Rallying to clean up Sisters' forest
Last updated 10/24/2023 at 9:54am
In a scene resembling "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," members of the Gambler 500 roared into Sisters Sunday and weeded out no fewer than eight abandoned cars and two burnt-out RVs, the latter within sight of Ponderosa Lodge and residents on North Pine Street. It was a herculean effort that took dozens of volunteers with some heavy equipment and a twenty-yard dumpster thrown in.
A convoy of eccentric and wild-looking cars cruised onto the Deschutes National Forest immediately west and south of Sisters - not for one of their funky and legendary car rallies, but to lend a hand to Public Land Stewards (PLS), a Bend-based independent organization that is fiscally sponsored by Discover Your Forests and Discover Northwest, both registered 501(c)(3) non-profit groups.
The PLS holds cleanup events, with over 400,000 pounds of trash having already been taken to the landfill. They act as a resource to support other groups in getting started with cleanup efforts, provide education about public land stewardship and connect the community to keep public lands accessible for all user groups.
Last month, with a cadre of 37, they took on Coyote Butte, a favored 4x4 and shooting zone southwest of Bend, and left it looking like Mother Nature had intended. The PLS was hoping to have enough time remaining after dealing with the RV wreckage and surrounding camp – a scene out of the apocalypse - to head over to Zimmerman Butte, two minutes west of town, and round up spent cartridges, ammunition, and other debris they might find at the popular shooting area.
"The Gambler 500 started as an off-road navigation rally, and it evolved into basically a public land cleanup," said its founder, Tate Morgan. "We invite a bunch of creative, neat people who maybe wouldn't have been historically thought of as environmentalists."
Morgan was on hand Sunday as the many volunteers heaved and strained to rid the forest of the unsightly and dangerous wreckage.
In 2014, Morgan and a group of friends had an idea to buy cheap cars and create a navigational challenge across Mount Hood. It started as the "Scumball 500," with the goal to travel 500 miles in $500 cars with designated check points where they would camp.
"It started out small, grassroots, punk rock fun, 20 to 30 people in the woods exploring," he said.
Morgan learned that another rally had rights to the Scumball name. When his dad found a car spoiler emblazoned with the word "Gambler" and asked if he wanted it, Morgan knew at once the new name.
"It's a gamble if you're going to make it, it's a gamble which way you're going to go," Morgan said. "It's never a gamble if you're going to have fun."
In the early years the Gambler 500 was a private affair. But in 2016 a video from the event got 10 million views on Facebook. Overnight thousands of strangers were messaging Morgan about attending.
The Forest Service "thought we were an outlaw underground race, and I got called in and threatened with federal felonies quite a few times, assigned a special agent, and was contacted by the U.S. Attorney's Office," Morgan told Oregon Live.
Morgan looked at how to make Gambler 500 more mainstream, more favorably viewed. Now, with as many as a thousand volunteer/fun seekers around the northwest, he works with the Forest Service, BLM, and state parks coordinating cleanup efforts like the one in Sisters.