer to the idea of trekking up peaks, and was, by Petersen’s recounting, “kind of bored by hiking.” To make matters worse, his elder companion, the border collie Josie, was not present. Nevertheless, Bigges walked on, all the while wishing that the hike were over. Then Petersen threw a rock at the slope to her right, and Bigges’ life changed forever.

Today, Bigges is a celebrity in the East Bay Regional Park District. He was the subject of one of EBRPD’s most popular Facebook posts. In May, Bigges and Petersen were honored by the Park District Board for their service to our open spaces. The beloved pooch followed that up with a cover appearance and story in the 2016 summer issue of “Compass,” the official magazine for EBRPD’s members. And almost every day, hikers in Mission Peak, the Alameda Creek Trail, Coyote Hills, and many other East Bay parks get to witness his inspirational feats, and invariably burst into applause.

What does Bigges do to garner such recognition? Simple. He leaves no trace, cleans up our parks, and has a blast while doing it.

Bigges, quite by accident, has been trained to pick up plastic water bottles discarded in creeks, crevices, hills, and valleys in our regional parks.

When he was teething, Petersen gave him plastic bottles to chew onto distract him from chewing on her shoes and furniture. Tugging on them soon became his favorite pastime, and today, picking up discarded plastic bottles is still second nature to him.

BiggesBottlePic
Bigges playing a uniquely helpful game of fetch.

So when Petersen throws a rock at a plastic bottle, he runs over and grabs it. “It’s hard to stop him,” said Petersen. “Whenever he sees a water bottle he’ll go out and grab it.” Further training that channeled Bigges’ love of food now motivates him to give Petersen the plastic bottle in exchange for a yummy treat.

“He loves it,” said Petersen. “He thinks it’s great fun. He has a blast.”

Instead of ignoring this ability, or maybe even making Bigges unlearn it, Petersen decided to utilize it in an all-out effort to clean up our open spaces. Even before she had dogs, Petersen did her part to pick up litter and leave no trace. Now, she and Bigges visit Mission Peak, Garin Regional Park, and many of the other trash-filled parks and preserves in the East Bay, seven days a week. The duo always finds something to clean up. They also unvaryingly find tons of appreciation from fellow hikers.

“A lot of times when people see him they clap and seem amazed and go ‘What a good dog!’” said Petersen.  “And I say, ‘yeah, he’s trying to keep the trails clean.’”

In March, EBRPD noticed Bigges when Petersen made some suggestions to the District for a possible bottle exchange program, and included some pictures of the dog in her message. The District, inspired by the photos, asked Petersen if they could feature Bigges in a Facebook post. She assented, and the overwhelming response to the post led to the District promoting Bigges’ story even further. In May, Board President Doug Siden gave Petersen and Bigges a certificate of appreciation; Bigges was also recognized as a Leave No Trace superhero and given a dog-sized cape. He’s also an unofficial celebrity amongst frequent hikers in the East Bay.

BiggesTrashPic
Bigges’ trash haul.

But Petersen isn’t letting Bigges’ sudden fame distract from the true prize: a trash-free Bay.

“It just feels like the Bay Area is pretty darn trashy,” she sighs. “And I know it’s hard on all kinds of species that live out there, the fishermen that go out there, all kinds of different things out in the Bay.”

She pauses. “There’s just so much trash.”

And although committed individuals like Petersen and Bigges are doing all they can, the Bay won’t get cleaned until we all help out.

That’s why Petersen hopes that Bigges’ story will inspire us to go out and clean up after ourselves.

“I feel there are a lot of humans out there who believe we’re the mightiest creatures of all, and my thinking is that if a dog can help keep this place as beautiful as it once was – I feel that if a dog can pick up trash, we humans can do the same thing,” said Petersen.

“I walk along the Alameda Creek, Hayward Shoreline, Coyote Hills, and when it’s low tide, I can just see the trash and I know it’s bad for the animals that live there, for the shorebirds, for the fish, and for our animals – our dogs that swim out in the Bay.

“I know that’s not a good thing, so Bigges and I are doing our part, and I just hope that we can lead by example, and that if everyone pitches in, our parks in the Bay Area will remain beautiful. We get to use these places for free, and what they give us for our physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing is priceless. And the least we can do is try to give back, do our part, and keep it as beautiful as we found it.”

Petersen and Bigges are working hard, but they can’t rid the Bay of trash alone. Help them today.


Pledge your support for a trash-free SF Bay.
 

Time to ban smoking in East Bay Parks

UPDATE 4/19/2016: The East Bay Regional Parks District’s Board of Directors finally adopted a smoking ban on Tuesday, April 19. We have been advocating for a comprehensive ban on smoking in the parks since 2014 when our volunteers cleaned a staggering number of cigarette butts from the Martinez Regional Shoreline. While the policy the parks district adopted will prohibit smoking in most areas of the parks, it includes an exemption that will allow smoking to continue at campsites. The Board of Directors included this exemption despite being called upon to adopt a complete ban by a coalition of environmental and public health organizations, including the Alameda Tobacco Control Program and the Alameda County Tobacco Prevention Coalition, and over 300 Save The Bay activists. The board has agreed to reconsider the exemption next year and indicated they may place cigarette disposal receptacles in campgrounds to discourage littering. Save The Bay will continue to advocate for a comprehensive policy that keeps toxic tobacco litter out of our parks and out of the creeks that flow to our Bay until smoking is prohibited in all areas of the parks district.

cigarette butts
3 billion cigarette butts are littered in the Bay Area each year.

In mid-April, the Board of Directors of the East Bay Regional Parks District will vote on an ordinance to ban smoking in all 120,536 acres of the 65 parks in their jurisdiction. This long overdue policy is an important step toward reducing the flow of toxic, plastic cigarette butts into the Bay.

It would seem like a no-brainer to keep cigarettes, with their associated health impacts and wild fire danger, out of parks where people go to seek out health and enjoy nature. Unfortunately, the East Bay Regional Parks has not yet banned smoking even though many cities around the Bay have decided to keep cigarette smoke and cigarette litter out of their recreation areas and parks.

In addition to the fire hazard posed by discarded cigarettes, toxic butts, and littered cartons pollute our creeks and Bay, and second-hand smoke poses unnecessary health hazards to parks visitors. Cigarette butts are a pernicious problem in our open spaces and ordinances like the one the East Bay Parks will consider are one of our best tools for fighting them.

A plastic wolf in the white fuzz of sheep’s clothing

Cigarette butts are not biodegradable. The ubiquitous cigarette filter is made from cellulose acetate – a type of plastic similar to Rayon – and will persist in the environment indefinitely. These plastic fibers were added to cigarettes in the Mad Men era when tobacco companies turned to ever more elaborate measures to fool the public into thinking their products were safe. In fact, these “filters” do nothing to protect smokers from harmful chemicals, but they have remained on the ends of cigarettes, and in our creeks and bay, ever since.

Save The Bay estimates that over 3 billion of these highly toxic butts are littered in the Bay Area each year, threatening water quality and wildlife in the Bay. Once in the creeks, butts leach toxic chemicals including acetic acid, chromium, and arsenic into the water. This soup of chemicals is deadly to fish and marine life even at low concentrations.

Changing Behavior

The most horrible part of the danger cigarette litter poses to our environment is that people do not seem to think of cigarette butts as trash when they litter them. As a result, cigarette butts have been the most commonly found trash on Coastal Cleanup day for the past 20 years.

The scale of the trash problem posed by cigarette butts requires us to change our thinking about smoking. If we de-normalize smoking in public places and call attention to the fact that smoking produces litter, we can begin to change behavior and chip away at the litter problem.

The East Bay Regional Parks District’s parks would not be the first smoke-free parks in the region. Nearly all of the municipalities that border East Bay Regional Parks already have ordinances that restrict smoking in parks and recreation areas. These bans are a simple and effective way to start changing attitudes towards smoking and cigarette litter. A clear and comprehensive ban on smoking in our regional parks will create regional cohesion and further de-normalize outdoor smoking and its harmful effects on the environment.

In order to have an impact, this ordinance needs to be implemented in such a way that it causes people to think twice before smoking in the parks and causes them to think about where their cigarette butts are going. This means clear signage in parking lots, campsites and at trail heads. Additionally, it will require parks staff to work to educate park visitors about the rule, and about the harmful impacts of tobacco litter on the environment. It also means that conscientious park visitors will need to educate others about the rule so people feel a social responsibility to avoid smoking in the parks. The more people stop to think, the more behavior will change and the cleaner our creeks and Bay will be.

The East Bay Regional Parks should be completely smoke-free

This policy will have enormous benefits to the ecosystems within the parks as well as the people who visit and use them, and it makes sense to have policies that protect public and environmental health in areas set aside to respect nature and enjoy the outdoors in a healthy way. In order to make a strong case to the Board of Directors, we have partnered with other environmental advocates and advocates from the public health community, including the American Lung Association, Clean Water Action, and the Alameda County Tobacco Control Coalition.

Last Thursday, we and many other advocates for smoke-free parks went to the EBRP Board’s Operations Committee meeting. The three-member committee heard testimony from environmental and public health advocates calling to prohibit smoking in all parts of our regional parks to prevent exposure to second-hand smoke and cigarette butt litter. They also received a letter signed by half a dozen environmental and public health organizations in addition to separate letters written by the American Lung Association, the City of Berkeley, and the Watershed Project urging them to ban smoking in the parks with no exceptions. On top of all that, 271 Save The Bay supporters sent messages to the committee calling to protect the health of our parks.

The committee voted to ban smoking in all areas of the parks with one major exception: The ordinance will continue to allow smoking at campsites. Their logic is that campsites are already smoky from campfires and so there is no additionally public health threat from tobacco. However, this policy ignores the litter smokers leave behind.

We still have an opportunity to fight for a stronger ordinance. As the full board vote approaches in April, we will need your help to convince the board to adopt the strongest policy possible. Not only do we need a strong ordinance on the books, but we need to see less litter in our parks and in the Bay. Stay tuned for opportunities to make your voice heard.

 

Guest Post | Planting the Future

Planting the Future
Students help restore San Francisco Bay during a planting program with Save The Bay.

Jose Gonzalez recently experienced one of Save The Bay’s Restoration Education Programs. These observations were originally posted on his blog, Green Chicano.

A cool San Francisco Bay morning is warming up on a marshy shore of the Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline, part of the East Bay Regional Park District.

A couple of joggers and walkers are on the trail as birds flutter about in the bushes and gulls and geese fly overhead.

Soon enough I hear some voices in the distance, distinguishable to me in much the same way birders can tune in to specific bird calls. “It’s a class of 4th or 5th graders”, I thought to myself.

Led by their teacher, they come up the trail and are greeted by staff from Save The Bay, a regional organization committed to the protection of the San Francisco Bay.

The students are here to do some habitat restoration, but first it is time for introductions and some warm up activities.

Looking at the group of 5th graders, the majority of them are Latino—I can hear their various comments to each other in Spanish though they understand and readily respond to questions in English about marsh habitats, sharks, and food webs.

This is the future”, I think to myself, highlighted by three key demographic statements. Since 2010, the majority of school children in California schools are Latino. Furthermore, undergraduate applications to the University of California system were dominated by Latinos for the first time while this year may close with Latinos being the largest single ethnic group in the state.

As the saying goes, “the future is now.”

After some introductions and a “marsh march”, the students make their way to a section marked by flags. A Save The Bay staff member demonstrates the process for planting native plant species.

The kids are eager, still full of energy even after playing an active game to calm and focus them.

But they take to the task with much enthusiasm. Most of the boys run off to several sections while many of the girls calmly and methodically replicate the process of planting: dig the hole, tap the plant out of its casing, line it with the ground, add dirt, add mulch, add water and yell “plant check” for validation of a job well done. Then it is on to planting the next sapling.

The work the students are doing is important for several reasons.

First of all, restoring marshes provides direct habitat to many species that rely on the bay wetlands as a home and migration stops. In restoring the marshes, it also helps bay communities with potential flooding, not to mention the enhanced recreational aspects of having access to beautiful parkland and functioning habitats for wildlife. All of this in the face of marshes at risk from climate change.

But the process also helps connect the students directly with the land and outdoors in proactive ways. And it is heartening to see a group of Latino students so actively engaged.

Earlier in the day I struck up a conversation in Spanish with a parent volunteer. “All but one of them knows Spanish” she said. “And the teachers, though not Latino, know Spanish as well.”

It’s interesting because I think they thought they were going to pick up trash, but I like that they can come out here and learn about this place.”

I thought about that comment later on as the kids were antsy to start planting and one girl asked if she could just pick up trash—a helpful task, but it is good that kids get to engage with the environment hand- on beyond just litter cleanup, and to engage with it beyond as a lecture or presentation piece. I am reminded of how the writer Richard Louv put it: let them climb trees.

I introduced myself to several students. I noticed that in speaking Spanish to them, their demeanor would change at times—hard to exactly say but it seemed a bit more respectful—con respeto”. Throughout the morning I noticed some of the boys I checked in with would look around to see if I was watching. I would give them a nod, con respeto.

As I left I asked one student what was something that stuck with him about the activities. He responded “how we filled up part of the bay to make houses for people”.

And what do you thing about that?” I asked.

Well, people need houses, but animals too.”

The saplings the kids were planting are the future for a healthy marsh habitat—sorely needed homes for the animals. But so too are these kids the sorely needed future—a future that is here now taking care of the natural environment, engaging in its conservation—con respeto.

Jose Gonzalez is an educator with classroom and outdoor experience across all age levels, from elementary to college. Currently he is a Butler-Koshland Fellow with Radio Bilingue and serves as an adjunct faculty member with the National Hispanic University in their Teacher Education Department. He is interested in the intersection of Latinos and environmental conservation issues. Follow him on Twitter @green_chicano @JoseBilingue, see his postings at http://greenchicano.wordpress.com/ and www.greenchicano.com