It's an idea whose time has come.

Yes, mandatory curbside garbage collection is sure to draw complaints from some of the thousands of residents who now haul their own trash and from others who object to the rate increases it would bring. But it is a necessary weapon in Tuolumne County's battle against illegal dumping.

Only 35 percent of the county's households now have garbage pickup. The vast majority of the rest are self-haulers who pay a fee at the transfer station in Mono Village to dump their own trash.

But the problem lies with the small minority who, to save a few dollars or few miles, secretly dump their trash anywhere they can get away with it.

Although there are few illegal dumpers, their impact is substantial: From 2001 through 2005, Public Works crews removed 92 tons of trash from roadsides, canyons and ravines. The stuff is not only unsightly, but especially when thrown near creek beds or other water sources environmentally hazardous.

The logic behind mandatory pickup is simple: If someone must pay a hauler $350 a year to come by each week and collect a couple of cans of trash, the financial incentive for throwing it off a roadside in the middle of the night is much reduced.

Combined with stiffer fines, barriers at popular dumping spots, more transfer stations and the rest of a 15-point anti-dumping plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors last year, universal collection could make a big difference.

With some grounds, some may complain that mandatory collection is yet another example of the long arm of government reaching into areas it shouldn't. Why, many self-haulers will ask, shouldn't we be able to take our trash to the dump when we want?

"It will put more restrictions on us," agreed Jim Grossman, who over more than a decade has picked up close to 100 tons of roadside trash with volunteer crews. "But I think it's worth the trade-off. I think it would help a lot."

Notice that Grossman didn't say it would solve the problem. The guy who knows more about illegal dumping than anyone in Tuolumne County knows better than that.

That's because much of the trash found among our manzanita and mountain misery won't fit into a can. Instead washers, dryers, refrigerators, couches and other large items must be hauled to the transfer station, where Cal Sierra Disposal charges from $12.60 to $28.60 per item.

Curbside customers now qualify for two $12.60 dumping coupons a year, covering two washers or nearly one refrigerator. But self-haulers 65 percent of us get no such break, and those with junk appliances and a limited budget may be led into temptation.

So county officials now discussing mandatory curbside collection and the future of the Mono Village transfer station should insist that any future agreement with Cal Sierra and the county's other franchise haulers include ample provision either coupons or free dump days for all residents to dispose of appliances and other larger items.

Grossman says we've made progress that there is less illegal dumping now than there was in 1993, when he began cleaning up our well-littered canyons. Still, as anyone who drives Tuolumne County's back roads knows, it is far from solved.

Indeed, the problem may never be entirely solved. But mandatory collection, when combined with incentives encouraging the legal disposal of larger items, would be major step in the right direction.

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Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.