Changing Norms about Littering

In 1980 I became the Executive Director of a nonprofit nature center in Pueblo, Colorado, on the banks of the fast moving Arkansas River. I was shocked to find car bodies, refrigerators, stoves and tires on the banks at the nature center. How do you excite people about nature if it is trashed? I fondly remember Arlo Guthrie’s classic 60s song, Alice’s Restaurant. Hippies are caught by Officer Obey in the song, tossing trash out of their van. They explained it was easier to throw their trash down than to pick up all they saw on the ground. Obey was not amused. When the norms are “dump it easy,” some people follow suit based on what they see.

Social norms in some communities include the use of stream and river valleys as dumps, despite laws against the behaviors. Pueblo had a serious litter problem. We organized Clean Up The Rivers Day in 1981 and spent one day each September cleaning up the Arkansas and Fountain Rivers in Pueblo. The first few years local contractors loaned us frontend loaders and skilled operators to pull cars, trucks and refrigerators out of the rivers. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts scoured the river bottoms for bottles, cups and tab tops.

Twelve years later the event had shrunk from a major cleanup into a  litter pickup on the 20 plus miles of bike trails in the river corridors. The norms had shifted. Dumping trash in the river would quickly result in some thoughtful citizen calling the police, thanks to the convenience of cell phones and lots of people on the river trails. We organized volunteer trail rangers on bicycles to patrol and help people and respond when they see damage being done. We were quite proud of the nature center being the catalyst for a major change in the aesthetics of the river corridors that had become valued for walking, jogging, bicycling, dog walking, and trout fishing.

Screen Shot 2018-05-31 at 2.07.09 PM

Every big rainfall in Pueblo, Colorado, brought tires down from arroyos (dry creeks) to the Arkansas so clean up is never done even if norms improve. 

In our travels to 24 countries we found Rwanda to be the cleanest country of all we have visited, including the United States. It’s not an accident. Once a month every Rwandan spends a morning cleaning up in community service called umuganda and the impact shows. Rwanda also made plastic bags illegal years ago and now they are about to make plastic water bottles for individual use illegal. They have used both the laws and community activism to shift norms toward cleaning up their country. Why can’t we do that?

A dictionary definition of norm is “a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group.” We live in Hawaiʻi. The islands have two million residents but more than nine million tourists visit the islands each year. Their beliefs about how to treat the environment come with them. Hawaiians have a tradition of mālama ʻāina (take care of the land). So Hawaiʻi residents’ norms about littering may or may not discourage a visitor from throwing a bottle out the car window or leaving fast food containers on the roadside. And some Hawaiians, like people everywhere, disregard the norm and litter.

My renewed interest in littering near our home was stimulated this week for a simple reason. I had a minor surgery that left me with stitches. I was told not to jog for two weeks to hasten healing. I rely on a daily run to meditate on the move, balance brain chemicals and shake off a few calories while toning up aerobically. If I can’t run, I thought, I could use the time to walk and pick up litter on our nearby roads, Napoopoo and Middle Keei in the Captain Cook area, much like we used to do along our hike and bike trail in Fort Collins, Colorado.  It turned out to be very rewarding for lots of reasons.


I leave filled bags on wide shoulders of the road for retrieval later by car.

I had to walk downhill and not uphill to follow doctor’s orders so I packed my pockets with 13 gallon bags and took on a different two mile segment each morning. An hour later I would have three to six full bags (1.5 cubic feet of rubbish per bag) stowed along the road to pick up later by car and take to the dump and recycling center. Some of the good things:

• People stopped or slowed to say thank you or flash me a shaka (Hawaiian symbol for thanks or hang loose). A nurse coming home from a night shift said it would inspire her to do that also. Bicyclists going by always said thank you.

• On my daily drives up and down the local roads or my jogging trips a week from now, I will not be looking at the littered roadside.

• I took lots of photos of what I found to share with my Hospitality and Tourism students at Hawaiʻi Community College.

And I learned a few things.

• Donʻt try to climb down lava talus slopes. I fell the first morning and added about 20 abrasions to my legs and arms (don’t tell the doctor).

• Tourists contribute more of the trash than local folks. The parking area near the trailhead to Kealakekua Bay and the Captain Cook Monument where tourists park daily was the trashiest stretch of the road. Middle Keʻei Road, used mostly by local folks, had a small amount of roadside trash compared to Napoopoo Road, the main way to get to Kealakekua Bay. Some tourists likely look at the lack of trash barrels and litter on the ground and like the hippies in the song, decide it’s just easier to throw their rubbish out the window.

• McDonalds, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and all of the cheaper beer companies provide the bulk of the trash. I didn’t find a single bottle of microbrew, despite the popularity of those brands. Budweiser and Corona share the beer brand award. Those one shot whiskey bottles were abundant making Jack Daniels the winner in that category. I was not surprised to find 3 pair of underwear, many shoes, milk jugs, ice bags, trash bags, drink cups, straws, hubcaps, candy wrappers, cardboard boxes, snack bags, a TV case, a 5 gallon soy sauce bucket, medical bottles, and a few usable bungee cords. The milk jugs I found were so decomposed that when I picked up a piece it would fall into dozens of smaller pieces Some plastics break down faster than others in the ultraviolet light from our Kona sunshine, but that just means there are more pieces to pick up, not that it goes away.

• Many of the soft drink and beer containers are HI5 items so a five cent bounty can be reclaimed for each one. But five cents is not a lot for the work involved. When I was a kid in the 50s, a Coke bottle was worth two cents. In inflation adjusted value we should have a 20 cent bounty on each bottle and can in 2018. The law has not kept up and some folks seem to need a financial incentive to keep such things cleaned up.


This truck had the engine and wheels stolen while sitting on the roadside for more than a month before being towed.

• Abandoned vehicles are the big eyesores on the road. The state requires they be towed within three days but it almost never happens. When they sit along a road for weeks, the wheels, tires and engine disappear mysteriously. And the rusting hulk becomes a place for others to dump their trash bags. This situation is improving but not fast enough.

I have lived near and used these roads daily for three years but this was my first cleanup walk. I have adopted these five miles of road for the indefinite future. They are cleaned up now and I want locals and visitors to see it this way. In Hawaiian we say “Mālama ʻāina!” Care for the land. The decomposing plastics of the land add to the microplastics in local waters as the watershed transport all things downhill, makai (to the sea).

Screen Shot 2018-05-29 at 6.02.56 PMI am printing Pick Up Hawaii T-shirts in Safety Green to wear as I jog and walk each morning (I jog down hills and walk up them) carrying my litter bag. I am hoping it inspires others to give it a try in their own neighborhood.

It is illegal to litter and fines are steep, but few police patrol our roads and littering is easy as an anonymous activity. Norms protect us when they are standards we all believe and follow thoughtfully. We can change norms, but it takes time and we each have to take some responsibility. I cannot clean up the Hawaiian Islands, but I can take care of five miles near our home. I’m on it. And Lisa and I will be working on an expanded five year strategy to get others to follow suit.

Tim Merriman



Harambe – Rest in Peace

The story of the shooting of Harambe, the lowland gorilla, in Cincinnati commanded the air waves and TV time for several days. Harambe’s story, like that of Cecil the Lion, had the emotional power unique to human/animal interest news.


Kwitonda, a silver-backed male mountain gorilla enjoys a snack of bamboo shoots.

It reminded me of the great dilemma for management decision-making. When you manage a property visited by people, sometimes you are caught between a rock and a hard place. Cincinnati Zoo managers had to choose between two undesirable options. They chose the almost sure thing in terms of safety for the child, but an option fraught with reasonable criticism. Jack Hanna, famed zoo director and TV spokesman, said they made the right choice. He knows a zoo director who would choose protecting the animal over the safety of a child would likely be fired quickly, even with a good outcome in terms of injuries. Institutional managers and boards are reasonably risk-aversive.

For those of us who have seen gorillas up close in the wild, this was especially painful. People visit habituated gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda each day with highly trained guides and the 400-pound males allow strangers to mingle in their family space without conflict. The silverbacks and the guides keep a watchful eye on all concerned to ensure that everyone gets along and as long as individuals of both species keep a respectful distance from each other. It works. These close cousins of ours are herbivores. They continue to carry on their daily activities and eat bamboo shoots and other plant material with apparent unconcern while being photographed and watched up close. Harambe was habituated from birth at a zoo in Texas. He was not “wild” and never had been. Keepers had observed his behavior and responses to various situations all his life. Would he have harmed the child beyond what the fall did? We will never know.

Harambe’s behavior seemed more protective than threatening from the clips of the event that have aired. Perhaps something more threatening occurred that we didn’t see. Could they have fired a tranquilizer dart first and followed with a gunshot if Harambe reacted badly? Perhaps. But a decision was made and he is dead and no amount of conjecture will bring him back. And the child is safe, an outcome we would all applaud.

How did a child get into this exhibit? That’s under examination and the accident suggests that the fence was inadequate. They have already installed a taller one just days after the event. This kind of sad situation will send zoos all over the world into a reexamination of their emergency procedures and their physical structures that protect both the animals and the public. Did a parent have a lapse in watching the child? Perhaps, but all of us who have raised children have had lapses in attention. The result of this one was unfortunate for all involved. Blaming the mother seems counter-productive. She will live with this close call for her child the rest of her life.

Harambe was never going back to the wild. He was a captive ambassador for relatives in the wild he would never meet. And perhaps the saddest part of the story is the continued threats in Africa to the wild populations of lowland and mountain gorillas. Mountain gorillas have moved from a low of 230 animals two decades ago to more than 880 today due to the ability of the nations of Rwanda and Uganda to protect family groups through gorilla tourism, a powerful financial engine that also builds empathy by bringing people up close to these amazing relatives of humans.

The western lowland gorilla, Harambe’s species, is believed to be more numerous than mountain gorillas, but endangered nonetheless. Estimates are that their populations are in sharp decline due to habitat loss and civil wars in their home ranges in several equatorial African nations. And their remote habitats in war zones in tropical rainforest make accurate population surveys impossible.

The future of gorillas in the wild is uncertain and Harambe’s early death did not change that. It did renew the discussion of how zoos handle and protect large animals of all kinds, while simultaneously protecting their visitors. This event hopefully also reminds us of the importance of protecting wild populations. Gorillas deserve protected places in the world, safe from human conflicts and destruction of habitat. We create virtually all of the threats they face. Will we care enough to help these large primates, our distant relatives, have a future? It’s a big question not easily answered. Rest in Peace, Harambe.

Branding a Region – Kona Coffee Cultural Festival

KCCF_2014ButtonThe coffee tree (Coffea arabica) was brought to Kona in 1828, now flourishing on more than 800 farms on the rich volcanic soils of Mauna Loa and Hualalai on the Big Island of Hawaii. It is one of the most expensive coffees in the world due to its rich flavor, very limited growing area and demand for the brand. The people who grow it are from diverse cultures and the coffee is celebrated in varied foods from coffee butter to spicy tapas.


This past weekend, we enjoyed several events as part of the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. This 44th annual event takes place throughout North and South Kona with more than 45 separate events that celebrate Kona Coffee, Hawaiian culture, local food, and the diverse people of North and South Kona communities. A $3 commemorative pin is sold at every event and provides entrance to all events spanning 11 days from Nov. 7 to 17, 2014.


We started on Saturday morning at Holualoa, a beautiful community of more than 6,000 people nestled among the coffee farms that blanket the western slope of Hualalai volcano. Hundreds of people streamed up and down the main street stopping at dozens of coffee stands to try samples of hot Kona coffee, iced coffee or coffee husk tea. Tasters can vote on their favorite coffee by booth number. It was all tasty and the food varied from BBQ to delicious confections like the haupia purple sweet potato pie with a macadamia crust. It was obvious that there were as many or more local folks as tourists at the event.


kumuLast year we enjoyed the festival by attending the Kona Coffee Recipe Contest and this year we ended our stay in Kona at the Aloha Makahiki Concert with wonderful music by renowned Hawaiian musicians Bobby Moderow, Jr., Aaron Mahi, George Kuo and Stephen Akana. Kumu Mika Keale-Goto performed a makahiki oli (harvest blessing), joined by dancers from both local and Tokyo halau (hula schools).


Most community festivals happen in one community and over a short period of time. This festival takes you from coffee estate tours to music venues, food competitions, art shows, street markets, living history farms and much more. It helps shape the Kona Coffee brand against the backdrop of the entire region and the diverse cultures of people who live there and enjoy Kona lifestyles from mauka (up the mountain) to makai (down the mountain to the seashore).


halauCommunities too often compete for attractions when they might do more with collaboration. This festival demonstrates the power of working together regionally to bring tourists in to learn and local people to celebrate their communities and cultures. It is this rich mix of culture and community, nature and history, tradition and trade, ancient and recent, that has drawn us to purchase a small coffee farm on Kona where we will soon make our year-round home. It may take a few years to visit all 45 plus venues of the festival, but we will enjoy working on it. If you get to the Big Island the second week of November, try to find time to attend whatever events are happening near you.


– Tim Merriman




70th Anniversary of D-Day – A Time to Remember

Seventy years ago today Allied forces hit the beaches of Normandy, France, at Utah and Omaha Beaches after an early assault by Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc. The date was June 6, 1944. More than one million people annually visit Normandy Cemetery where 9,387 of the U.S. military are buried, mostly casualties of D-Day. The American Battle Monuments Commission manage the site and interpret the invasion, what has been interpreted in film as, The Longest Day. RIP

U.S. soldiers, recently back from Afghanistan, stopped at Normandy to pay respects - March 2012.

U.S. soldiers, recently back from Afghanistan, stopped at Normandy to pay respects – March 2012.





Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

Normandy 9





Words of Wisdom That Endure On Earth Day

John Muir, who came to America from Scotland as a boy changed the world in his own special ways. He wrote,

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.


President Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir (right)

President Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir (right)

Muir was born on April 21, 1838, so his birthday is the day before Earth Day, April 22. As a young man, he attended University of Wisconsin and worked in a bicycle shop in Indianapolis. He was a skilled inventor and craftsman with wood and metal, but one day an awl pierced his eye and he was temporarily blinded. The experience led him to abandon technology for nature. After recovering from the accident, he took a 1000 mile trek to Cedar Key in Florida.


Later Muir moved to California and lived three years in Yosemite Valley, often traveling only with a tin cup, a loaf of bread and a book by his favorite author. Muir admired Ralph Waldo Emerson and carried his writings with him in Yosemite Valley for inspiration in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I can imagine him sitting on a rock or log, reading Emerson’s words, Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.


Muir is best known for being the founder of the Sierra Club and most regard him as the Father of our American parks. He inspired Theodore Roosevelt to create the first national monuments by Presidential decree and to protect Yosemite National Park by Congressional action.


Just as Emerson inspired Muir, Muir inspired others in his time. Enos Mills was a young man of 21 when he met John Muir on a California beach in 1889. Muir took Mills to Yosemite and encouraged him to inspire others through books, lectures and journeys into the wilderness. Mills would become a key figure in founding Rocky Mountain National Park and his books are still valued by naturalists and interpreters. He led 300 groups up Long’s Peak and operated what may have been the first nature guide school.


Enos Mills


Lisa Brochu and I were sitting with Enda Mills Kiley, daughter of Enos Mills, in Estes Park, Colorado, a few years ago and she mentioned that her father’s birthday is Earth Day, April 22nd. She also spoke of his life-long bond with Muir and his inspirational words of encouragement. Enda has since passed away, but her daughter and granddaughter continue to keep the cabin he built at age 15 operating as a museum and historic site. When he wrote Adventures of a Nature Guide, he identified many of the ideas that have endured as important approaches to heritage interpretation today.


Enos Mills was a lover of trees and his Story of a Thousand Year Pine remains one of my favorite books. He tells of a ponderosa pine cut by sawyers only to be abandoned for being shattered when it fell and therefore unsuitable for lumber. Saddened that the tree had been felled, he studied the pine and carefully told the story of this millennial giant giving evidence of the past measured by fires, hackings by a Spanish knife and arrowheads embedded in its annual rings. His reverence for trees and belief in their symbolic importance shines through the quote you will find in one of his finest essays;


Enos Mills

Enos Mills

The forests are the flags of nature. They appeal to all and awaken inspiring universal feelings. Enter the forest and the boundaries of nations are forgotten. It may be that some time an immortal pine will be the flag of a united peaceful world.


Earth Day is a great time to pause and remember great nature writers like Emerson, Muir and Mills – and every day is really Earth Day for many of us. We carry the inspirational words of these good people in our hearts and let them guide us in finding ways to live more peacefully on and with the planet.

– Tim Merriman



Bridging the Digital Divide in Rwanda

Can you imagine losing family and friends in a brutal genocide, attending school without the financial and moral support of your family, continuing to support your younger brothers and sisters in school while you work as a park guide two or three hours distant from your home? Over the last two years, we’ve been working with Rwandan national park guides who really want to continue their education and to improve professionally in spite of the challenges they face in doing so. They are given few tools to do their jobs other than their uniforms. That makes it challenging to continue professional development and growth that helps them provide the kind of quality effort that they desire.


Our Certified Interpretive Guide class in Nyungwe National Park trained 25 guides and reception hosts.

Their modest pay and family obligations often make computer technology inaccessible. An annual salary of about $3,000 leaves little or no disposable income, and yet, these guides have great hope for the future. I recently asked our park guides if and why a laptop would make a big difference in their lives.

They said,

“Since the world is becoming a small dot, it is of utmost importance to have a computer in order to access to Internet which helps us to improve our knowledge by doing research as well exchanging experience with other people.” Gilbert

“I want to start a masters’ program . . . if possible you can help me to achieve my dreams.” Cesar

“Seeking a personal computer to help . . . advertising of our National Park and connect people . . . by the inspiration and appreciation of all travelers.” Eric

“. . . I would say that as a guide who is always serving others in a very sensitive and fragile field; we should be supported and equipped with knowledge, skills, and equipments; if not we will keep on serving without those, but just with our heart.   Musafiri B. Christian

cigclassWe want to help 25 Rwandan guides and reception staff at Nyungwe National Park to realize their dreams by acquiring a laptop for each of them. We hope to help them bridge the digital divide. It will require $400 per machine to pay for the computer, add necessary software and pay for secure delivery to Rwanda. These young men and women help protect primates, endemic birds, and parklands in this most densely populated nation on Earth. At the same time, they are helping to rebuild their country’s economy and lessen dependence on foreign aid through providing quality tourism experiences. They work with local communities to minimize depreciative behavior and exploitation of forest resources by providing opportunities for more appropriate activities.

Tobias Merriman, our son and a computer network professional at Southern Illinois University, has volunteered to load each machine with licensed software that gives them full “office” and Internet browser capabilities. We will use DHL or UPS to deliver the machines securely to the guides and they will provide photos and thank you letters to us that we will share with donors.

This is the PC we plan to purchase.

This is the PC we plan to purchase.

This effort is not tax-deductible for we do not have a charity in the middle. We have spent our lives working for nonprofits, but now work as consultants with organizations that make a difference in conservation and helping communities around the world. We take no administrative funds from this and will not spend any of the money on anything other than the computers, software and shipping to the guides. Our website will report on progress and share photos of the guides. We will personally donate two or more computers as our income this spring allows. And we will carefully manage delivery of the machines so they end up in the hands of guides, not postal handlers or bureaucrats along the way. We want to help individuals. And we want to share their stories with you.

If you wish to make a contribution to this effort, go to and give a contribution of any amount comfortable for you. The website takes 4% of the total campaign for their services. We have 45 days to raise $10,000 (25 times $400 = computer cost, software, and DHL or UPS) under the agreement with Indiegogo. If we do not realize our objective of $10,000, they still provide the amount raised and we will use that to assist the most deserving individuals based upon their applications for a laptop.

Many foundations and government programs provide assistance to African governments and agencies in protecting wildlife and supporting communities struggling with hunger, AIDS and malaria. We think that’s great, but we want to help some of the individuals we know personally who will put this technology to work improving their lives and their efforts to conserve and promote the national parks in Rwanda. Won’t you help us with a gift of some size reasonable for you?

Thanks for helping make a difference! We have been blessed with great support in our lives – paying it forward feels right. Visit our donor campaign page – Help Bridge the Digital Divide In Rwanda – HERE!

Tim Merriman and Lisa Brochu

Five Good Reasons to Quit Lecturing and Start Learning

Scott Mair of Canada had a totally engaged audience as he portrayed Elvis the Elk as we shared interpretive training methods in Korea in 2006.

Scott Mair of Canada had a totally engaged audience as he portrayed Elvis the Elk as we shared interpretive training methods in Korea in 2006.

Many of us went to schools and colleges where lectures prevailed. The expert spoke from behind a lecturn while we tried to listen. I say try, because I, for one, often slept. I remember being in Dr. “Gabby” Galbreath’s Evolution classroom and awakening suddenly to laughter. I had dozed off and awakened to everyone watching me. He had a great sense of humor and a gruff voice. “Can I get you a pillow, Merriman? You look uncomfortable.” He laughed and went on. I never fell asleep in his class again, but I often wasn’t paying attention. It was not a requirement and even if it had been, I might not have been able to fulfill it.

Training others these past 18 years in the interpretive approach to communication and current brain research has driven me back to some very old principles and what I think are five good reasons to quit lecturing whether you are a classroom teacher or a non-formal interpreter.

1. You learn nothing if you lecture. Every audience or classroom has people who may share a thought or idea with you that improves your understanding of what you do. Sometimes it’s from the mouths of babes and sometimes from other professionals, but learning is good. Get it where you can.

2. A lecture does not encourage a conversation. People do not change their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors unless they think more deeply about what they believe. Conversations and thoughtful questions invite us to pay attention and start us thinking. Not everyone will join the conversation but in a lecture, few will engage.

3. Every audience or classroom is different. You do not adapt your lesson to the audience if you operate on assumptions. When you start the conversation, you find out what they believe. You can adapt.

4. Lecturing is boring for you and your audience. You repeat the presentation or lecture you’ve used before in the same old way. The passion in your voice will eventually sound like elevator music to the listener, something to ignore.

5. Addressing learning styles is not an academic exercise, but critical to success. Our knowledge of multiple learning styles or multiple intelligences suggest that auditory learning or even a combination of auditory and visual learning (Powerpoint) are rarely as engaging as interactive conversations with questions, demonstrations and activities whenever possible.

More than 2,000 years ago Socrates encouraged questioning in learning. His belief was intuitive, but it has proven to be a great approach. Social science research supports the power of bringing people to a greater understanding and voluntary behavior change through careful questioning, thematic presentations and multi-sensory approaches.

And yet I still see lectures in both formal settings such as classrooms and conferences and in nonformal interpretive settings. We can do better. Let’s lay down our crutches of Powerpoint and lecterns and be more creative, for ourselves and for our audiences.

-Tim Merriman