Luke Jovin and Gennadiy Lemeza have lived in Missoula almost their entire lives, and have always seen trash in the forests where they like to spend time.
They usually pick up as much garbage as they can, but last spring during the pandemic they decided to get serious and form a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to address the longstanding problem.
Now, with Woods Not Waste, they're busy taking tens of thousands of pounds of illegally dumped materials from natural areas and putting it in the landfill where it belongs.
"Last year we collected 17,000 pounds of trash," Jovin explained. "It started as a little grassroots thing doing something that needed to be addressed, but it's taken off more."
They've found mattresses, old couches, safes, medical waste and thousands of pounds of beer cans and soda bottles. Usually, one person drives Jovin's pickup while the other holds the side of the truck and hops down periodically to pick up trash. On the nonprofit's Facebook page, they post photos of giant loads of garbage they've cleaned over the years. There are rotten mattresses, stoves and pallets.
"We like to be out in the woods, and we hate seeing trash," Lemeza explained. "We don't like to see it. Nobody does. It sucks."
Both have other jobs that keep them busy. Lemeza works for a mold abatement company and Jovian owns Sakura Warrior Arts. But they decided they wanted to start making a difference.
"We're just two guys that grew up here and hike around a lot and spend a lot of time in the woods," Jovin explained. "We saw a lot of trash and decided that an organization should spearhead it, and so we started a nonprofit."
Their original motivation was to help people pay fees associated with dumping at the landfill.
"The reason why people are dumping in the woods a lot of times is because they can't afford or don't want to pay dump fees," Jovin said. "So we set up a 501(c)(3) to help people pay dump fees."
Jovin's mom is a bookkeeper, and helped them apply for grants. They've received donations from many different organizations and private donors in town, including the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation.
Republic Services has allowed them to dump a certain amount for free at the landfill as well. Chad Bauer, the municipal manager for Republic Services, said the company donates resources every year to organizations to help clean up trash.
"It's a community service to help keep the Missoula area clean," Bauer said.
Jovin said they're still learning how to operate as a nonprofit.
"We never set up a nonprofit before," Jovin said. "We've expanded it to do other things. The main focus is to do a lot of cleanup projects. We've gotten huge community support."
They're going to have an education day for kids next week to talk about the importance of not littering.
Last year, they took 3,600 pounds of trash out of a site in Pattee Canyon. They work with the Lolo National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management to identify illegal dump sites. At one spot, they had to rappel down a cliff.
"We just threw on harnesses and jumped off the side of the cliff," Lemeza said. "It was kinda fun actually."
He noted that private landowners, like timber companies, might cut off access to hunters and hikers if trash becomes a problem.
"We want to keep the gates open," he said.
The duo also take part in the Adopt a Highway program to clean a portion of the highway near East Missoula every year.
Some parts of the job aren't fun. For example, they help property owners clear garbage every once in a while, and they have to deal with health hazards.
The things they find deep in the woods always surprise them.
"It's really amazing, the appliances we find," Jovin said. "Everybody sees trash on the side of the roads and on trailheads, but go back in the woods three or four miles and you'll find stuff. We found a washer in Albert Creek. How (expletive) did somebody get up here? That's when it gets kind of strange."
He found a guitar once that he plans to fix up.
They don't like seeing trash around town either, so they recently went around collecting old couches, chairs and other odds and ends they saw lying on street corners.
Woods Not Waste isn't the only nonprofit organization in town trying to clean up the environment. The Clark Fork Coalition is hosting a do-it-yourself river cleanup from April 17 through April 22.
"Missoulians love the Clark Fork, and are passionate about caring for it," said Clark Fork Coalition executive director Karen Knudsen in a news release. "We are thrilled that we can once again provide a safe and fun way for folks to get outside and enjoy a day by the river while lending a hand to keep it clean."