It's a problem that for decades has defied solution.

Over the years Tuolumne County crews have pulled hundreds of tons of trash, sodden furniture and rusted appliances from our hillsides and ravines. Our leaders have periodically launched campaigns against the illegal dumpers and, once in a great while, a careless perpetrator has even been nabbed.

Yet the problem persists. Drive up Big Hill or Yankee Hill roads outside of Columbia or take a trip down the Wards Ferry Road, then look over the edge. The evidence couches, refrigerators, beer cans, diapers, hemorrhaging trash bags and more is disgusting and plentiful.

So we support the county's latest effort to curb what has been an epidemic scourge.

Gretchen Olsen, solid waste manager for the Public Works Department, has proposed an enforcement strategy modeled after a successful program in Butte County.

Its key elements:

? A hotline and a Web site to both raise awareness of the dumping problem and to provide the public with quick ways to report violations

? An enforcement officer charged with apprehending illegal dumpers

? A $1-per-ton surcharge levied at county transfer stations. Proceeds, about $44,000 annually, would both bolster the enforcement effort and help owners victimized by illegal dumpers clean up their properties

? Requiring landlords to provide garbage pickup service be it by a hauler or by themselves to tenants. This would deter renters who can't afford transfer station or pickup fees from illegal dumping

? Transfer of illegal dumping enforcement from the Environmental Health Department to Public Works, which is already in charge of legal waste disposal and whose staff members log more hours in the field. With the transfer would come $57,000 a year now budgeted for enforcement

? Prosecution of violators under county code compliance rules, which Olsen said could often bring quicker results than action under the state penal code

? More coordination between government agencies and offices with a role in the enforcement process

Supervisors last week gave preliminary approval to a proposed illegal dumping ordinance, a good first step.

But even if all parts of the plan go into effect, county residents should not count on seeing pristine canyons and timber stands anytime soon.

Columbia building contractor Jim Grossman, who over 15 years has devoted hundreds of volunteer hours to cleaning up such unsightly and illegal roadside messes, often jokes that he has "job security." The problem, he adds, does not rest with the county, but those devoid of responsibility, community pride or even the ability to know right from wrong.

"All the hard work we do cleaning up doesn't mean anything to these people," Grossman said. "It just cleans the slate, and they go out and do it again."

That said, he applauds the county efforts. Although difficult, catching and punishing illegal dumpers may be a deterrent.

But this program can only be successful with the cooperation and involvement of all of us. So be alert on your travels around Tuolumne County, not just for illegal messes but for those who might be responsible for them.