February 20, 2024 / Modified feb 23, 2024 4:25 p.m.

Diverse community comes together to clean up rural highway

Every year people of different ideologies come together in Southern Arizona for the highway cleanup from Three Points, through the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and to Sasabe and the always changing border.

Border road cleanup 1 The Altar Valley Middle School student council volunteer in the 2024 All the Way to the Border cleanup of Highway 286.
Danyelle Khmara

During a recent weekend, a group of people gathered for the ninth year in a row to clean up what Melissa Owen calls Beautiful highway 286.

“That’s my name for it. Beautiful highway 286, runs from the community of Three Points, 45 miles south to Sasabe, which Sasabe-Arizona is right on the Arizona-Mexico border,” Owen says. “It’s 45 miles and most of it runs through the national wildlife refuge. So as I always point out, not only is the trash unsightly and we don’t like to look at it; it is also very dangerous to the hundreds of species of animals — reptiles, mammals, birds — that live on the refuge.”

People gather in the parking lot of Altar Valley Middle School. Members of the student school council are there, people from Arizona Fish and Game, the Department of Transportation, The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Trico Electric Cooperative, the nonprofit Humane Borders and many more.

Melissa’s ranch, which she owns with her husband, is 4.5 miles from the border, and its 640 acres are entirely devoted to conservation and wildlife. She sees deer, coyote, skunk, bobcat and mountain lion on her property. And like the refuge next door, they probably have more than 300 species of birds. This highway is her neighborhood.

Border road cleanup 4 VIEW LARGER
Danyelle Khmara

“It means so much to us,” Owen tells the group of people gathered in the middle school parking lot. “It means a lot, I know, to the National Wildlife Refuge to get that trash cleaned up. We all have different opinions about border issues. About public land use, politics. This is one time when we can all get together and do a good thing.”

The All the Way to the Border clean up has made it “all the way to the border” once, cleaning all 45 miles. Melissa’s other goal is to get every mile adopted under the Arizona Department of Transportation Adopt a Highway program.

Despite ever changing and ongoing border issues and different political ideologies, this community gathers yearly and the refuge continues to thrive. This year they covered 37 miles and more than 100 volunteers filled 261 bags of trash.

“That is a rare thing and that’s one of the reasons I love this particular event,” Owen said. “We try not to really get into politics here. This is a good thing that we can all do. No one can argue with picking up trash. It’s good to see so many different folks and that’s one of the things I like about this event.”

The clean up is the last Saturday of every January and starts at 9:30 a.m. at the Altar Valley Middle School in Three Points. People can just show up on the day without a prior sign up. The ADOT website azdot.gov has info about the Adopt a Highway program.

Border road cleanup 3 VIEW LARGER Melissa Owens assigns miles to volunteers for the Highway 286 clean up on Jan. 27, 2024.
Danyelle Khmara
Border road cleanup 2 VIEW LARGER Melissa Owens assigns miles to volunteers for the Highway 286 clean up on Jan. 27, 2024.
Danyelle Khmara
Border road cleanup 5 VIEW LARGER
Danyelle Khmara
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