During the pandemic more and more people were going to state and national parks. Many of them were also going in those parks and open spaces.
State and federal parks officials say they’re seeing more human waste than usual in parks, which leads to not only health concerns for other visitors and parks staff but also broader environmental concerns.
In short, the more people that visit parks and open spaces, the more people leave their waste behind, Ashley Rust, a water quality specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife said. She said the increase in human waste can likely be attributed to Colorado’s massive population growth but also the pandemic, which led to an influx in the number of park visits across the country.
Rust and others asked those visiting parks – whether in Colorado or across the rest of the country – to carry waste out with them rather than leaving or burying it. Or people should use dedicated restrooms, typically found at trailheads and other popular sites.
Leaving human waste, like pet waste, can ruin the outdoor experience for others and harm the ecosystem, Rust said.
“You can’t just poop anywhere you want and expect that to be a lovely environment for people to come back to,” she said.
Even before the pandemic, national parks hit near-record numbers of guests with more than 327 million visits in 2019.
Numbers dipped slightly in the depths of the pandemic as the country reeled from lockdown orders. But the visitors surged once more as those restrictions began to expire, CNN reported.
Last year Rocky Mountain National Park saw more than 4.4 million visitors, the fifth-highest number of guests in the park’s history. It was also the fifth most visited national park in the United States in 2021.
With those visitors came human waste.
“For many national parks, this issue has been getting increasingly worse for a while now and the pandemic probably accentuated this in parks that saw substantial increases in visitation during this time,” Erin Drake, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service said in an email.
One ranger in Utah’s Zion National Park packed out nine pounds of feces in 2021 and two years earlier U.S. Forest Service officials banned camping by Oregon’s No Name Lake because there was so much waste, Outside reported.
The issue also came to the fore at the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area in recent years, the Aspen Times reported.
Two main concerns arise from an influx of human waste in public lands, Rust said. The first is bacteria.
“That’s literally the same reason we want people picking up dog poop,” Rust said.
The more feces left along trails and in the backcountry, the higher the prevalence of hazardous bacteria like E. coli, Rust said.
“And if E. coli is present, that means there’s a thousand other bacteria and pathogens present,” she said.
Other pathogens include hepatitis and giardia, according to Roger Semler, the National Park Service’s Leave No Trace Program coordinator. Often those at highest risk for exposure are most often rangers or other park staff members.
“Somebody’s going to come along and feel compelled to remove it,” Semler said.
A hiker or camper might also leave their waste in a place with significant cultural or archaeological interest, Semler said.
Then, Rust said waste can also filter downstream into waterways or reservoirs, endangering swimmers, fishers, paddle boarders and more.
The second concern is for the environment, Rust said. Waste left in public lands makes for an unnatural source of nitrogen and phosphorus. Natural fertilizers.
Conventional wisdom might hold that natural fertilizers are good for the environment, but Rust said that’s not the case. Instead, it can easily tip local ecosystems out of balance, especially by boosting algae growth.
Large algae patches can kill native plants and trees but it can also drain downstream, altering the natural chemistry of waterways, killing fish and other wildlife.
“The bottom of one stream might have been covered by rock and cobble but then it’s covered in green slime,” Rust said.
The easiest way to avoid contaminating parks and open spaces is to use restrooms provided by park officials, Rust said. But sometimes emergencies happen and in those cases, like with dogs, hikers and campers should carry bags so they can carry their waste out with them.
Some bags specifically designed for the purpose are double layered and can include chemicals meant to neutralize the waste and can be thrown in the trash. They’re not perfect, however.
“They may seem odor free initially, depending on temperatures and things but eventually they do create an odor,” Semler said. “And at some point you’ve got a backpack full of quite a bit of an odor.”
More robust canisters also exist for waste, Semler said.
And if hikers or campers are caught in an emergency without any way to remove their waste, the best course of action is likely to bury it six to eight inches underground, Semler said. But he encouraged all outdoor enthusiasts to visit parks and open spaces prepared.
“Try to do the right thing,” he said.
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