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“People who camp out there are not wilderness people, they’re more like transients and drug addicts,” says city ranger John Garwood. “We’ve found needles and pipes. The most common [items found] are plastic bottles, vegetable cans, batteries, pots, and stuff. About the strangest thing I’ve found is a television.” Once a month, Garwood leads a volunteer trash pickup in López Canyon, 2000 acres of land in Mira Mesa that is part of the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve. The next cleanup will take place on Sunday, February 24.

“There’s a guy who lives right off the rim of López Canyon, Neil Meyer,” says Garwood. “He’s enthusiastic about cleaning up López because that’s pretty much his backyard.” Meyer, who has lived in the area for ten years, says, “I spend a lot of time in the canyon with my dog and by myself, walking, running, or riding a bike.” Though he has always noticed a significant amount of trash in the canyon, it was only within the past year, Meyer says, that he realized “part of the problem was homeless camps.”

Initially, Meyer tried to get the police involved, “but the police were very slow to respond.” As a member of the Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Reserve (a volunteer organization), Meyer “initiated some trash pickups with rangers’ help so we could drive down there with trucks.” When Meyer encounters people camping in the preserve, “I tell them, ‘Next weekend we’re going to be down here, and anything left behind, we’re taking.’ I give them a chance to take what they want and get out of there.”

Most of the larger items, like couches or computer monitors, are dumped by people off the Camino Santa Fe Bridge just north of Mira Mesa Boulevard. Volunteers make as many trips as necessary, and smaller refuse is taken to a Dumpster at the ranger station on Mercy Road by Black Mountain Road. Computers, plastic bottles, cans, and other recyclables are brought to a nearby recycling facility, and some loads are occasionally brought to the landfill on Convoy.

“I live in the area, but even if I didn’t, this has always been one of my favorite areas with lots of great wildlife and the largest population of deer in San Diego,” says Ryan Mocock, a biology teacher at Poway High School. “I like to get the kids involved, because we sometimes talk about nonnative species like the eucalyptus trees and how they affect the environment.” Mocock has offered extra credit to students in the past for assisting in cleanup efforts. “They’re hiking through the vegetation, seeing deer droppings. I get poison oak just about every time I go out there, but I like to wear shorts and short sleeves.”

The most unpleasant discovery, along with syringes and other drug paraphernalia, has been human waste. “[People camping in the area] collect [the waste] in containers so they don’t smell up their campsites, but they leave [the containers] behind,” says Meyer. “Homeless people would bottle their urine, and when my students found that, I heard lots of screeches,” remembers Mocock.

Mocock says it’s a “never-ending battle” against people using the canyon as a giant Dumpster. One night he was drawn outside of his home by a loud noise. “I saw this guy dumping huge bags of concrete, throwing it out as fast as he could. I’m afraid to yell at the guy because it’s the middle of the night and, who knows, he’ll know where I live and stuff.” The cement could interfere with local wildlife. “At the bottom there’s a creek, and it drains through the entire canyon.”

“We have an endangered plant, the willowy monardella — another name for it is the Poway mint,” says Mike Kelly, president of the San Diego Conservation Resources Network. “It’s a highly endangered sub-shrub [one to three feet tall]. Its entire home range is between 805 on the west, 52 on the south, Scripps Poway freeway on the north, and 67 on the east. The plant is not found anywhere outside of that very small area.”

Threats to the Poway mint include erosion caused by building development, dumping of trash, and invasive plants like wild chrysanthemum, mustard, and filaree.

“From the 1970s to 2008 there has been continuous development, sending storm water into López Canyon at a rate, volume, speed, and force that it never had prior to the 1970s,” says Kelly. This runoff is also a major contributor to the trash problem. “The City of San Diego storm drains empty into all these canyons,” says Meyer. “They’re a natural depository for water [and trash] coming off of these streets.”

Mocock says the regular cleanups do help. “When I initially moved in three years ago, there was trash like you wouldn’t believe; it hadn’t been addressed in a long time. But now I see trails growing in with native plants and more deer droppings, which means they’re now moving into areas they weren’t in before.”

— Barbarella

Volunteer Trash Pickup in López Canyon
Sunday, February 24
9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Meet at López Ridge Park,
7245 Calle Cristobal
Mira Mesa
Info: 858-538-8066 or www.penasquitos.org

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