LILESVILLE — Beer cans. Glass bottles. Drug paraphernalia.
Guests are likely to find those and more when visiting Blewett Falls Lake, according to Josh Freeborn, a senior officer with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Freeborn said he often sees visitors to the area toss their trash to the side or sink drink bottles full of water, sending them to the bottom of the lake. Once in a while, he finds needles.
There are some trash cans in the area, but some people will toss their trash to the ground even near the cans, Freeborn said.
He’s been a wildlife officer for five years, and working in Anson County for four. Many of the people he sees littering are from out of the county, but he wonders if the lake could become more of a tourist attraction if it was kept cleaner.
“I do believe if it wasn’t so trashed up we’d have more people coming, so we’d have the economic side, too,” Freeborn said.
When he writes a ticket, some people argue it, saying they didn’t have anywhere to put it, but they generally don’t provide an excuse, he said.
“I have watched people bag up their trash before, start to take it with them, get about halfway to their vehicle and decide they don’t want to take it that far and just chuck it into the woods,” Freeborn said. “It’s like they started to do right, and they just toss it in the woods.”
One woman he remembers looked like she started to make an effort to clean up before stopping.
“I watched one lady in Richmond, all the kids had drink cans and she had bags,” Freeborn said. “The kids would leave them sitting, and she would go around and empty drink cans, then throw them. I was watching in the woods. I wonder if she was leaving them there, why bother to empty them? But she did pour them out and then tossed them.”
Many times people still protest the citation.
“Most of the time they just deny it,” Freeborn said. “‘You didn’t get me on video’ — but I don’t have to get it on video. If I saw them do it, that’s good enough for charges, as long as I can testify to what I saw. Every now and then you have somebody get a little sideways with you, but generally it’s not that big of a deal. They get upset when they see how much the ticket is. That’s when they get upset.”
Citations are rarely dismissed. He’s only seen one man successfully argue a citation of general littering — and even then, it was only reduced to the less serious charge of incidental littering.
General littering offenses for littering less than 15 pounds brings a $250 fee plus court costs, totaling $430, Freeborn said. Some judges also require violators to serve between eight and 24 hours of community service.
Despite the punishment, Freeborn said people continue to toss all manner of garbage.
“I don’t think more trash cans would help,” he said. “The only thing that’s going to help is for us to enforce it and for people to take responsibility for themselves. That’s the only thing that’s going to help.”
There are signs posted in the area warning visitors about the fine for littering.
“And they’re still surprised when they get a ticket,” Freeborn said. “They think nobody’s watching them.”
He added that it is difficult to patrol the area when officers can’t be everywhere at once.
“A lot of times it’s just me,” Freeborn said. “That’s kind of hard, me by myself, because I have to watch the violation, be in a spot where I can see, get in my vehicle and then get around to them to write a citation.
“If we can get two of us down there, it makes it a lot better,” he added. “With our schedules, a lot of the time it’s hard to get two people to work.”
He spends most of his time in Anson, but also covers the Richmond County side of the river.
Broken glass, drug needles and other hazards can be particularly dangerous to children playing in the area, he said.
“One of the more dangerous things left down there is fishing line,” Freeborn said. “Animals get caught in it, and birds get tangled up, people trip in it. I have tripped in it more times than I can think.”
He wants to find a solution to keep the lake clean and safe.
“I have thought about that quite a bit,” he said. “And the best thing I can come up with is people have to start taking responsibility for themselves. We can go down there and write citations — that’s going to deter it somewhat — but until people start taking responsibility, it’s going to continue to be a problem.
“If you start digging down to it, it’s pretty complex — because the people going down there and littering, they probably saw their parents litter and going down and doing it, and their kids are seeing them do it, so it’s just a revolving thing,” he added.”
With a constant influx of visitors from Anson, Scotland, Richmond and surrounding counties, he doesn’t remember ever catching the same person littering twice.
Wildlife law enforcement officers spend a significant portion of their time focusing on boating violations, but still make it a point to watch for litter bugs. In 2016, 381 littering citations were issued statewide. Of those, 83 were issued in District 6, which includes Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Stanly, Montgomery, Union, Anson and Richmond counties.
As of May 24 this year, there were 98 citations statewide, 16 of them in District 6. Freeborn said he has written at least five citations since May 24 in Anson and Richmond.
He suggests that visitors to the lake bring a trash bag with them, use it for all of their trash at the lake, and then dispose of it properly when they leave. He’s seen items as small as cigarettes and marijuana tossed at the lake. As small as they are, cigarettes or illegal drugs can leak chemicals or other pollutants into the environment, he said.
“We will be out patrolling and looking specifically for littering violations this summer,” Freeborn said.
Reach reporter Imari Scarbrough at 704-994-5471 and follow her on Twitter @ImariScarbrough.