By PAUL DUNN A two-mile strip of fenced no-man’s land adjacent Highway 101 in Strawberry attracts flying debris like metal to magnets. But beginning Aug. 4, the food wrappers, cups, plastic bags and other stuff the fence snags will be periodically gathered and properly disposed of — thanks in part to the non-profit group Marin Clean Highways. Vicky Dehnert, the group’s co-director, moved to Strawberry five years ago from Austin, Texas, and was aghast at the litter constantly accumulating on the Highway 101 frontage roads that bisect Strawberry and Mill Valley. 
“I expected the roads to look clean,” she recalled recently. “I couldn’t believe that this litter was sitting there and ultimately ending up in the ocean.” So she and Jill Whitebook, the group’s other co-director, decided about two years ago to wade into the fray by forming Marin Clean Highways. Before that — and after a multitude of mind-numbing meetings with state and local officials — the women and other volunteers tried cleaning the area themselves. But after only one formal cleanup event, they knew volunteers would be no match for the constantly accumulating refuse.
And furthermore, they knew the county had no budget to consistently clean the area, so it was up to them to determine the best way to tackle the problem. “We have pictures of the trash in the area that would curl your hair,” Dehnert said. “We thought the best thing to do was to getsomebody to clean up the litter, because we couldn’t go on picking up garbage all day. We needed to hire a contractor.”

Two months ago they finally did. Aided by $5,000 in seed money from the office of Marin County Supervisor Kate Sears, the persevering duo eagerly looked forward to the first official cleanup Aug. 4 from Highway 131 to the Richardson Bay Bridge on both sides of Highway 101. For now, the contractor will clean — and weed — the area every two weeks at a cost of $500 a month. At that rate, the seed money will last 10 months. After that, the relentless environmental advocates hope Marin Clean Highways — which is under the umbrella of non-profit advocate MarinLink — will sustain itself. “Ultimately, we hope to get ourselves out of a job,” she said. “We hope this will become self sustainable and that maybe the county and businesses can come together as a coalition to solve the problem.” Sears applauded the determination of the group and the Strawberry residents who made her and others take notice. “What started as individuals working separately on litter grew into Marin Clean Highways, a citizen effort to build a community-driven ethos of clean streets and highways,” she stated in an email. “Receiving a complaint is not unusual,” she added. “What is remarkable is the work Marin Clean Highways did to bring together local Strawberry frontage-road businesses, local government and residents to begin to solve the problem at its source and to keep the effort going.”
​Longtime Strawberry resident Ray McDevitt is also among the group’s cheerleaders. For the past three years or so, the 69-year-old has been picking up trash along the Highway 101 frontage road and adjacent areas. “I think it’s great what they are doing,” he said. “And judging from about 18 months ago when I began expanding my area of outdoor janitor work until now quite a bit has gotten accomplished.” And he’s cautiously optimistic others will step in to continue the work once the $5,000 seed money runs out. “If we can begin to show when you drive around the area that it doesn’t look like a Third World county and looks pleasant to live in, then people may contribute to keeping the area clean,” McDevitt said.
To help realize that goal, Marin Clean Highways is appealing to individuals and businesses to help financially support the cause. And so far, so good, Dehnert said. “This effort has been gong on for a month, and I’m getting very positive response from individuals,” she said. “Everybody wants to see a change of some kind.” But as she’s discovered, litter isn’t always at the top of mind for businesses coping with other daily concerns. “The businesses in that area have not been very diligent about keeping their trash areas covered, so the wind and birds can’t get in there and make a mess,” Dehnert said. She cites, however, several businesses along the Redwood Highway frontage road for their environmental efforts. The Strawberry Chevron Car Wash, for instance, has “really stepped up to the plate,” she said. Car Wash Manager Lues Mazaregos, 29, said workers began picking up litter along the road about six months ago “to try and keep our property clean.” For 10 years before that, Mazaregos added, the car wash has been recycling and helping prevent trash from escaping its boundaries. “We have been recycling all the bottles and everything and have trash bins with tops along the car wash to keep trash from blowing out,” he explained. “We also clean the bay around the car wash every morning and afternoon.” The goal of Marin Clean Highways, of course, is for all businesses in the area to take charge that way. And then maybe the organization will be able to broaden its reach to other areas in the county. The women also are interested in upgrading the frontage road in other ways, too. “We ultimately want to do some kind of beautification project that will makes it look like not so much of a wasteland,” Dehnert said. “That will depend on how much money we raise, and maybe then we can throw down poppy seeds to grow poppies instead of weeds.” Interested in learning more? Marin Clean Highways can be reached at General assignment reporter Paul Dunn has written and photographed for a variety of publications in the United States.