A group of volunteers is trying to clean up one of Illinois’s busiest tourist spots.
Six-year-old Leo Mancuso of Oswego enjoys Starved Rock State Park the same ways many visitors do -- jumping across small streams and gazing up at monstrous rocks. But there’s another side to the popular tourist spot: trash.
“I found a water bottle, a big one,” he explained.
It’s no surprise to his mother, Becky Mancuso, who brought along a large trash bag for this hike.
“I used to go all of the time when I was in high school with my friends, and I don’t remember trash like that back in the 90s," she said. "I was pretty devastated when we went on the main trails and tried to take pictures near the waterfalls, and there was just trash everywhere -- like diapers and Gatorade bottles.”
Nicholas Donka of DeKalb shares her view. That’s why he started the Starved Rock volunteer clean-up crew.
“My family and I just came out here for a walk, and we saw all the garbage," Donka said. "I looked for a Facebook page and didn’t see one, so I figured I would start one.”
The Starved Rock Cleanup Crew page on Facebook now has more than 130 members.
Kelly Lavoie of Sandwich says the trash comes in all forms, including candy wrappers, diapers and beer cans.
“I have been hiking out here for 34 years. It used to always be nice," Lavoie said, "and any more it is just covered in garbage and you hate to see people not caring.”
It’s a welcome effort for Kerry Novak, superintendent of Starved Rock State Park.
“We’ve been short of help for a long time," Novak said. "There are over 14 miles of trails in this area, and to get over them on a regular basis is just physically impossible. Groups like this are just a huge help to us.”
He estimates the staff is about half the size it was a decade ago, but there has been a growing number of visitors.
“The budget impasse had an impact because it was difficult to replace people during that period of time,” Novak said, "but it’s an erosion that has been going on for quite a while."
Why not just add more trash cans along the trails? Novak says it’s more complicated than that.
“You’re talking about being a couple of miles into these spots and having to carry that out -- which you can’t do all the time," Novak explained. "The other thing is that, if you leave a trash can somewhere, the raccoons and the other animals get into and scatter it all out. A trash can almost has to be picked up every day or you have a bigger mess.”
He suggests that hikers should bring along grocery bags they can fill up as they go along and then toss out the proper way on their way home.
“Plan ahead a little bit when you come to these areas and carry the stuff out with you and plan on doing it,” Novak suggested, "and make some preparation beforehand."
Becky Mancuso’s 10-year-old son Jackson says he has a few words ready to go if he ever comes face-to-face with a litter bug.
“I would say, ‘Stop! You really shouldn’t do that. It’s hurting the environment,'" he said. "'If it’s compostable, compost it! Like, c’mon!'”
His mom beams with pride — and offers her own advice.
“Stop being lazy. Clean up after yourselves. This is important. It is important for our kids," she said. "Those water bottles-- it is going to take a thousand years for them to break down, and it just ruins the place.”
The group is looking for more volunteers and plans to organize the clean-ups at least once a month.