As the R44 helicopter from Pollux Aviation slung the 22nd bag of rusted auto parts into the back of his pickup, Joe Meehan broke out in a grin. Wednesday morning was the culmination of nine years of work cleaning up a mess left from as far back as the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 .
Meehan, statewide coordinator of refuges for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, began picking up rusted vehicles and other trash dumped in the sprawling wetland below Anchorage's Kincaid Park motocross area in 2007.
Using mostly volunteer labor and heavy equipment donated by businesses and the Alaska Moose Federation, Meehan cleaned up the wetland first, then scoured the grassy slope above it, gathering up easily dislodged vehicles and other debris.
Numerous crushed vehicles jutting out of the bluff posed a greater challenge. During the past two years, Fish and Game staffers have used a chop saw to hack off exposed parts. Hundreds of sharp-edged, ragged, rusty pieces were stuffed in cargo nets last week. Wednesday's helicopter-assisted lift was the final hurdle.
The 22 cargo nets on Wednesday carried an estimated six tons of car parts out of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. All the scraps were on their way to a recycling facility.
Standing at the base of the bluff, waiting for the helicopter to make another pass, Meehan gazed up at the steep, grassy slope, and the immensity of the project was evident. Entangled layers of crushed vehicles lay partially exposed in an eroded gully, and the bluff seemed to be composed of nothing but corroding metal and sand.
The cleanup is done, but stabilizing the slope will take additional efforts and much more money.
Dump that became a refuge
It's difficult to imagine the damage caused by the 1964 quake. In addition to the loss and disruption of lives, toppled buildings and crumpled homes, hundreds of Anchorage vehicles were crushed or otherwise disabled.
Sweeping up the pieces after the earthquake, residents looked for a convenient place to dispose of the vehicles. Many were hauled to the outskirts of town, to the far end of an unpaved road, to a gravel pit in the woods overlooking a 250-foot-high bluff. The vehicles were crushed at a junk car crushing facility that operated in the vicinity until 1975 and shoved off the bluff toward the mudflats below.
But not really. Like a magnet studded with metal filings, a dump — official or not — attracts other refuse. The dump's gravitational pull continued to attract abandoned vehicles until the late 1970s.
The Bluff, as it was called, was a popular place to dispose of any unwanted cars or trucks, including "many stolen ones," according to an automobile aficionado with the handle "daveydeuce" posting on jalopyjournal.com. "Bluffed" was the verb created to describe the fate of those vehicles — as in "Davey bluffed his '59 Chevy Impala."
Meanwhile, in 1971, the extensive mudflats and wetlands below the bluff became the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. And during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the woodlands and coastal bluff were incorporated into Kincaid Park. The gravel pit is now the Jodhpur Motocross Track.
Several hundred rusting vehicles were bulldozed over the bluff in 1970 when city officials cleared the site for the motocross track, according to the Associated Press. Sand and soil were scooped up to bury the vehicles, but it seems to have been a half-hearted effort and the bluff continues to erode.
The creation of a state wildlife refuge and city park didn't keep people from dumping vehicles and other junk into the gravel pit or pushing them over the lip of the bluff. Meehan estimates at least 2,000 junk vehicles are buried in the bluff, based on a series of aerial photos. In recent years, with active management by the municipal Division of Parks and the Anchorage Racing Lions, illegal dumping has largely ceased.
The bluff isn't the only dumpsite in the wildlife refuge, but it's the biggest. For decades the problem was considered intractable, but Meehan is both persuasive and persistent. He has organized cleanups since 2007 — after nesting birds have left the marsh — removing as many as 100 intact or partial vehicles, 2,000 tires, and 100 tons of other debris.
The motocross track used to be lined with automobile tires. People who partied in the gravel pit used to round up the tires and roll them down the steep bluff. Consequently, tires were found hundreds of feet from the toe of the slope.
Much of the work was accomplished by volunteers, but entailed "a lot of staff time" by Meehan and other Fish and Game employees. Organizations and businesses donated equipment and operators. Meehan singled out Granite Construction Company as a particularly generous contributor.
Because most of the work was accomplished by volunteers, the project has cost the state relatively little. Meehan said he's spent about $60,000 so far. Most of that money paid for an engineering assessment and mitigation plan by Shannon & Wilson, Inc.
Over the past decade, volunteer crews have removed vehicles buried in the marsh and many from the slope, but rusty remnants still emerge.
Meehan has his sights set on a future project to stabilize the bluff to prevent additional sloughing into the refuge's wetlands.
Meehan's project illustrates the time and money needed to clean up a relatively modest environmental faux pas — the accumulation of several thousand rusting vehicles and other trash accumulated over a couple of decades.
It provides some perspective on how difficult it'll be to address the consequences of vastly larger problems like global climate change, oceanic pollution, air pollution and acid rain and the unconscious spread of invasive species.
The irony of all this is that humankind made the mess in the first place.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Curt Abbas was hired by Granite Construction in 1970 to bulldoze vehicles over the Kincaid bluff. The company did not begin Alaska operations until several decades later.
Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News. Contact him at email@example.com