Tucker creek dumpsite.jpg

A roughly 1.5-mile illegal garbage dump along Tucker Creek in Balsam Grove is about to be cleaned up. (Courtesy photo by David Whitmire)

Thanks to a donated banjo and the relentless effort of local conservationists, volunteers are set to start this week on a project to clean up one of Pisgah National Forest’s largest illegal dumpsites, a 1.5-mile historic garbage patch along Tucker Creek in Balsam Grove.

For decades the embankment off Pressley Fields Road has been a dumping site for everything from household trash, to old appliances, construction waste and even discarded deer carcasses.

It has also contaminated the once pristine Tucker Creek, a high mountain stream and one of the headwaters for the French Broad River.

Locals like Headwaters Outfitters owner David Whitmire and Steep Canyon Rangers lead vocalist and guitarist Woody Platt have been aware of the dumpsite for years, and there was a cleanup that took place in the 1990s. But it wasn’t until recently that another grassroots effort sprung up in response to growing concerns about the state of the remote section of Pisgah National Forest.

“When you see it, you’ll understand why we’re passionate about cleaning this up,” Whitmire said. “It’s just a beautiful place that’s just been pretty much ruined by the toxic (garbage) around it visually…It makes you sick to your stomach.”

Throughout the summer last year, local nonprofit The Pisgah Conservancy (TPC) advertised a raffle for a banjo signed by the Steep Canyon Rangers and Steve Martin. TPC, along with Headwaters Outfitters, the Cindy Platt Boys & Girls Club and Trails Carolina helped to raise over $21,000 to put toward the clean-up effort.

Trails specialist Jeff Maitz, with TPC, has helped organize the project to get Tucker Creek cleaned up.

Maitz said not only will the $21,000 go toward this project, but The Pisgah Conservancy hopes to keep the momentum going and use any of the money left over from the raffle to establish the Pisgah Clean Up Fund to tackle similar projects across the forest.

“There’s all sorts of stuff down there, and it’s negatively impacting our water quality and the health of the aquatic species there at Tucker Creek, and that’s the headwaters of the French Broad,” Maitz said. “It’s a really important aquatic ecosystem and water source for our whole region, and also it’s also disgusting and terrible. There are these really special cascading waterfalls, a beautiful high mountain creek and it’s just sullied all around with all sorts of garbage. The TPC is really excited to be involved in this, as it’s one of the prongs of our mission statement, which is this clean-up effort.”

Maitz also highlighted how much of a community driven effort this was.

Whitmire and Platt had been dismayed by the state of Tucker Creek for a long time, but it was going to take a massive effort to even put a dent in the decades of trash strewn throughout over a mile of land in Pisgah National Forest.

It wasn’t until the Steep Canyon Rangers came into the possession of a donated banjo that a chain reaction started that lead to the money being raised.

As a thank you gift for being one of the sponsors of the annual Mountain Song Music Festival, the Steep Canyon Rangers donated the banjo to one of the owners of Trails Carolina.

Then, Trails Carolina put their heads together with Headwaters Outfitters and decided the banjo would be put to better use as a prize to help raise money for the cleanup efforts Headwaters regularly organizes throughout the community.

Headwaters is known for their French Broad River cleanups, but when Trails Carolina first offered the banjo to use for fundraising, Whitmire said he already had the funds for their next river clean up.

Then he thought, ‘Why not go even bigger?’ and turned to TPC for help.

TPC has a reputation for putting together successful raffles through their Pisgah Project Bike Raffle, and Whitmire decided to team up with the organization to help advertise the banjo raffle through their audience.

The banjo then went back to the Steep Canyon Rangers to autograph and was shipped to Martin for his signature. Fans responded with a huge demand for raffle tickets.

From there, sales of raffle tickets took off and it was advertised in tandem with promotions for Mountain Song’s return to the Brevard Music Center after 2020’s festival had to be canceled due to COVID-19.

“I’m sure that was a big part of raising much more than what the original cost would be. We got a lot more with the signatures on it,” Whitmire said.

The cleanup will take place over three days this week, and Whitmire said he’s not sure they will be able to get to all of the trash. The Forest Service and local contractor Jamie Cauble will be assisting the cleanup with heavy machinery, and dozens of volunteers will put in the necessary manpower to clear away the long-time dumpsite.

Much of the garbage is concentrated on a steep slope right off the roadside and will require volunteers to work together to haul off the trash. The hope is, with the machinery and volunteer force coming in, they will be able to get most of the dumpsite cleared, and anything left over will be a much more manageable project for sometime in the near future.

“This is a great example of an idea with a genesis in the local community, and then The Pisgah Conservancy being able to facilitate the fundraising piece and discussions with the Forest Service to get it implemented and get it done,” Maitz said.

Maitz also thanked the many locals and organizations that came together to help make the project a reality.

Whitmire also noted he has been working with the Sheriff’s Office to increase surveillance of the area around the dumpsite to deter the illegal dumping that’s been going on.

And once this dump is cleaned up, Whitmire and Maitz plan on setting their sights on the other illegal dumpsites in the forest, leading by example to make local public lands cleaner one piece of picked up trash at a time.

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