HUXLEY - The thick woods that hug Walnut Creek as it twists and turns through the rolling hills behind Paul and Linda Franklin's farmstead have always been a sanctuary for local wildlife.
For the past 20 years, however, the deep ravines that cut through portions of the landscape have also been the site of the county's largest stockpile of waste tires. And while white-tailed deer, raccoons and songbirds would have continued to put up with the mess, the Department of Natural Resources wasn't so willing.
So Tuesday, with the help of the Franklins, about a dozen Story County Conservation employees and another dozen volunteers, the DNR began wrapping up a week-long cleanup of the portion of the stream that runs through the Franklin's farmland.
The DNR's contractor, Greenman Technologies of Savage, Minn., used an excavator to pick up the bulk of the tires scattered in piles along the creek. At the same time, volunteers used shovels, log chains and a lot of muscle to get at tires in the harder-to-reach sections of the stream.
"Wherever you find one," said volunteer Rick Dietz of Ames, "you find another."
And another ... and another.
By mid-afternoon, with the sound of the excavator still humming in the background, volunteers extracted the last of about 500 tires from the creek's muddy banks. Greenman Technologies, which began cleanup Nov. 12, was expected to haul out an additional 14,000.
"I don't think anybody thought there were this many tires out there," Linda Franklin said.
While Franklin and the rest of volunteers might have been surprised by the volume of tires in the creek, Mel Pins, a DNR environmental specialist, wasn't. In fact, nothing is shocking to the man simply known within the organization as "Mel the tire guy."
"We've cleaned up places with one thousand tires, and we've cleaned up a place south of Fort Dodge with more than three million," Pins said. "Each pile of tires is unique in its makeup, and each poses a unique set of challenges in cleaning them up. This place is no different."
Sometime after Franklin left home in 1982, her late father gave permission to a local tire company to dispose waste tires on the property. So, for about six years, that's what happened until Linda Franklin moved back home.
"I think he kind of got taken advantage of," Franklin said. "In those days, I guess it was the just thing to do. But when I came home I said, 'Dad, no more. Those days are over.'"
Using ravines as dumping grounds for tires and all sorts of other trash was, in fact, an acceptable practice for many years. But that changed in 1991 when the state banned the public disposal of waste tires. Five years later, the Iowa Legislature appropriated $15 million to be used by the DNR to establish and fund waste tire management programs.
One of those programs, the Waste Tire Management County Grant, annually awards up to $1 million in competitive grants to county boards of supervisors. Story County received grants in four of the past five years.
"Our theme this year has been, 'Don't ditch your tires,'" said Linda Zaletel of Story County Conservation. "We've done a lot of things through driver's education programs and the auditor's office to raise awareness about the problems of waste tire disposal and to let people know what their options are for getting rid of their old tires.
"We've even helped with removal on a small scale but didn't know the county had a stockpile until Mel contacted us."
Since 1996, Pins and the DNR have removed nearly 10,000,000 tires from about 85 stockpiles with contractors hauling the tires to recycling plants where they are used in tire-derived fuels or in markets using shredded tires. About 15 more sites are scheduled to be cleaned up before the program expires at the end of June.
Pins is hopeful the program will be deemed a success not only by the number of tires eliminated from the state's landscape but also by how individuals manage their waste tires in the future.
"I think the Legislature learned a lot about tire management through all of this," Pins said. "Hopefully it will send a message to them that we need to strengthen market opportunities for waste tire disposal as well as to enforce regulations designed to make sure tire companies properly dispose of their tires.
"Most dealers do a good job getting rid of their waste tires, but we still have some problems. What we're doing here is kind of like cleaning up spilled milk, but the idea is don't spill any more."
There won't be any more spilling on Franklin's property, either.
"It's time to get this place back in shape and looking like it used to," she said.
Todd Burras is an outdoors writer forThe Tribune. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org