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Blight Fighter: For 10 years Michael Haas has patrolled roadways between Napa and Yountville picking up trash

While a bevy of grape growers around the valley keep careful watch to ensure that an invasive pest or disease doesn’t infect the vines, just one man calls himself the Blight Fighter.

Michael Haas pauses for a photo during his walk along Solano Avenue Sunday afternoon between Yountville and Napa. The local resident, who lives near Darms Lane, has, every day for the last 10 years, walked the frontage roads, Napa Valley Vine Trail and Highway 29 between Yountville’s southern boundary and Napa’s northernmost boundary picking up trash.

While a bevy of grape growers around the valley keep careful watch to ensure that an invasive pest or disease doesn’t infect the vines, just one man calls himself the Blight Fighter.

Michael Haas fights a plague nearly every day, yet his focus is not on grapevines. Instead, Haas pounds the pavement, road shoulders, ditches, culverts and paths from North Napa to South Yountville, collecting a most intrusive and preventable scourge: trash.

While litter pick-up may seem like a lowly task, self-named Napa Blight Fighter Haas instead approaches the Highway 29 and Solano Avenue thoroughfares with vigor. Once a marathon athlete, he easily handles walking four to five miles along the route each day.

The road initially became his adversary, as years of running on hard surfaces resulted in a back injury and physical pain. In search of relief, following back surgery, his doctor encouraged him to walk rather than run. When he slowed down, he became obsessed with walking, and he did not like what he saw.

Haas moved from Oakland to Napa Valley in 1997 to continue his work as an attorney. His law firm partner had been Jayson Pahlmeyer, who moved to Napa and became a vintner. They continued a professional relationship, with Haas handling legal and business matters for Pahlmeyer Winery. Shifting from corporate transactions, real estate, estate planning, and tax work into legal matters in the wine industry was a pleasant change, Haas said. He continues to work as an alcohol beverage compliance consultant in his retirement.

When Haas began walking around Napa a decade ago, on the floor of Napa Valley he saw mess after mess. Without hesitation, he simply began to “fight the blight” and pick things up.

“I do it because I don’t like things to be dirty and filthy looking,” he explained. “I didn’t want the beautiful Napa Valley to look blighted, like the littered railroad tracks of Oakland.”

Occasional walks around his neighborhood (Haas lives between Yountville and Napa) quickly increased, and for years he has been walking every day that the weather allows. Typically, he walks and tidies up at least five days per week, sometimes more, tracking an average of 100 miles per month.

“If the weather is good, I am out there seven days a week,” he said.

Wearing a wide-brimmed hat, neon vest gifted to him by Napa County Public Works, and dark sunglasses while deftly using a trash-grabbing device and enjoying his signature cigar, Haas is recognized by locals who travel regularly between Napa and Yountville. He invests in sun protective gear and high-quality shoes, wearing down the soles and requiring replacement every eight or nine months.

 “I do it for exercise. It provides a nice chance to get out and relax before having dinner,” said Haas, a self-proclaimed lifelong learner who likes to listen to sports talk radio programs, podcasts and sometimes music while he walks.

“I listen to things to talk and think about,” he said.

Most frequently and frustratingly, Haas finds cigarette butts.

“The ground is not your ashtray,” is part of the response he would like to tell these litter bugs along with, “Take your butts home!”

Haas explained that there are microplastics in cigarette filters that do not disappear. Wild animals pick them up and the fragments make their way to waterways.

“Why do people think that it is just going to evaporate?” he asks. “Some people throw things out, but most of it is carelessness – they are not actively trying to pollute.”

Another common litter category Haas encounters is car parts. Whether from a crash or a loose part falling off a vehicle, he often finds large pieces of plastic and metal lying about.

While clean-up crews sometimes do a good job, he says, at other times a lot of debris ranging from headlight housings to mirrors and bumpers litter the landscape. Just last week he picked up about 10 pounds leftover from a crash at Highway 29 and Oak Knoll.

Some of the trash is unwieldy and would be either unpleasant or impossible for Haas to carry home. In addition to large vehicle parts and old tires, construction materials, mattresses, furniture, a small refrigerator and even a full-size movie theatre popcorn machine have been gathered by Haas.

“Sometimes rather than drag them home, I go home, get my car and retrieve the items,” he said.  “Crazy unusual things. When I find something that I cannot pick up on my own, then the county comes and picks it up within a day or two.”

He works closely with the county and has even been honored with an “Adopt-A-Road” sign on Solano Avenue.

The items that Haas can carry, he usually takes home and sorts into his trash, compost and recycling bins, carefully segmenting the debris.

“At home, I separate it out. Dirty paper and paper towels into compost; metal and plastic into recycling, and the rest in the trash. I routinely sort things out and put them where they belong,” said Haas.

“Some people have an interest in doing things right; they learn what to do and do it right,” he continued. “Other times, people just don’t care. Their time is too important, and they throw everything in one bin and walk away.”

Haas also finds personal items ranging from driver’s licenses to credit cards, wallets, purses, bags of tools, and random cash. If he can identify the owner, he either mails the item or if they are in Napa he delivers to the owner.

“I find money, at least over $500 at this point. In one two-month stretch I found single $100 bills, two Sundays apart, in the middle of the median on Highway 29,” he said. “Who has $100 bills floating around their car?”

Later, he found several $100 bills that were movie props, printed with “In Props We Trust,” which he said he found quite humorous. “I found a cell phone with a pulse, a number came up and it was a woman in Oakland who drove up that night to pick it up,” he recalled.

Being in a rural area, Haas also encounters wildlife. Sometimes he just spots and enjoys it. At other times he finds injured or deceased animals that need to be rescued or removed.  He once assisted in getting an owl to wildlife rescue, but most of the time he witnesses the circle of life.

“I have pulled a lot of animals off the road, and as the months go by, I see their bones, marking the passage of time,” he noted. “Opossums, squirrels…I usually throw them to a place where they can decompose.”

Years of pounding the pavement and byways led Haas to realize that the area he covers includes the convergence of several public and private agencies. Near the southern border of Yountville on Solano Avenue for example, is Vintner’s Golf Course, the Town Limit of Yountville, a Napa County border, State of California Highway, the Vine Trail, private land, the Napa Valley Wine Train and a Napa County Flood Control project ditch – raising the question, who is responsible for caretaking?

“There are all of these jurisdictions, and people have no knowledge or ideas,” Haas said. “The county, the city, the state, county agencies, the road department and private enterprise all co-existing along this narrow strip. It is probably an unusual and unorthodox way that all these things come together right here.”

Along the way, Haas encounters people, locals and visitors alike. His region is a well-traveled track. Many people have shown him gratitude, handing him gifts such as cigars and bottles of wine. A winemaker with whom he chatted was so inspired that he went on to adopt the care of the Yountville Crossroad.

Other people are careless, and it is alarming and frightening when they drive too fast, too close or honk their horn startling him, he said. To walk safely, he tries to stay far away from fast cars, waits for decent gaps in traffic before crossing roadways, looks over his shoulder regularly, and walks facing the traffic so that he can see who is coming his way.

“This keeps me active, and I meet people,” Haas remarked, “I always thought that somebody should have a responsibility.”

He said he would like people to be more observant and respectful of the environment and other people by the way they live and the way that they drive.

“It’s the Golden Rule all over, do unto others,” he said. “If people would pay attention, there wouldn’t be as many car crashes or as much litter. Try to live better.”

Haas said he wakes up each day thinking about what he can do to make the world better and have a positive impact.

“I do my little part. It’s good for me and good for the planet,” he said.