GILMAN (AP) — The Rudnitski family makes a game out of cleaning up its two-mile stretch of Minnesota Highway 25 — a twice-a-year effort that fills about 35 canary yellow, 44-gallon trash bags with paper, cans, bottles, tires and construction materials. Whoever finds the strangest item wins.
Without the volunteers who remove litter from state highways through Minnesota’s Adopt-A-Highway program — and its county and city counterparts — the refuse would simply collect.
Organized through about 4,500 participating business, club and family groups, those volunteers save the state an estimated $5 million a year, according to Ernest Lloyd, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Adopt-A-Highway manager. Paid maintenance crews are called out only to remove hazards in the road or large amounts of debris.
The volunteers pick up litter on 8,352 miles of the 11,851 miles of state highway, according to Dwight Cook of MnDOT.
In Stearns County, 197 volunteer groups have adopted about 400 of the 968 miles of county roads. In St. Cloud, 11 volunteer groups have adopted 12 of the 380 miles of city streets through its Adopt-A-Roadway program and work with the Adopt-A-Pond program.
In Benton County, about 55 groups clean about 155 miles of the 453 miles of county roads. In Sherburne County, 16 groups pick up trash from 32 miles of the 400 miles of county roads.
“It’s difficult to quantify how much we may or may not be saving,” Jodi Teich, Stearns County engineer, told the St. Cloud Times. The county spends $10,000 to $13,000 a year on signs, bags, vests and staff time — including pickups — on its Adopt-A-Highway Program, she said.
“But it’s something that makes our roadsides look nicer,” Teich said. “It gets people involved. It’s generally, we feel, worth the money.”
Loree Rudnitski of Gilman got involved the summer she was working as a MnDOT laborer. That was 22 years ago, when the Adopt-A-Highway program started.
“We can do this,” the newly divorced mother of six remembered thinking. She signed up herself and three of her daughters to keep a two-mile stretch of Highway 25 clean. The road borders 20 acres she owns near the intersection of Benton County Road 3. “What small commitment is that?”
When her daughters grew up, Rudnitski enlisted the help of her 11 siblings and their families. She changed the sign near Gilman Community Park to credit the Joe and Rose Rudnitski family. Joe has since died.
“I think of him every time,” said Loree’s sister June Moshier of St. Cloud of her father. “We were brought up on the farm. We did not throw out stuff. Daddy’s watching over us.”
The family gets together in spring and fall — MnDOT requires volunteers to complete at least two cleanups a year — and usually turns the event into an occasion.
The St. Cloud Antique Auto Club, which picks up litter along a two-mile stretch of Minnesota Highway 23, usually follows its cleanup with a potluck at Les Adelman’s home. Adelman, a retired dairy farmer, joined in the effort when he joined the club in 1995.
“We as a club kind of like to get involved in some community projects,” Adelman said. “I guess (the sign) gets our name out in front of the public a little bit to make the public aware we’re not strictly a car club.”
Chris Scepaniak, state Adopt-A-Highway coordinator for the St. Cloud region (which runs from Sauk Centre to Monticello and Kimball to Rice), said some groups want the recognition. Some families are seeking a constructive activity. Some neighbors simply want to keep their stretch of road clean.
“Even when we pick (up litter), we’ll come back on the other side and they’ll already be throwing cans,” Moshier said.
In 2001, 21 littering citations were issued in Stearns County, according to the state Court Information Office. That year, two were issued in Benton County and 34 in Sherburne County.
Still, the volunteers and government employees said they believed there was generally less litter today compared with the early days of the program. Part of that might be because of the ongoing efforts. Rudnitski said her family collected 15 tires during its first two-mile cleanup in 1990.
Adelman, who said the strangest thing the auto club ever found during a cleanup was a Christmas tree still bundled in a net, had a theory about why littering may have dropped off.
“I think people are a little more aware,” Adelman said. “Maybe the economy has something to do with it, where people don’t stop at the convenience stores and then buy a little more stuff and ... drop it out the window down the road.”