Maricopa County’s parks in the East Valley display lush landscapes, but too often the desert becomes a dumping ground for people too lazy to take their junk to the dump, park officials say.
"It’s a massive problem," said John Tauscher, park supervisor for Usery Mountain Recreation Area. "Rather than pay, they dump in the desert."
While supervisors say their parks remain largely pristine, piles of debris are found frequently, dumped in the middle of the night among cactuses and desert brush.
"It’s almost impossible to stop because you don’t know where they’re going to do it, or when," said Bob Ingram, park supervisor at San Tan Mountain Regional Park.
Many of the county’s parks are only a few miles from public dumps, which charge small fees for dumping.
Tires, household appliances, landscape trimmings, couches, roofing tile and even car bodies litter land that has been set aside and managed for recreational purposes.
Park officials struggle to nab illegal dumpers, sometimes catching them in the act. But enforcement is difficult.
"Unfortunately, with parks being remote, it makes it easy to drop off," Tauscher said.
San Tan park in the far south East Valley is especially vulnerable to illegal dumping.
With more than 10,200 acres that have been unsupervised by the county until recently, San Tan sees dumping about once a month, Ingram said.
Sometimes, park officials are able to issue citations and fines to illegal dumpers. At Usery, a park ranger caught someone dropping a car body off in the park. The incident is being pursued as a criminal dumping case, Tauscher said.
At San Tan, Ingram caught an uncle and teenage nephew dumping household items in the park. He also cited a county detention officer for dumping brush, a $ 400 penalty.
Ingram said he had problems with a felony case about two years ago, when two individuals were caughtdumping a truckload of tires.
Prosecutors decided not to file charges because the individuals cleaned up what they dumped within two weeks, Ingram said.
Prosecutors argued that state law makes an exception for people who immediately clean up their mess, he said.
But to Ingram, immediately means cleaning up what was dumped when a perpetrator is caught in the act.
"It’s kind of like committing robbery and bringing the money back and saying no robbery occurred," he said. "That’s just balderdash."
Tauscher said he hasn’t had the same problem when pursuing felony charges, but catching offenders in the first place remains difficult.
For every person who’s caught, there are two or three who dump and get away.
"I could take you to some parts of the park and you’d swear it was a dump," said Tauscher.
But with development occurring near Usery, Tauscher said he’s looking forward to neighbors who can watch over the park.
At McDowell Mountain Regional Park near Fountain Hills, illegal dumping is prevented in large part because of volunteers who live at the park, said Paul Marusich, an interpretive ranger at McDowell Mountain.
"People of this area are so grateful to have open space that the entire community is a watchdog here," he said.