Celebrating 25 Years of Arkansas River Cleanups!

This year, National River Cleanup® (NRC) is celebrating its 25th anniversary! To help celebrate, we’ve asked Rose Bayless, program assistant at the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA), to share the story of her cleanup, which is also celebrating 25 years! Over the past quarter century, NRC and AHRA have been working together to help keep the Arkansas River clean for all to enjoy.

Heavy-Metal-and-Tires-AHRAThe Arkansas River Cleanup/Greenup has helped keep the Arkansas River clean for the past 25 years!

On May 21st, the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) will observe our Silver Anniversary for the Arkansas River Cleanup/Greenup in the central mountains of Colorado. The AHRA is responsible for a 152-mile stretch of the upper Arkansas River, which begins its 4,200 mile journey to the Mississippi as a bubbling spring emerging from the rocky Mosquito mountain range north of Leadville. It continues to flow past the 14,000 foot peaks of the Sawatch mountain range, picking up snow melt on its way through fertile valleys and rugged canyons, pushing through Browns Canyon National Monument and the Royal Gorge, before it reaches Pueblo and the open plains of Eastern Colorado.

It just comes naturally that folks like hanging out by the “Ark” as locals call it. On any given day of the year, there is no shortage of residents taking quiet pleasure in the sound of the water splashing by – strolling, fishing, throwing stones, kayaking. The AHRA is also host to over a million visitors a year who enjoy a multitude of outdoor activities along the Ark, including whitewater boating, fishing the Arkansas’ Gold Medal Trout waters, hiking, biking and camping.

Rivers are living, breathing creatures with unique personalities all their own, but up until the recent past it wasn’t uncommon for rivers to be taken for granted and ignored, and adjacent neighborhoods became vacant and dilapidated. Then suddenly in the past few decades, people began to see the beauty and character of rivers that had been all but extinguished, and a renaissance began to rebuild and revive riverfront properties and the rivers themselves. These new river visions created thriving economies and sought after residential, entertainment and recreation venues.

Yet in Colorado and throughout the United States, all this old and new use produced myriad trash and waste along and in our rivers. The mindset was that somehow it would magically disappear, but it didn’t disappear, and we were left with the reminders of mindless behaviors.

Taking-out-the-Trash-AHRACredit: AHRA staff

Rather than considering all this garbage a problem, the AHRA saw this as an opportunity to build an alliance among the communities and residents along the Ark by creating an annual “river fest” devoted to improving the health of the Arkansas River and restoring its habitat, wildlife and scenic value. It just so happened that the AHRA organized our first river cleanup in May of 1992, the same year that National River Cleanup was established.

Getting this effort started was a daunting task. How do we organize folks in 3 counties, 8 towns and all the rural mountain enclaves to come together for the common cause of trash cleanup? First we had to pick a date after the snow had melted but before the Ark began to roar with run-off, and mid-May was and still is the time. Because the AHRA encompasses such a large geographic area, we involved the cities, counties, their recreation and parks departments and as many other organizations as we could. We invited all the residents too.

Food always seems to be a draw, and a volunteer picnic at Riverside Park in Salida was included in the plan, with local businesses donating food and services. Music also is a proven attraction, so we added a band to the mix and threw in a parade as a fund raiser to benefit another river event in June. A trash contest created some lively competition for the weirdest garbage of the day, and each year people hunt for that special something that defies definition.

The local waste management company donated a couple of very large dumpsters, commercial rafting companies donated staff and boats to scour the river, and local radio stations provided advertisement and live coverage. Of course, trash bags are a must, and the awesome “official” River Cleanup bags did the trick for all 250+ volunteers who picked up trash in the morning and enjoyed food and music in the afternoon.

This is how the Arkansas River Cleanup/Greenup (CUGU) was born, and this recipe is still a hit and going strong 25 years later.

trash-piled-up-high-AHRACredit: AHRA staff

As I look back on the accomplishments made over the years, the one thing that stands out most is the increase in public stewardship. AHRA and our partners have instilled the importance of a litter-free environment not just for the pleasure of people, but for maintaining healthy ecosystems. This is where the “Greenup” comes in, because picking up trash promotes healthy flora. Although we have our annual River Cleanup event, the really cool thing is that people don’t wait for May to do their part; they are cleaning up every day! Splinter groups have also branched out to organize their own cleanups throughout the year.

Spring is just around the corner, and folks are already asking “When is River Cleanup?” This seems ironic since we have a foot of snow on the ground and even in May we can’t be sure if it will be spring or not. What we can be sure of is the Ark will be ready for us snow, rain, wind or shine, so it’s time to start gathering the troops. Some of these faithful volunteers are no longer with us, but their love for the Ark lives on. Thank you everyone, and let’s get started!

2 Responses to “Celebrating 25 Years of Arkansas River Cleanups!”

Dorothy OBrien

My great grandparents settled in Colorado Springs after the Civil War. My grand parents lived in Canon City, dad was born there. Grandma was a teacher there. Eventually they went to CA and that’s where I was born. My daughter got a job in CO after college and lives there with her family. All my life I heard about the mountains and the Royal Gorge. I’ve learned about the resorts and pioneer places. I see more and more building, farm land changing. It’s good to know the Arkansas River is appreciated along with the natural scenery of the Rockies. Keep up the good work!


Whether traveling in Europe/China or here in Colorado I and my family have always picked up trash as we hike or dog walk. Its so nice the next time you do that same path isn’t it? Once I even made my husband climb 20′ to desnag a bird (it had gotten tangled in fishing line somehow which subsequently caught on a branch). I really appreciate seeing/hearing about other folks making this essential – especially with our lovely rivers. What a nice story on working together!