Brittney Burns — Staff Writer

For more than 20 years, volunteers have been hiking up and down the Cullasaja Gorge between Highlands and Franklin to clean up litter covering one of Macon County’s most scenic drives. Last Saturday, over 100 volunteers suited up and spent the day up and down the banks of the gorge to keep the roadside beautiful.

“It started as a project by The Mirror Lake Homeowners Association,” said Jennifer Cunningham, Director of the Highlands Chamber of Commerce. “Some members of that were volunteers at the Visitor Center and asked us to take it over about 10 years ago.”

The Highlands Chamber of Commerce heads up the annual cleanup now and three years ago teamed up with Venture Local Franklin to head a Franklin cleanup to ensure that the road from Franklin to Highlands gets cleaned up.

“The partnership was formed 3 years ago,” said Cunningham. “Getting the Franklin Group involved means we can have a bigger reach into the county for volunteers to help clean up and bring awareness that litter is a huge problem in such a beautiful area.”

Twenty-two volunteers showed up for the Franklin side of the cleanup and after the litter was removed, both groups met at the Cliffside Recreation Area for a picnic lunch. “It was a pleasure to be a part of the Cullasaja River Gorge cleanup again this year,” said Matt Bateman with Venture Local Franklin. “Each year we team up with the Highlands Chamber of Commerce to clean up the precious natural asset that we both share. It’s something I look forward to every spring. The litter in the gorge was exceptionally bad this year. So it was really nice to have over 20 volunteers show up on behalf of the Franklin community! We’re already planning next year’s cleanup. For more, connect with Venture Local Franklin on Facebook or Instagram.”

Saturday’s trash collection netted a little more than four tons of trash. With about 450 bags picked up by volunteers, each bag weighed around 20 pounds for a total of 9,000 pounds of garbage removed from the roadside.

“Tourism affects almost every industry in the county in one way or another,” said Cunningham. “If we do not keep the roadways clean it will leave a bad impression on visitors and they might not come back to the area.  If they see a clean and pristine area they are more likely to spend more time and make repeat visits and maybe eventually have a home in the area.”