FRONT ROYAL – Bernard Steed has been walking the lands that now make up George Washington and Jefferson National Forests his whole life. He is 69 years old.
He also has hunted and taken care of the land, including making sure his property is beautifully maintained.
“My daddy would drive me up here at 5. We would go hunting,” Steed said, adding that he has done the same thing with his 30-year-old son Hunter.
Now when the father and son walk from their property on Panhandle Road into the national forest, they encounter signs of illegal dumping and trash. On Tuesday, they found deep, wide ruts in the mud where people had driven off Panhandle Road. Then they came upon about 60 tires that had been dumped.
“These were not here last night,” Bernard Steed said of the tires. “It’s a shame. This is all our land. It’s everybody’s trees. Yours, mine, our kids.”
He said he and his neighbors have always tried to pick up after those who trash the area. But cleaning up after others is more difficult now for him following the bypass surgery he had in December.
There has been trash dumped over the years but he said it has gotten worse in recent years.
Hunter Steed noted: “We are all proud Virginians, and the trash demeans that.”
The trash, they say, is not only disturbing to look at, but some of what has been dumped there, like a fuel filter dripping fluid onto the ground, is toxic to the land and wildlife.
Near the tires, they pointed out three mounds of roofing shingles, a bathtub, two toilets and other plumbing items that had been there for a while.
“It’s gotten so bad,” Bernard Steed said.
Both men said they feel that local businesses or contractors are dumping there so they don’t have to pay landfill fees.
An employee of an area collection site said they only take in residential trash. He said they charge $1.50 for a tire without a rim, $2.50 for a tire on a rim and the price goes up based on size.
The Steeds and their neighbors also have found residential trash at the illegal dump site. Someone left a couch there, and the owners had left magazines that had their name and address on it under the cushions. The Steeds said the couch owners tried to deny they had dumped the couch until they were confronted with the magazines.
One time a full Chesapeake Bay boat was pulled out of the forest, Bernard Steed said.
The men pointed out trees at the site that are pock-marked from hunters using them for target practice. Some of the trees have died after sustaining damage. One tree had a broken glass bottle on a limb where someone had used it for target shooting and then had left the broken bottle on the limb. The tree has grown around the bottle. Bernard Steed said he would return with something to break the bottle to get it out of the tree.
“If you didn’t care about your mountain, your woods, your animals, then you would not be out here. But I do, and I am,” Bernard Steed said.
The Steeds say deputies from the Warren County Sheriff’s Office have been called out to the dump site, but they have not been able to do anything about it because it’s on federal land. Bernard Steed has also called the U.S. Forest Service in Richmond and in Edinburg.
When contacted Tuesday by the Northern Virginia Daily, Alex Faught, acting district ranger for the Lee and North River Ranger districts, said he had been made aware of the illegal dumping off Panhandle Road.
“It is a big problem and not just in the Lee District or this forest,” Faught said of the illegal dumping. “It is a problem across the nation that we see in all of the public lands.”
He said they would be going out to the site and will take an inventory of what kind of waste there is there, noting he does not want to send people into a potentially harmful situation that requires special handling, training or disposal.
Faught said once their investigation is done, they will clean up the site. He added that he is not sure at this time of the time frame or the cost involved.
Faught thanked the Stead family for reporting the dumping.
“Reporting it is the first step in catching people,” Faught said. “It is illegal but beyond that, it is a health and safety issue.”
Anyone caught illegally dumping could face federal charges that include up to a maximum fine of $500 or six months in prison or both, said Rebecca Robbins, a U.S. Forest Service public information specialist.
Faught said the problem goes beyond penalties if a business is cited.
“I would hope a legitimate business would not be dumping but it has been known to happen,” he said. “They are compromising their entire business for something like that. If a potential customer finds out they got cited for illegal dumping, they would probably be less likely to use them.”
Hunter Steed said he would like to see dirt mounds put on the paths off Panhandle Road to prevent a vehicle from driving into the forest. He would also like to see trail cameras put in place to capture images that can be used as evidence to prosecute illegal dumpers.
Faught would not discuss whether those requests could be implemented. He did not want to discuss what the agency does to investigate a dump site.
Anyone who has information on illegal dumping can call the Lee Ranger District office at 540-984-4101.