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U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR

BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT

Oregon / Washington

Lost & Found

One BLM employee's mission to clean up abandoned vehicles from public lands
one '67 Ford Fairlane at a time...

story by Norm Maxwell
photos by Matt Christenson and BLM Staff


Right before Thanksgiving Day 2009, I removed my 700th piece of junk from Federal lands.

Someone abandoned a 1963 Shasta travel trailer in the woods of the BLM's Eugene District. I found this (past-)vintage vehicle amidst an amazing array of household trash, black & white television sets, and soggy cartons of VCR tapes. (Oh, and in case he's looking for it, I found the remnants of Steven Seagal's movie career next to a holiday collection of Peanuts.)

I was amazed by a TV antenna set precariously high in a rotten stump to allow a viewer (or many viewers?) to watch any of the five televisions. Or perhaps all five sets at once? In any event, I figured this might have been a deer hunter's campsite.

Yes, sir. That's good country livin'.

As I sleuthed further, I found that this old Shasta trailer was so overfull that it couldn't be slept in, cooked in, or even occupied in any way.

A backwoods Grey Gardens for the Convoy set, if you will.

Though this impromptu landfill was far from the beaten path, some passersby stumbled upon it only to dump new trash and search vainly for valuables. The license plate was grossly expired. The trailer had no tail lights. The door fell off years ago only to be replaced with a heavy black canvas curtain. I knew without even having to check that the registered owner had sold the trailer to someone else who didn't bother to change the title. The owner simply left tons of mushy, rusting garbage in the woods and walked away.

Our BLM District in Eugene, Oregon, previously contracted wrecking removal with local companies. But a BLM employee still had to meet the pros and lead them out to the site. And that BLM employee was me. So once this region became a popular dumping ground, it made more sense for us to start the BLM's own wrecking business. And thus the BLM's organic abandoned vehicle removal was soon handled in house by yours truly.

Lost & Found
photo by BLM Staff

So after locating my latest dump site, it was a snap to load up Ol' No. 700 on the tiltbed trailer with a rear facing winch. My 700th large-scale removal. No problem.

THE BLM WRECKING CREW

For a number of years, scrap prices had bottomed out. So it was simply easier for folks to engage in "recreational dumping" by towing their dead car out into the woods rather than transport a heap to the steel yard for chump change. Unfortunately for the public, many of these dumped vehicles quickly become targets (literally) for folks with shootin' irons. And like ants at a picnic, once we found one piece of junk on BLM lands, it would often lead to more.

But as the price of scrap steel went up, so did the cost/benefit ratio of dumping a heap worth scrap value - which reduced the number of abandoned vehicles. But travel trailers are still more trouble than they're worth...so they continue to wind up in the woods.

MAKING CRIME PAY

I learned this business from my predecessor when I inherited his "other duties as assigned" in the used and abandoned car business. I discovered that his method of dealing with abandoned vehicles was to utilize a parade of road maintenance heavy equipment once or twice a year and haul the heaps in dump trucks.

When I took over, I trained Oregon's DMV to allow me to write my own paper for abandoned vehicles. There was some initial foot dragging at the beginning. But once I established the procedure, operations went smoothly, and the local steel yard was very happy to accept worn-out automobiles. And our proceeds go into an account earmarked for cleaning up public lands.

Travel trailers are another matter. But I worked out a partnership with the county jail. A crew at the county landfill dismantles the trailers I haul. Then I come back for the frame and bring it to the steel yard. Convert scrap to money. Money gets put in account to pay for cleaning up public lands.

Lost & Found
photo by BLM Staff

Win-win.

YEE-HAW! (IS THAT THE GENERAL LEE?)

Sometimes an illegal dumper manages to cause their abandoned vehicle to roll down the hill while reenacting a favorite scene from The Dukes of Hazzard. In these cases, I utilize Echo Company from the 162nd Infantry Regiment with the Oregon National Guard. These hearty folks bring out their five-ton wrecker to haul junk off the public lands. In addition to cleaning up the environment, the National Guard soldiers enjoy getting out in the woods and practicing a little engineering extrication. As a former Guardsman myself, I know how things work in the military and am able to effectively communicate with Warrant Officer Barnaby and the rest of his gang. And at the end of the day, the BLM gets cleaner public lands and the soldiers enjoy some additional training.

Well...maybe "enjoy" is too strong a word.

WHAT WOULD MACGYVER DO?

These days the National Guard has been pretty busy with other missions. So I've been working mostly solo. I can manage smaller cars found closer to the road with my own field expedient high lead system. That's just a fancy way of saying I "Macgyver" my winch line to hoist abandoned vehicles with my own truck shifted into 4 Low. To be honest, I prefer a smaller truck as my prime mover even though some may think that bigger is better. A short wheel base makes it easier to turn the outfit around on small landings.

When I use a bigger vehicle, our 18 foot tilt bed trailer is my main rig. It was originally designed to haul classic automobiles to the car show. Now it carries long-abandoned Ford Fairlanes and Airstream trailers. I've gotten this one to work harder than its builders ever envisioned. My personal best so far is a 25-foot Winnebago. Even I have to admit that this one may have come close to the absolute limit. I've also cut a full-sized school bus into three pieces just to haul it out of the woods. Cars, pickups, campers, boats, motorhomes, trailers...the difficult we'll move at once.

The impossible just takes a little longer.


Meet Norm in an online video interview with Eugene, Oregon, CBS affiliate KVAL.