Marek Warszawski

Fresno’s most scenic San Joaquin River spot no longer trashy, thanks to him

One man is helping make the San Joaquin River Parkway less trashy

Former Fresno city councilman Tom Bohigian, acting upon an idea from his wife, Sheri, has placed four trash cans in the River West Open Space Area in an effort to keep the undeveloped and largely unmanaged property clean.
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Former Fresno city councilman Tom Bohigian, acting upon an idea from his wife, Sheri, has placed four trash cans in the River West Open Space Area in an effort to keep the undeveloped and largely unmanaged property clean.

Not every problem requires a complex solution. Sometimes, the solution can be as simple as one man and a few plastic garbage cans.

Fresno’s most tantalizing and unrealized public land had a litter problem. As more people (mainly fishermen, runners, dog-walkers, cyclists and homeless) found out about the River West Open Space Area, 508 acres of undeveloped and largely unmanaged San Joaquin River bottom lands west of Highway 41, the more the place got trashed.

By 2017, during the contentious debate over how we’ll access the area once the bathrooms, picnic areas and Lewis S. Eaton Trail extension are finally built, there were piles of litter everywhere. Piles of litter, and no place to throw it away.

Seeing this, Tom Bohigian decided to act.

“A very small percentage of people are the ones who leave trash,” Bohigian says. “So if you give those people options and periodically come along and take care of it, then the problem kind of goes away.”

Bohigian started last November with one trash can, which he placed near the H-shaped pond at the bottom of the gated access road off Riverview Drive. He has since added three more in other locations that tend to get the heaviest traffic. About once a week, Bohigian drives out in his Subaru wagon, with box trailer hitched to the back, collects the trash and replaces the bags. He also picks up other litter that has been strewn about.

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Fresno resident Tom Bohigian collects trash on the River West Open Space Area along the San Joaquin River Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. Bohigian started placing trash cans on the 508-acre property a year ago and collects the trash once a week. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

The former Fresno city councilman got the idea from a trip he and wife Sheri took to Edinburgh, Scotland, a couple months before, where she noticed and photographed a garbage receptacle with a clever but clear directive printed on it:

“I’m a bin. Drop your litter in.”

‘People want to do the right thing’

Bohigian’s trash cans contain the same positive messaging, written in black Sharpie. They say: “Love Our River,” “Feed Me” and “A Clean River” followed by “Thanks” and his signature. (The fourth can, located near the base of Spano Park, has been covered in graffiti.)

“It’s not like a judgmental thing,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, here I am. Use me.’ And people do. Most people want to do the right thing.”

A gentle nudge never hurts, either.

As a result of Bohigian’s efforts, as well as the efforts of other individuals and groups, the River West Open Space Area is noticeably cleaner.

Yes, you’ll still get thickheads who build campfires (a big no-no) and leave beer cans, fast-food wrappers and fishing tackle packaging on the ground no more than 100 feet from one of Bohigian’s cans. But there are signs, in the form of a Pringles tube that someone else stuffed with fishing line and other litter before throwing away, that others are starting to pitch in.

Sometimes all it takes is one person to set a positive example.

Bohigian used to take the trash bags home with him. Now, with the blessing of the San Joaquin River Parkway & Conservation Trust, he takes them to the dumpster outside the Coke Hallowell Center for River Studies on Old Friant Road.

Why is he doing this? One reason is obvious: Bohigian enjoys visiting River West and doesn’t want trash to spoil the experience for him or others. The second is more subtle.

‘People have to show the way’

Fifteen years have passed since the former Spano Ranch was purchased for $10 million in state money and private grants, intended for public use. Fifteen years and still no infrastructure, paved trails or money for maintenance and operations.

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Tom Bohigian collects trash on the River West Open Space Area along the San Joaquin River Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. Bohigian started placing trash cans on the 508-acre property on the outskirts of Fresno a year ago and collects the trash once a week. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

“When you think about the genesis of the (San Joaquin River) Parkway, it was basically three women that looked at the threats (of development) and thought about the opportunity,” Bohigian says. “Literally thousands of people have been attracted to that simple concept. It’s not as like we don’t have serious problems that are hard to fix. Yeah, OK. But not everything requires an act of Congress.

“Sometimes the people have to show the way, and I think that’s what this is about,” he continues. “Showing the powers-that-be that this is not rocket science, we’re not trying to figure out how to go to Mars. We’re trying out how to have people come down here and enjoy their public land and it be clean – and eventually we’ll have trails and restrooms.”

Eventually. Hopefully. In the meantime, we’ll have to be satisfied with the progress of watching both planted and naturally occurring trees – including valley oaks, cottonwoods, sycamores, willows, ash and elderberries – grow in a riparian habitat that was destroyed decades ago by gravel mining but is slowly returning. Or by counting birds. Recently, Bohigian counted 75 egrets in one pond.

Just one man doing his part to ensure the most scenic place in California’s fifth-largest city no longer resembles a pig sty.

“You sit through these meetings and hear people say, ‘I really want to get this done,’ ” Bohigian says. “Well, let’s figure out a way to do it. I’ll put my money where my mouth is. I’ll put in what time I have, and thousands of other people will do the same thing. It’s about something for Fresno that’s not just OK but really great.”

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee
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