Volunteer tire removal project gets shut down early by property owner
After hauling hundreds of abandoned tires, one by one, up the steep mountainside along Highway 9 for five grueling days, a volunteer group organized by local photojournalist Alekz Londos had almost finished its self-appointed task. They were removing a mound of old car tires—hundreds of them—that had festered for decades in a ravine informally referred to as “Goodyear Gulch.”
“It was hard work, but pretty rewarding at the same time,” says volunteer Tim Archer. “Knowing that we had pulled up close to 1,000 tires and looking down and seeing how few of them were left. You could see the hillside in its natural state.”
After the fifth day, the volunteers estimate that about 150 tires remained in the gully. Since the crew had removed an average of 180 tires per day up to that point, it seemed like the sixth day of the cleanup would be the last. But just before noon on July 31, when GT arrived on the scene, Londos was locked in a serious discussion with the manager of Paradise Park Masonic Club, which is located about two miles from downtown Santa Cruz, along the San Lorenzo River, and hundreds of feet below the tire-filled ravine.
The 30 volunteers’ final push was put on hold indefinitely.
What Londos and the volunteers had thought was county land appeared to be private property, and Paradise Park Masonic Club, which claims it owns the area, wanted the cleanup stopped. So much for a happy ending.
“Obviously, I was surprised,” says Londos. “Due to all the steps I went through, all the phone calls that I made, all the officials that I spoke with, all the comments I responded to, and all the messages that I got, and not one person ever mentioned Paradise Park having anything to do with this.”
Londos first stumbled on the tire heap after a day at the Garden of Eden swimming hole in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. He was taking his time on the bike ride back into Santa Cruz, and stopped where the train tracks cross the highway, a few miles from the city limits.
“I was doing some photography along the way, in the middle of the redwood forest, and I stepped over to the edge of a retaining wall that was 10 feet from the tracks, and I noticed some tires. I took some pictures. I felt that it was a problem. They looked out of place,” says Londos. “That’s when I made calls.”
In the days that followed, Londos called everyone he thought may have authority at the site: Caltrans, Waste Management, California Highway Patrol, Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, the Wastewater Treatment Facility, Roaring Camp Railroads, and Santa Cruz County Department of Public Works.
He soon found out that Caltrans had jurisdiction over the highway, and Roaring Camp Railroads was responsible for the train tracks and the retaining wall, but not the ravine.
“I was trying to narrow down whose property it was. Henry Cowell State Park is further down, Pogonip was across the street, Paradise Park was at the bottom of the hill, and the county was responsible for that area,” says Londos.
Once he believed the site was on county property, Londos met with Tim Goncharoff, a resource planner at the Santa Cruz County Public Works Department. According to Londos, he and Goncharoff, who could not be reached for comment for this story, drove to the unregulated dump site in a county vehicle, and perused the gully.
“We walked around. We took pictures. We looked at the area. We documented the location. We looked at the mile markers,” says Londos. “He said that this whole area in here is county property. He gave me permission to move forward with it and hit me with a dumpster.”
The county provided him with a 40-cubic-yard dumpster, and waived the tire disposal fees. Londos then began recruiting volunteers through social media; he got so many responses that he had to limit the number of volunteers he could accept for the project.
With the county’s blessing and an enthusiastic crew behind him, the cleanup started a few weeks after Londos first chanced upon the site. Archer, who has a foggy memory of the tire pile from his time exploring the area in the 1980s, saw the volunteers, filthy and grinning, on his drive home from work, and decided to help clear the ancient dump once and for all.
“Judging by the looks of some of those tires, I think a lot of that stuff has been down there for a while,” says Archer. “There were truck tires with white walls. When’s the last time you saw truck tires with a white stripe on them? That’s like Nixon administration tires—pre-EPA tires.”
The tires, which are sometimes used for erosion control, had been embedded in the gully for so long that roots had grown through the center of some, and the volunteers had to dig out and cut the tires in half before they carried them up the hillside. During the removal, Archer also noticed that many of the tires were filled with water, and could possibly serve as breeding grounds for pests like mosquitoes.
“It’s more than just an eyesore,” says Archer. “It’s a public health hazard.”
But a sanctuary for insects and rodents is just one of many environmental and health concerns associated with aging tires. As the synthetic rubber decays, toxic compounds leach into the soil and pollute nearby waterways. And if the tires catch fire, they could burn for weeks and lead to larger wildfires, all the while releasing plumes of chemical-laden smoke into the air.
Londos and volunteers like Archer say they’re not looking to go after whomever may be responsible for the mess—they just want to see it cleaned up. But now that they’ve been shut down, it is hard to see when and how the rest of the tires will be removed from the mountainside.
Officials from the public works department won’t confirm whose land it is, saying they have no involvement in the cleanup beyond providing the dumpster and waiving the disposal fees. A fellow staffer advised GT that Goncharoff is on vacation, so he has been unavailable to confirm whether he explicitly told Londos the site was on county land.
The pile seems to be in violation of a number of state laws. For example, waste tires are not to be stored on steep grades, or in places that may promote the breeding of pests. Tire piles are to be set away from property lines, clearly marked, and with fire extinguishing equipment on hand.
Although the manager of Paradise Park, Terry Douglas, was unavailable to comment, the club’s board members did agree to speak with Londos in mid-September. It is unclear whether they will allow him to continue the cleanup or not.
Above all, Londos and his volunteers hope that their efforts will serve as an inspiration for others in the community to take the initiative on issues that are important to them. As for any moralistic end to the story, Archer is still unsure.
“The moral ain’t come out yet,” Archer says. “Hopefully it’s a good one and this doesn’t become a cautionary tale.” PHOTO: ALEKZ LONDOS