In tackling illegal dumps, county takes a compassionate approach

"It's not just a trash problem. It runs a lot deeper than that."

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Lorenzo Gutierrez wagers he can look through a pile of trash and tell a person about their family, kids and grocery shopping, about their swelling debts and biggest regrets.

But looking through illegal dumps in the vast mesas and forested hills of Northern New Mexico is no game for Gutierrez, a code enforcement official with Taos County's solid waste department.

What started several years ago as a job to get people to take responsibility for their trash has morphed into something else entirely. Heaps of garbage dumped in arroyos reveal more than broken laws and environmental contamination. In them -- the end result of our culture in all its ugly, messy reality -- Gutierrez sees the stories and symptoms of pervasive drug use, family trauma and abuse of some of the oldest and neediest people around.

"It's not just a trash problem. It runs a lot deeper than that," he said.

To get a sense for the scope of illegal dumping around Northern New Mexico, one need only drive a few hundred yards past the Llano Quemado Community Center south of Taos.

For the last three years, volunteers have gone into the Miranda Canyon area once a summer to pick up trash from the high-profile illegal dump site. These organized and publicized community clean-ups are responsible for removing more than 52 tons of garbage from the rolling arroyos that eventually drains into the Rio Grande.

But illegal dumps continue to crop up all over Taos County, including in the thousands of acres of public lands held by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

"They move into the forest. They will dump their trash in the mountains and pick up a load of wood on the way back," Gutierrez said.

Over half of the land in Taos County is held by the BLM and forest service. The BLM's Taos Field Office is responsible for 595,000 acres in nine Northeastern New Mexico counties. The Carson National Forest has five separate units in three counties, including the Sangre de Cristo range from Peñasco to the Colorado border as well as the Jicarilla district headquartered in Bloomfield.

Yet resources are sparse when it comes to keeping trash in check. The BLM has another two officers for its service area. The Carson has two officers, but one of them is still in training.

The BLM's field manger Sarah Schlanger told The Taos News via email the BLM that reporting illegal dumping is a "team effort" among all employees who go into the field, from law enforcement to scientists. Clean-up efforts include yearly projects like those in Miranda Canyon as well as partnering with the likes of Gutierrez and Edward Martinez, director of the county's solid waste department.

The fact that the illegal trash problem falls to multiple jurisdictions across all levels of government leads to situations where no one seems able to clean it up. At least quickly.

Hilary Hart, a Taos County resident, ran into one such situation several weeks ago when she went hiking on the dirt road that starts in the "horseshoe" of U.S. 68. Only a few yards in, not far from a shot-up TV and torn-apart couch, were several black plastic bags giving off the horrendous smell of decaying dogs.

That road -- and by extension, the dogs -- isn't any one government's problem. It starts out as property of a land grant; other stretches are owned by the BLM and forest service. Further back, it becomes private land again.

When The Taos News visited the site nearly a month after Hart's encounter, the dogs were still there.

Martinez and Gutierrez know about those dogs but by no means is it the worst of what they've seen.

"The people who put their animals in bags at least have the decency to do that. Most of the time people just dump them on the side of the road," Gutierrez said.

Dead puppies and kittens are common. So are elk, deer, horses, cattle, chickens and goats.

But plastic bags filled with dead animals are just one way "the face of trash has changed," Gutierrez said.

"Growing up here in the 60s and 70s, the trash in arroyos was tin cans. The bread bags were washed out, the jars were used for canning," Gutierrez said. Trash these days is computers, chunks of concrete, dirty diapers, motor oil, cracking tires, syringes and shotgun shells.

A rusted beer can is officially historic once as soon as it's 50 years old. The piles where modern garbage is thrown on top of those old dumps present a particularly painful scenario for the Gutierrez and Martinez because, as archeological sites protected by all manner of laws, they can't actually clean it up.

Sometimes, if an illegal dump is just developing, they'll try their best to nip it in the bud. As Martinez says, "Trash attracts trash." But the department acknowledges they can't spend all their time picking up trash. "If I stopped and picked up every plastic bag I saw flying around -- and don't get me wrong, I kills me I can't -- I'd never get anything else done," Martinez said.

Instead, the guys at the solid waste department have taken a more proactive and systemic approach to tackling trash.

Martinez and Gutierrez routinely go into the forests and the outskirts of town to patrol illegal dumping sites.

Three years ago, the two were checking on the arroyos behind Llano Quemado when bullets from a hunting rifle came flying just over their heads. "We heard shots and got under the nearest bush we could and started to crawl," said Martinez. They scurried toward an embankment, where they were pinned for several minutes. "I was so scared they were going to come up behind us…and that'd be it," he said. Luckily enough, a state police officer was just down the road and quickly got to the scene.

The've picked up some tools from law enforcement since then. They learned that patrolling in a pair "mellows people out" and that carrying bullet-proof vests is at least some level of comfort when half of the folks they run into in the woods are packing a weapon, they said.

While their safety is paramount, they don't want to be seen exclusively as "garbage cops."

When they come upon a pile of junk in the forests, the first step is developing a profile of the trash itself and the person who might of caused the mess. If they can find an address or phone number on a piece of mail, it's all the easier.

When they started investigating trash in this way several years ago, Martinez and Gutierrez were much more inclined to simply hit the perpetrator with the standard $1,000 fine.

But they started seeing both unique situations and all-too-common patterns among the trash and the people they'd track down that gave them a reason to pause.

For one, their investigations took them face to face with lot of elderly people. Many older folks had similar stories: they paid "some guy who showed up in an old truck" offering to take their trash to the dump for a fee. That guy would pocket the cash and dump the garbage in the forest, leaving elderly folks, many on very fixed incomes, legally and financially responsible for the mess.

"You look at them and obviously they can't drive into the forest. How can you do that to an old person," Gutierrez said.

Enforcing the county's solid waste codes also takes them to houses with people strung out on drugs and lying dazed on the couch. And then there were houses with kids but no parents in sight.

One time, they found a suicide note. They didn't fine the person who wrote it.

The two men have come to understand heaps of nasty clothes, food, animals and junk as more than simply garbage. "The trash isn't here just because of the trash. It's a health problem, an economic problem… it's the community's problems."

As environmentally conscious as Martinez and Gutierrez have become, they said they were "tired of getting angry" about the sheer disregard for natural resources and basic decency.

So they began talking to Taos Alive, a coalition of professionals and organizations trying to reduce substance abuse amount Taos County youth.

"This way, we can understand the mindset of addicts, abusive families…of what kids go through," said Gutierrez. "That gives us compassion and has opened these other avenues" to fighting what he calls "one heck of a battle."

Over time, the two men of Taos County's solid waste code enforcement arm have figured out ways to tackle the trash issue that's so deeply embedded in the social landscape of Northern New Mexico. The interventions aren't ostentatious, nor backed with a budget to match the problem. Rather, it's small thinks like handing out the phone numbers of nonprofits and agencies charged with protecting children, seniors and abuse survivors. And they tell those agencies what areas of the county need some help -- the hinterlands that don't usually get attention and resources.

"We're not trained social workers. But we don't want to go make things worse. We want to be a solution." Gutierrez said.

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