Soon after snow blankets the landscape in Tuolumne County, so does another familiar sight that irks many local residents — trash.
Broken plastic sleds, liquor bottles, soda cans, food wrappers and dirty diapers are just some of the nasty things that are typically found littered alongside Highway 108 when droves of snow-seekers come to the area on holiday weekends or after a big storm.
“It seems to be a recurring issue,” said Sonora-area California Highway Patrol Officer Faustino Pulido. “Anytime we have snow up in the hills, 108 at Little Sweden is a problem area where visitors coming up to go sledding leave a lot of garbage behind.”
In addition to the litter, Pulido said vehicles illegally parked alongside the highway near Little Sweden create serious safety hazards for pedestrians and other drivers.
Caltrans plows the shoulder between Little Sweden and a dirt turnoff about 600 to 800 feet to the west where people are allowed to park. When people park along the narrower shoulder beyond that point, Pulido said it pushes pedestrians into the 65 mph roadway.
“There’s a steep embankment down the roadway, so there’s no place to park except for the asphalt shoulder there,” Pulido said. “People will end up parking either right on the white line, or just over the white line, but they get right up to the snow bank.”
Pulido said acting Sonora-area CHP Commander Sgt. Dave Chesson sent extra officers to the area during the recent holiday weekends. More than 50 citations were issued for people parked in no-parking zones.
Despite the headaches for locals and law enforcement alike, Pulido said he doesn’t believe the visitors intend to cause harm.
“People aren’t coming up here just to wreak havoc,” he said. “They are coming up here to enjoy the beautiful scenery and have fun, but unfortunately those few bad apples ruin it for the rest.”
District 3 County Supervisor Evan Royce represents the area and brought up the trash and parking issues during a Board of Supervisors meeting in January last year, when social media exploded over an influx of visitors due to the return of snow after several dry winters.
Royce said he also met several times last year with representatives from various agencies, including CHP, Caltrans and the U.S. Forest Service. They agreed to do more monitoring in the area on busy holidays, but Royce said there are some barriers to other potential solutions.
One idea that came up when the board discussed the issue was the possibility of developing a recreation park in the area.
However, Royce said the county doesn’t have the funds to do it on its own.
“There’s just no money, especially with our roads falling apart,” he said. “We also don’t want to compete with Leland Meadows (a snowplay area farther east off Highway 108).”
In addition, the Little Sweden property is privately owned.
Little Sweden, built in 1921 as a ski resort, was purchased by Donald Williams in 1978 for about $41,000. The buildings at the site were abandoned for decades before the county tore them down in 2012 as part of a nuisance abatement.
As a result of the abatement, the county slapped a $42,700 lien on the property in May 2013 that remains unpaid. The assessed value of the land is $40,155.
County records show that Bank of America filed a notice of default on the property in August of last year for $7,371.04 in unpaid debts. The bank would have to file a notice of trustee sale to move forward with a foreclosure.
The mailing address listed for Williams on county documents is out of Merced.
David Tingey is a longtime county resident who has lived in Cold Springs for the past four years and wants to see something done about the property to soften the impacts from visitors.
“I do see CHP writing tickets, but it doesn’t seem to put a dent in things,” he said.
Tingey’s suggestions include increasing the Forest Service presence on busy holiday weekends to cut back on people littering, as well as turning the area into a rest stop. He said the county could consider partnering with another agency to obtain a grant for the project.
Last year, some took it upon themselves to address the littering problem.
Lara McNicol, of Soulsbvyille, is a sixth-generation county resident whose family has owned property near Little Sweden since the 1850s. She decided to take action after seeing many complaints about the mess on social media.
“I was raised a big believer in taking any kind of upset feelings or anger and finding a productive channel for it to better the world,” she said.
McNicol, who teaches forestry and natural resources at Columbia College, began promoting a cleanup day in January last year that spread quickly on Facebook. She reached out to Caltrans to see if she needed a permit for the event and was referred to the Adopt-A-Highway program.
Several groups and individuals that have sponsored stretches of the highway agreed to help with the event. She tried to contact the owner of the Little Sweden property, but she didn’t receive a response.
The group that participated in the event last year collected a total of 30 large bags of trash. The Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau also donated money for the volunteers to get coffee afterwards at a cafe in Sugar Pine, McNicol said.
County supervisors have said the issue is a difficult balancing act, because the local economy relies heavily on tourism during the winter months.
McNicol said she gave trash bags to visitors she saw at Little Sweden during last year’s cleanup day and politely asked them to pick up their garbage before the leave. She believes educating people and assisting them is one way to help improve the situation.
“My personal belief is that this issue comes from just a lack of understanding and knowledge,” she said. “I don’t think anyone comes up here just to make a huge mess and cause environmental damage, but educating people in a polite manner without confrontation can make incredible progress on the issue.”