Freeing the Treasured Forest of Trash

Takataka Club volunteers have bonded over their love and care for the Angeles National Forest, with members including Kamden Gray (from left), Sarah Culhane, Jeremy Culhane, Oliver Gilpin, Kirby Gilpin, Matt Culhane, Ellen Runkle, Patrick McDonald, Ruanne McGuiness, Valerie Botta, Natalie McKenna and Jean Pierre Mangui.

On a recent misty morning in the Angeles National Forest, a group of local volunteers wearing yellow vests and hard hats dispersed throughout the cliffs, making like bees to recover debris — trash of all kinds — strewn along the bluffs, an unsightly mess framing the view of the area’s majestic mountains.

That’s why, in fact, the group was there: “Look how beautiful it is out here — it’s just gorgeous,” said Valerie Botta, motioning toward the panoramic vista. “We’re so lucky to have this in our backyards, so incredibly fortunate to have this forest nearby for hiking and views, yet people treat it like a dumping ground. There’s trash everywhere.”

Nearly a year ago, as the global pandemic applied its grip, Botta and her sister, Sarah Culhane, found that a healthy escape from lockdown was to hike in the forest. It was a retreat that they’d been visiting for decades and that Botta had discovered while living for years in La Cañada Flintridge.

But they weren’t the only ones with the idea; during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, many of the turnouts along the Angeles Crest Highway were full of cars, and the trailhead parking lots were often packed as visitors from all over Los Angeles County sought outdoor activities. With all those visitors came a lot more trash, Botta recalled. One day, she and her sister just started picking it up, little by little. Soon, they were filling entire bags and needing a lot more of them.

Caltrans suggested that Botta adopt the highway, which would give her the right to organize groups of volunteers to pick up the garbage without an encroachment permit. She and her sister loved the idea and quickly named themselves the Takataka Club, after a clever word in Swahili that means “trash” and has a fun phonetic sound in English (Botta and Culhane were born in Kenya).

“The whole process was very easy, and Caltrans was wonderful to work with,” Botta said.

Then came just a little brainstorming — Botta is an Instagrammer and posted a few invitations urging followers from LCF, Pasadena and all around L.A. to join her for one hour on Tuesday mornings. The group very quickly picked up about 25 volunteers, and together they’ve gathered at least 800 large bags of garbage, as well as piles of industrial waste and recyclable bottles.

Kamden Gray, Ruanne McGuiness, Valerie Botta, Matt Culhane, Andrea Yoka and Natalie McKenna met recently to clean up an area near the first turn out up in Angeles National Forest.

“We wanted to keep it simple; if you overwhelm people with too much of a commitment it’s daunting and they won’t come. We thought this way, people could get up first thing, get in an hour of volunteering before school or work, and then be done,” she said.

People of all ages and walks of life have been drawn to the group with a mutual love of the forest.

On a recent Tuesday, Kamden Gray was one of several young people who scrambled down the mountainside, guided by a rope and propping themselves securely against shrubbery to retrieve hard-to-reach items that had been tossed from above. He plucked a large telescope box from a tree limb. It’s hard to imagine, he thought, shaking his head, how someone would come to the forest to admire the stars and nighttime beauty, then throw away the telescope box without a care.

“We just do what we can. It doesn’t seem like much as you’re going but then you see all of the bags when we’re done and you realize, ‘Oh wow, we got a lot,’” said Gray, who graduated from La Cañada High School in 2016, but came home from Georgetown after graduating in 2020 during the pandemic.

In his spare time this past year, he’s enjoyed hiking the forest with friends, some of whom he’s recruited to volunteer with the Takataka Club. But most important, Gray said, he’s already seen a marked reduction in the amount of trash since he began volunteering.

La Cañada High School graduates Asher Follett, Juliette Arcaris and Juliana Goldsby (not pictured: Sofia Luque), have enjoyed the volunteer days as a way to be outdoors during the pandemic while cleaning the forest.

Volunteer Matt Culhane said he feels that every little bit counts. He led a visitor on a steep, winding trail down a cliff to show what appeared to be a water flow inlet that was filled with garbage. The area was too far down to reach without proper scaling equipment, he lamented.

“This gully right here? It’s like a waterfall of trash. You can’t even see the ground underneath. It’s pretty discouraging,” he said. “But every single bag of trash we pick up feels like we’re making the slightest bit of difference. It adds up.”

The Takataka Club has picked up many bottles and cans, cigarette butts, condoms and needles, as well as more baffling items, including paint pots, old carpets, a set of knives, a toilet and a full set of gold clubs. More daunting finds have included dead animal carcasses or entire cars. What is especially troublesome, Botta and Culhane said, is the huge amount of industrial waste they have found dumped in the forest.

“We’ve seen massive amounts of construction trash right over the edge,” Culhane said, adding that she feels there are things that can be done to prevent this, including removing the cost associated with taking waste to the dump and levying steep fines against anyone caught dumping industrial material.

As for the other trash, Culhane believes there should be a new push to teach younger generations against desecrating beautiful areas.

“People who grew up in the ’60s talk about growing up with [Smokey Bear], who did these promotional advertisements to pick up your trash — it was taught in schools, everywhere,” she said. “We have to take care of the forest the same way we care for wildlife. This isn’t ‘no man’s land’ — the forest belongs to all of us and it belongs to our children as well.”

Part of the issue with the sheer mass of garbage is that local agencies do not have enough resources to combat the problem. Three agencies — Caltrans, the U.S. Forest Service and the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station — typically oversee the area, with blurry lines in between as officers often cross over in emergency situations. So who’s in charge of trash?

Caltrans, which oversees the highway maintenance, dedicates two days per month to trash pickup, but that doesn’t make a dent in the more remote areas, said Caltrans maintenance supervisor Scott Wadsworth said. And with the sharp influx of visitors during the pandemic, the agency really felt overwhelmed in trying to keep up with the trash overflow, he added.

“We saw total traffic in the course of a month equal what we would normally get in an entire year,” Wadsworth said. “There’s world-class hiking up there and trails from top to bottom. It’s pretty simple —where there are more people, there’s more trash.”

Kamden Gray and Andrea Yoka worked to free up a telescope box someone had thrown into a tree.

Though the Forest Service is charged with managing the dumpsters and locked bins at trail heads, the issue of trash at the turnouts, where people park their cars to enjoy the landscape and city views, has no easy solution: Caltrans tried to install trash bins but people would vandalize them, throw them off the cliffs or just steal them.

“It ended up costing more money just to keep them there than to maintain them,” he said.

When Wadsworth began seeing the filled trash bags lined up at the turnouts and ready to be picked up,  he felt elated, he said.  Caltrans now supplies the volunteers with equipment to do the job safely.

“Valerie and her group have been working so hard, they are finding a lot of stuff that we don’t even see,” he said. “They’re incredible. The amount of trash they pick up is truly amazing. Valerie and the group have been so proactive, I don’t even know where they’re finding so much at this point.”

The Takataka Club members said they have no desire to slow down even as the pandemic fades and people begin to get busy again. The group has developed an easy camaraderie together over the past year, bolstered by the knowledge of the good its members are doing and seeing the difference they’ve made in such a short time.

The group is always looking for more volunteers to make a bigger mark, Botta said. To learn more, visit @takataka.club on Instagram, or by emailing Valerie Botta at vbottav@gmail.com.