WILLMAR -- During a half-mile walk down one side of Highway 12 and a half-mile walk down the other side of the road Thursday, Alice Weiberg and Carol Schmiesing collected seven large bags of garbage.
And that doesn't count the two tires, miscellaneous building supplies and the broken pieces of several wooden chairs that didn't fit in the bags that they piled by the edge of the road.
"I was surprised by the number of large items we picked up just on that stretch," said Weiberg, a member of the Willmar Noon Kiwanis Club that adopted the section of U.S. Highway 12 on the edge of Willmar years ago and sends volunteers to clean the ditches.
"It was an interesting experience for me but one I'd certainly do again," she said.
It's that kind of dedication from volunteers that has helped keep Minnesota road ditches clean without spending tax dollars to do it.
"Volunteers really do save us time and money," said Ann Boerboom, Adopt a Highway coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Transportation's District 8 office in Marshall.
The month of May marks the 20th anniversary of the program.
"Minnesota volunteers are real heroes of public service," said Jon Huseby, district engineer from the MnDOT District 8 office in Willmar.
"Every year they pick up tons of litter from state highways. The work is hard, never ending and frequently thankless," he said.
In the 12 southwestern Minnesota counties that make up MnDOT's District 8, there are about 500 active volunteer groups that clean road ditches through the state's Adopt-a-Highway program.
In Kandiyohi County there are 67 active groups that clean state roads.
There are another 62 groups that are committed to cleaning the county road ditches.
While there are segments of county roads that haven't been claimed yet, Boerboom said every mile of every state highway in Kandiyohi County has been adopted.
"It's been very successful," she said. Groups that want to adopt a state highway in Kandiyohi County are invited to put their name on a waiting list. Occasionally a group that has declining numbers will forfeit their stretch of road and the adoption is passed onto a new group.
"Kandiyohi County is a great example where I have had new groups in the past year and at present there are no available segments," she said. "I feel these volunteers find it very rewarding to be a part of this program and their participation demonstrates a genuine concern for the environment and a solid commitment to keeping Minnesota highways clean and beautiful."
The program is thriving in other counties as well.
Meeker County has 56 active groups volunteering for the program and there are currently just two open segments that haven't been adopted yet, said Boerboom.
Chippewa County has 35 active groups, Lac qui Parle has 34, Renville County has 43 and Yellow Medicine County has 37 active volunteer groups for the state program.
Many of the groups have been out this year cleaning up a winter's worth of trash.
Longtime volunteers have told Boerboom this is "one of the worst years and they can't believe how people litter and how much trash there is out there this spring. They're shocked."
Besides the usual glass beverage containers and the occasional "oddball thing" that volunteers find, Boerboom said there seems to be a large amount of tires ending up in ditches this year.
Weiberg said she and Schmiesing rolled the tires they found up the ditch and put them by the side of the road for crews to pick up later.
"I just can't comprehend people throwing things like that we found," said Seiberg. "Discarding it along the roadside is beyond my comprehension."
To participate in MnDOT's Adopt-a-Highway program, log on to www.dot.state.mn.us/adopt or contact Ann Boerboom, District 8's coordinator, at 1-800-657-3748 or 507-537-6146.
For information about the Kandiyohi County highway cleanup program, call the public works department at 320-235-3266
State Adopt-a-Highway volunteers pick up 26,000 tons of litter every year along Minnesota highways.
Those efforts are estimated to save the Minnesota Department of Transportation $5 million annually.
There are more than 12,000 miles of state highways in Minnesota, with 9,800 miles adopted.
Statewide there are about 4,500 groups and 45,000 volunteers registered with the program.
Source: Minnesota Department of Transportation