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Cleanup program hits 20-year milestone
The Coast is Clearing

September 17 will be a big day for Texas beaches. On that date, thousands of volunteers from around the state will participate in the 2005 Adopt-A-Beach Fall Cleanup, marking the 20th anniversary of the program.

The Texas Adopt-A-Beach program brings volunteers together three times a year to remove trash from the state's coastline. The Texas General Land Office (GLO) coordinates the program.

Since the first cleanup in Port Aransas in 1986, more than 328,000 volunteers have picked up more than 6,200 tons of trash from along 200 miles of Texas coastline, said Renee Tuggle, state coordinator for the program.

Cost to the coast
Stretching 367 miles, Texas' coast is the third-longest in the nation. The GLO says tidal patterns in the Gulf of Mexico sweep debris from as far away as South America onto Texas shores. Removing that debris is both an environmental and economic issue.

Coastal tourism and fishing mean billions of dollars for the state. In 2002, travelers to the Texas Gulf Coast Region spent nearly $10.5 billion, according to a 2004 report by Marlowe and Company, a Washington, D.C. consulting firm. Commercial fishing brings in nearly $300 million a year to the Texas economy, according to Dave Buzan, the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife coastal studies team leader. The American Sportfishing Association listed the economic impact of sportfishing on the state in 2003 as more than $4.7 billion.

"In order for that economy [tourism and fishing] to continue to grow and survive, we've got to have a healthy coast," Tuggle said.

Cast of thousands
Adopt-a-Beach organizes two major cleanups per year--a spring cleanup in April and a fall cleanup in September--and a smaller winter cleanup in February. The winter cleanup usually draws between 80 and 200 volunteers and takes place in Cameron County. In February 2005, Nueces, Kleberg and San Patricio counties also participated, and the event drew 151 volunteers.

"We ended up with 7,010 volunteers for the spring [2005 cleanup]," Tuggle said.

The spring cleanup usually attracts 7,000 to 8,000 volunteers, and the fall attracts 9,000 to 10,000, according to Tuggle.

"The kids are just going back to school [in September] and are looking for things to do with their school," she said.

Science and Earth classes often participate in cleanups, and students looking for community service hours like to pitch in since they get a card immediately at the end of the cleanup that indicates how many community service hours they've earned, Tuggle said. She also arranges extra cleanups to accommodate students who can't make the April and September dates.

"Just about every weekend, I've got special cleanups somewhere along the coast," she said.

Volunteers perform two tasks--picking up trash and recording information about the trash collected on data cards. The data helps the GLO determine the source of the debris. For most volunteers, the whole event lasts about half a day.

"They come in between 8:30 and 9 in the morning, and they'll clean until 11 or noon," said Tuggle. "We ask them to work in groups of two or three, with one recording and two picking up trash."

Getting organized
Another group of volunteers, called local coordinators, work for several weeks or months to organize the various check-in sites for the cleanup. There are 29 sites along the coast, though not all participate in every cleanup.

Rex Ward, the local coordinator for the League City, Galveston County check-in site, has volunteered as a coordinator for five years. The League City site focuses on a 14-mile stretch of Clear Creek. Clear Creek is a bayou and the main tributary into Clear Lake, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Ward coordinates the fall and spring Adopt-a-Beach cleanups, as well as a winter cleanup of his own for the same stretch of coastline in February, called the Annual Clear Creek Cleanup.

The February cleanup is the biggest and most effective, Ward said.

"We did my annual cleanup, and we put the whuppin' on it," he said.

In February, Ward said he doesn't have to contend with the tide, snakes, alligators and other obstacles that are sometimes present in April or September.

Ward said he draws 30 to 50 volunteers for his Adopt-a-Beach cleanups, compared with 800 for his annual cleanup, but he said the Adopt-a-Beach events are more enjoyable for him because of the smaller number of people and the assistance provided by the GLO.

"I call [them] my fun cleanup(s) out of all my cleanups," Ward said.

Ward advertises each cleanup, sets up the check-in site, organizes sponsors to provide lunch or dinner for his volunteers--sometimes both--and provides door prizes from sponsoring businesses. He said businesses are eager to participate in what they view as a valuable program.

"I have no problem getting whatever I need," he said.

He said the key is making the event fun for volunteers.

"The purpose is if someone comes out and has fun, not only will they come back, but they'll bring a friend," he said.

The immediate gratification of a beach cleanup keeps volunteers returning, Ward said.

"When you volunteer, and you do something good, and you see you've achieved that project, you will come back and continue it," he said.

Starting strong
The program was popular from the get-go in San Patricio County, said Stacy Stork, the local coordinator for the Portland, San Patricio County check-in. Portland has only been involved in the program for a year, but has already completed three cleanups--fall 2004, winter 2005 and spring 2005.

"Since this is our first year, we were pretty excited at having three," Stork said.

Attendance was good at the fall and spring cleanups, with about 100 volunteers, but Stork is striving to draw even more participants.

"I'd like next year to get us up to 200," she said.

The Portland site covers about 2.5 miles, and volunteers usually finish cleaning about 11 a.m. Stork's site does not offer lunch for the volunteers, but sponsors provide water and fruit.

Portland Mayor David Krebs said the program is important to the city's economy and quality of life.

"It definitely saves us money," said Krebs. "If we'd had to hire people just basically to clean the beach, we're probably saving $40,000 to $50,000 a year. It would probably take two people full time."

Krebs said the city acquired the beach property in 1998.

"We tried to keep it up ourselves, but it kept the parks and recreation people overwhelmed," he said.

As important to Krebs, though, is the fact that the cleanups teach the youth in the area about the impact of littering on the beach.

"The program is doing a great education job for the younger generation," he said. "As a city official, I think it's tremendous that the younger generation is coming out to keep the beaches clean. Our little beach used to be kind of rough. ... [Now] it looks good. It makes everyone in the city feel good."

"It's also good for educating older people," Tuggle said. "It makes people stop and think."

And people aren't the only ones who benefit from clean beaches.

"You don't want your house trashy," Tuggle said. "Well, you don't want to see that at the beach either. The critters who live there don't want trash in their house either."

Suzanne Staton