It’s a blessing to hike or drive the desert trails around Reno and experience Nevada’s ancient beauty; it’s a curse to see the hundreds of illegally-dumped trash piles that mar the landscape.
Surae Helms, a customer relations specialist at Greater Nevada Credit Union, trundles over those hills and playas to relax. She revels in the sight of wildlife, endless horizons, brilliant sunsets and the trillion glittering stars that chase the moon across the night sky. She cringes at the sight of the mounds of trash scattered among the sagebrush, greasewood and juniper. She decided to do something about them.
“I love Nevada. I love that we can go out on public land and enjoy the beautiful views that we have here,” Helms said. “Then you go out there and see the devastation, the trashing of our land and our community… It was time to do something.” She took pictures of the trash piles and posted them on Facebook in September. Helms asked for help in fighting the problem.
Enter Desert Pigs, a non-profit group of community volunteers dedicated to cleaning up the landscape and fighting against illegal dumping. The Pigs fly a porcine version of a pirate flag and patrol the sagebrush ocean within two Northern Nevada counties. They are the few, the proud, the unpaid volunteers who scrub the landscape on weekends because they don’t like Nevada’s open spaces being used as a garbage pail.
Pigs active in 4 communities
The Desert Pigs were founded through a series of fortunate events that began in 2018 on Facebook. The organization began in Dayton and started chapters in Fernley, Yerington and, most recently, in the North Valleys, where Helms is now “boss pig” among the nearly 100 volunteers.
“It’s a pleasure to see (the group) come alive like this,” she said. “When I posted the photos (of trash piles) in the North Valleys, people who commented kept saying ‘talk to Phil (Wooley).’” Wooley, the founder of Desert Pigs, told her his group members would be happy to help. They collected 100 cubic yards of trash on their first outing.
“After that one, Phil said, ‘OK, you’re boss pig of the North Valleys now, take it from here,’” Helms said. “So I did. I’m a member of other non-profits who do cleanups and things like that, but the response from the off-road community has been huge. Members of the other chapters and the Bureau of Land Management people (also) come out and help. I love to see that! It’s a community coming together so quickly and enthusiastically. It’s great to see everybody working hard and smiling and getting these jobs done. That’s what you need to do something like this.”
Troll inspires action
In all, the four chapters of the Desert Pigs has erased 1,311 cubic yards of trash from the desert as of Thanksgiving. The members get dirty just about every weekend, a result that Phil Wooley said he couldn’t have imagined when the group got started, almost accidentally, in the summer of 2018.
Wooley said it started when he was involved in a heated Facebook discussion about another issue that concerned Dayton. Someone kept trolling that online conversation.
“This guy kept posting a photo of a beat up couch dumped out on the dirt and kept commenting ‘Dayton pigs’ angrily in the middle of our conversations,” he said. Wooley, his son and some friends went out to collect the couch.
“It was kind of a way to thumb our noses at the guy, to show him how easy it would be to solve the problem,” he said. “We picked up (the couch) and kept seeing massive amounts of trash scattered all over on our way to the Dayton transfer station.” They picked up that garbage as well.
Other chapters spring up
“We saw the scale of what needed to be done,” Wooley said. “Some groups have sponsored one-day cleanups, but (around Dayton) we had a really big dump.” He founded Dayton Pigs, whose name was inspired by the Facebook troll.
People kept telling the Pigs about more illegal dump sites and the volunteers kept responding. People in Fernley and Yerington formed their own groups. They now have scouts who seek out illegal dumping and schedule chapter members for weekend cleanups.
The Pigs also sponsor blood drives. Wooley, who had donated one of his kidneys to help a neighbor, said he responded to a Dayton blood drive and realized the Pigs could also organize those. “I don’t know how they do the math, but our blood bank, Vitalent, told us our donations have saved 165 lives so far.
A Dayton Desert Pigs cleanup (starts at 1:05) in the Moundhouse area Nov. 1.
‘Free’ cleanups are expensive
The groups depend on donations to cover the expense of legal dump fees, bags and barrels, cleanup and safety equipment and other overhead costs. Although the volunteers aren’t paid and burn their own gasoline during the cleanups, Desert Pigs is required to have worker’s compensation and liability insurance.
“It’s not cheap,” said Wolley, a graphic artist and mechanical draftsman. “Our budget is $10,000 per year… We don’t have any grants although it would be great to find a grant writer.” Donations come in through Paypal, Network for Good and GoFundMe. Volunteers are always welcome.
“The more hands we can get the better,” he said. “The more trucks and trailers we can get, the more trash we can remove. Some people donate their free dump vouchers. That saves us dump fees as well.”
Depending on community’s help
Helms, in the North Valleys, said A-Team Trash Hauling in Sparks donated several 30-cublic-yard dumpsters for the group’s use. The group welcomes monetary donations, gifts of free dump vouchers and cleanup supplies, and always, more volunteers.
“When you go out in the desert, there’s all openness, beauty and stillness. And then you see the trash and it just tramples over your heart. It makes a good moment a bad moment. Care and passion are what makes a sense of community. It’s easy to say the government should do it, but we love this public land and we have some responsibility to look at the devastation of our land. Don’t just sit and talk about it; be about it. You can do it. It’s a totally achievable end.” – Surae Helms, leader of the North Valleys Desert Pigs.
Reporting illegal dumpers
Helms said another way people can help is to report illegal dumpers. She said some of the sites that get cleaned up start getting trashed again almost immediately. The garbage provides clues to the scofflaws and names on mail or other garbage are sometimes referenced in the group’s videos.
The discarded appliances, furniture and household/garden trash piles often seem to be the work of a dumper from a single residence. Larger piles of waste, including construction debris, may be from home remodeling jobs or from entrepreneurs who were paid to clean up a property, charged residents dump fees, and then pocketed the money by disposing of the waste illegally.
In Washoe County, tipsters may call 775-329-3867 (329-DUMP) to report illegal dumping. The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office also has an anonymous reporting app available through the Itunes App Store or Google Play.
Stopping the illegal dumps
“The only way the problem will ever be controlled is if a lot fewer people are dumping their garbage out there,” Helms said. “Report them, shame them, educate them. Clean up after yourselves when you are out there on public land, donate to help our expenses, volunteer, all of the above. It’s a community problem and the community can solve it.”
And if there’s a man-made eyesore on public land near your neighborhood, keep the Desert Pigs in mind.
“When you see it, get in touch with us,” Helms said. “We get dirty.”