Stewardship non-profit restores Pacific Northwest public lands
By Timothy H. Cogley, Oct. 10, 2019
Forty cars filled the parking lot of the Jones Creek Trailhead. It was a radiant Sunday and seemed like half of Washougal had brought their ATV’s out to play. “It feels like Father’s Day,” Bill Cogley, my father, said of being together again in the Yacolt Burn State Forest. It was a regular visit for him but we weren’t there to play in the woods like everyone else. My father was on a mission to “clean up the land” and I had to get to the bottom of what that was all about.
We stopped to talk to a family that was enjoying some target practice on a few nearby stumps. The stumps had been eviscerated from dozens of other target shooters before them. My father’s approach is always the same: a smile, friendly wave, slight chuckle, sidearm holstered at the hip – to let them know he’s “a fellow target shooter.” But the sign on the truck and the fliers in his hand give everyone pause.
“Am I in trouble?” is a reasonable enough question to ask when approached by someone bearing fliers. They were “in trouble,” shooting at targets without a backstop is illegal. My father had just finished telling me how the stump had previously caught fire from target shooters firing too many bullets into it. Fortunately, another passing recreationist saw the smoke, reported it and authorities extinguished the flame. But my father believes that people won’t listen if you’re coming down on what they’re doing wrong.
He dismissed the man’s concern and got right to the point: he’s there to represent Trash No Land. “We’re a nonprofit organization that promotes responsible target shooting and stewardship of the forest. That way we can keep sites like this open for public use,” he said. The marksman’s tune quickly progressed from defensiveness to relief then to interest and recognition of the problem. While the conversation may not be easy to have, the man’s transformation demonstrated the need for having it.
The flier only tells half of the story. It provides an overview of common rules and laws for shooting on State and National Forest lands, codes of conduct, plus tips for responsible shooting. While the focus of Trash No Land’s message to target shooters is centered on responsible conduct, for Cogley, the way to achieve that is by fostering respect for the environment and the public. To him, that means getting out and cleaning up.
Since incorporating in 2017, Trash No Land has cooperated with local government offices to organize seven-to-eight volunteer clean-up events per-year in forests across the Pacific Northwest. In 2018, Trash No Land’s efforts removed 17,000 lbs. of illegally dumped trash from public lands. They have even recently restored a trap range on Sauvie Island, 10 miles Northwest of Portland, and installed target lanes in the Tillamook State Forest. Trash No Land is restoring more than trap sites and target lanes with its efforts; it is restoring the sport shooters reputation in the recreation community.
It started for Cogley in 2012 when he took my brother, Ian, out to sight-in their rifles for their first hunt together. Cogley recalled being shocked by the amount of trash they found. He said, “it didn’t seem right to me,” and got to thinking that he should do something about it.
Cogley organized his first clean-up event through the Northwest Firearms web forum. He recruited the support of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, who provided equipment and insurance for the volunteers. They even counted their service hours toward free annual Discover Passes – Washington’s access permit for state parks and trailheads. Thirty-five members from the online community participated in that first event. Cogley said, “everyone had so much fun that they decided to do it again right away.”
My father and I witnessed different shooting behaviors on our tour of the Yacolt Burn, but most target shooters were following the rules. “That’s what I like to see,” my father said to a group with proper safety equipment, reusable targets and clearly marked firing positions.
One member of the group, who asked to remain anonymous, was frustrated by the amount of litter he had seen. He said, “people need to clean up after themselves.”
Many factors contribute to the accumulation of trash on public lands. Irresponsible recreationists certainly add to it, but illegal dumping is an all-too-common practice in most state forests.
When recreational sports shooters come along and target that trash is what Cogley said, “gives us a bad name.”
“We are getting numb to the amount of trash out there,” he said, meaning everywhere, including the city. “We’re so overwhelmed by it that it’s become commonplace and easy to ignore.” Cogley thinks it symptomatic of a selfish attitude. He encourages people to take each other and the environment into consideration.
The general consensus seems to be that the majority of recreationists follow the rules. Cogley said, “it’s just that the few who are destroying [the forest] are actually destroying it.”
Common Sense Rules
The next group we came upon caused us concern. His approach was more serious this time. “I don’t like coming down on anyone, but I have to say something,” he said to the man fully decked out in a tactical vest. Their targets were positioned at the crest of a hill without any sort of backstop: both illegal and dangerous. The man graciously heeded my father’s warning and appreciated the concern. He wore the logo of a security company on his vest.
That, according to my father, seems to be the problem. People are either unaware of the rules or simply disregarding them. This is why he decided to target recreational sports shooters as his audience, he said, “because they are the ones that can make a difference.”
Cogley wants to distribute the Trash No Land informational brochure Northwest wide to raise awareness for the law and, what he calls, “common-sense” rules. The organization, however, currently lacks the funding to produce them on a mass scale. Cogley also values interpersonal communications, a strong social media presence, quality video production and educational classes as key elements to his strategy for promoting stewardship.
While promoting responsible gunmanship is at the heart of Trash No Land’s mission, Cogley said, “the main thing we are is an environmental organization with a focus on recreational sport shooting.”
The organization has made its name for its monthly clean-up events, held from spring through fall. They are organized in partnership with government agencies that manage and protect the local forests. In the Yacolt Burn State Forest, Cogley has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Natural Resources.
Sharon Steriti, the recreation manager for the Pacific Cascade Region, called Cogley’s effort, “influential,” and said groups like Trash No Land, “are our eyes and ears out there.” She said that the quicker they have eyes on a problem, the quicker they can respond to it.
The volunteers also extend their efforts across Oregon State, including the Tillamook State Forest in partnership with the Oregon Department of Forestry, Deschutes National Forest with the U.S. Forest Service, at Mary’s Peak with the Benton County Sheriff’s Department, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service – Siuslaw National Forest, in Medford, Oregon with the Bureau of Land Management and also in Welches, Oregon also with the Bureau of Land Management.
Helping Cogley run the nonprofit are five board members. They currently have 98 volunteer members and have accumulated over 1000 likes on the Trash No Land Facebook account. Cogley has also rallied the support of such sponsors as Sportsman’s Warehouse, Sporting Systems, Leupold Optics, Hat Point Targets, Cabela’s Sporting Goods, Les Schwab Tire Center, and various local small businesses in towns that host the clean-ups.
The volunteers with Trash No Land remove, on average, more than 2,000 lbs. of trash per cleanup event; a figure Cogley got from Clackamas County Dump Stoppers, another sponsor who disposes of the trash collected.
Steriti said that levels of trash have decreased due to the work of groups like Trash No Land and others like Pistons Wild, an ATV group, and Leave No Trace. She also said the Department of Natural Resources holds their annual “Pick Up the Burn” event in April.
My father’s mission began with a desire to share a tradition with the next generation. That impetus continues to motivate the work he does. “I realize the value of the next generation having the same privilege to go shoot on public lands, if they so desire.” He fears a scenario in which irresponsibility and lack of sportsmanship leads to a loss of that privilege. “It’s the younger crowd that we have a harder time trying to reach,” he said.
Much like the initial discomfort many feel when approached about rules and laws surrounding gun ownership and use, Cogley recognizes how difficult of a conversation it is to have in today’s political climate. He admits that his message is received in a reserved way, “I think there is a general feeling that a lot of people do not want to publicly support an organization that has to do with firearms.” It is why he feels so strongly that his message of responsibility needs to be heard.
His efforts and those of the volunteers he organizes do not go unnoticed, however. Other recreational groups see them out cleaning up, he said, and that they get a lot of appreciation. “What we’re doing should result in a better experience for everyone who visits the forest,” he said.
As I reflected on the people we had met and behavior we had seen over the course of our tour of the Yacolt Burn State Forest, I struggled to conceptualize the magnitude of the problem as it pertains to nearly every forest the public has access to. His mission with Trash No Land is to tackle the problem at a cultural level by rebuilding the values that protect people, the environment, and the privilege to enjoy it may ultimately be the most direct way to address the problem: in person.
Still, he recognized that it is difficult to measure the impact. He said, “[that’s why] I like to go out every so often and see how things are out there.” Ever the optimist, my father was quick to beat away the specter of overwhelming odds. As we pulled back onto paved road, he said: “it actually wasn’t too bad out here today. People must be picking up after themselves more.”
For more information, visit www.trashnoland.org