With too many people (and feces) it may be time to limit access to protected areas: Commentary by Todd Wilkinson

Packed trailhead in Southern Oregon. USFS photo.

It’s time to do something, what exactly? More money, more enforcement, ?. What should we (jointly) do and who (what organization(s)?) should take the lead? Note: it’s not just National Forests and BLM.

Here’s a link to the commentary (in the Denver Post) and some excerpts, but I encourage reading the whole piece.

When talking with managers of state and federal public lands these pandemic days, two issues popped up: what to do about large amounts of human feces deposited in wild places and how to handle far too many visitors. Both issues have served as a wake-up call to both land managers and environmentalists about the downsides of recreation.

“It’s like we’ve stared into a future that wasn’t supposed to arrive for a few decades,” said Randy Carpenter, who works with the community-planning organization FutureWest, in Bozeman. “The crush of people and the ecological impacts of rising recreation uses is right here, among us — right now — and it’s transforming the character of wild places.”

A paper published in the scientific journal PLOS One reviewed 274 scientific studies completed between 1981 and 2015 that examined the effects of recreation on a variety of animal species across all geographic areas and recreational activities. Kevin Crooks, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University, said given what we know now, “It might be time to establish limits on public access to protected areas and encourage changes in the behavior of recreationists.”

Though conservation groups continue to point fingers at logging, mining and ranching, they’ve been slow to acknowledge impacts from outdoor recreation. Last winter, at a U.S. Forest Service meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, biologists noted that backcountry skiing and snowboarding were harming a dwindling, isolated herd of bighorn sheep. Displaying what can only be called a crass attitude, one skier was heard to remark: “Well, the sheep have had these mountains for 10,000 years. Now it’s our turn.”

I’d argue that it’s long past time to encourage changes in the behavior of recreationists. And it was only a matter of time before the “protected” line is drawn further and further up the Pyramid of Pristinity.

Some recreationists insist on a quid pro quo: They’ll advocate protecting public land only if they’re allowed to use some of it. It’s happened in Idaho over wilderness and recently in debates over how to safeguard wildlife habitat in the Gallatin Range of southwest Montana.

An outdoor industry eager to get its slice of an $800 billion pie helps fuel the rush to the West’s public lands. Farrell says that outdoor-product manufacturers push hard for increased access to public lands in part because more users boost their bottom lines.

Meanwhile, many state tourism bureaus – like those in Montana, Wyoming and Utah — spend millions of dollars advertising national parks and other places that are already uncomfortably overcrowded.

“Critical discussions about recreation are rare because these activities are layered with a thin veneer of innocence,” Farrell said. This recalls a narrative of heedless use that goes back to the 19th and 20th centuries: Exploit a special place until it’s used up and then move on, leaving waste, damage and displaced wildlife behind. The problem is there aren’t many true wild places left to exploit.

I don’t agree with Farrell on the outdoor industry critique- mostly because much of those bucks are for OHV’s and RV’s which already don’t belong in protected areas. Of course, OIA has a political slant, so the whole issue is very complex (outdoor industries and their attitudes to recreation access and other uses of federal lands).

And so it goes, “wild places” must have only few people, using preferred kinds of recreation. As we clamber up the Pyramid of Pristinity, we continually meet new enemies and they are all us. So what is to be done?

14 thoughts on “With too many people (and feces) it may be time to limit access to protected areas: Commentary by Todd Wilkinson”

  1. More bathroom facilities might be a good place to start. Limiting access and putting more people in fewer areas is just going to cause more problems. We will need to develop more campgrounds and trails. Populations have increased.
    For years we heard how tourism was our next economy after timber. Well maybe it is time we built more facilities to make it possible.
    Educating the public to respect nature is a constant challenge.
    (I have to admit I have been spoiled by Southwestern Oregon where I have been able to enjoy nature’s bounty and few people. But, the times are changing.)

  2. Before responding I felt I should at least read the PLOS article and the original Denver Post commentary. Having done that I suppose I’m ready to make some comments as one of those people who support protecting land as part of a quid pro quo.

    The first question I have is what Todd means by protected areas? Is it wilderness, national parks or pubic lands in general? All the anecdotes he mentions are occurring outside wilderness. He specifically mentions bear 399 in the Teton National Park, which I the pleasure of seeing this spring and she and he quadruplets scampered past my truck. One of the things that makes bear 399 famous is that she had chosen as her preferred area, an area close to the main road and people. There has been some theorizing that she has discovered that the presence of people provide a degree of protection against larger male grizzlies, and actually improves her reproductive success. A friend on mine does also complain about people crapping along the trail, so feces is an issue, but in this case likely one that would be resolved with infrastructure improvements rather restrictions since the trails in question are not the remote backcountry trails in the park, but rather popular trailheads around places like Jenny Lake.

    If we consider protected areas to be national parks or wilderness, restrictions on access are not novel. Want to float the Middle Fork of the Salmon? Get in the lottery for a permit. Many national parks require getting a limited number of backcountry permits if you want to go backpacking.

    Regarding the PLOS article, it is interesting that the activity that seems to show the most impact is cross country skiing/ snowshoeing. I’m not entirely sure whether that includes backcountry skiing/snowboarding or not. Also in general non motorized activities showed more impacts than motorized. But there is also one big caveat in the article, “We caution that a statistically significant effect of recreation does not necessarily provide insight into the effect’s magnitude or biological significance.” Also few of the articles in the review demonstrated any impact on reproductive success.

    I do find it a bit interesting, but not surprising, that that the two instances he discusses when it comes to quid pro quos are I infer the Boulder White Clouds and the Gallatin Forest Partner ship proposal for the Gallatin Forest Plan where mountain bikers advocated for areas where they have traditionally had access, and he has a particular antipathy for mountain bikers which he seems to find as sine qua non of “industrial recreation”. When the wilderness community sponsors a wilderness bill that ask the Backcountry Horsemen to give up a prime riding area, that the MWA supports restrictions on outfitters, the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers agree to a permanent closer for coveted big game hunting , and the Winter Wildlands Alliance supports closing a desired wilderness powder stash to riding and all those groups get on board then I will believe that that these groups truly support wilderness without human access. It is easy to support wilderness and limiting access as long the cost impacts someone else. It is much harder when you chose to sacrifice you own access to a precious spot you revere.

    Given his previous writing I can only a assume this opinion piece is a thinly veiled attempt to restrict access for recreational activities he has a philosophical or moral aversion to rather than recommendation to truly manage recreational overuse. (I’m not sure why mountain biking, pack rafting, and backcountry skiing are “industrial recreation;, while backpacking, hunting and fishing, canoeing, horse riding, outfitters and snowshoeing are not, other than possibly the differences in the demographics of the specific user group or whether the activity is consider “traditional”. ) I would be interested to hear more specific details on who and where the limits on access would be. If all users will share the burden I fully support restrictions based on local conditions and impacts. If this an attempt to further prioritize access for what Sharon calls the “pyramid of purity” regardless of their impacts, then no.

  3. This seems like a great topic for research… do more potties yield fewer feces? Maybe we could divert some research bucks from regional downscaling of climate models in 2100…

  4. Humans exploiting and destroying nature on unprecedented scale – report

    Animal populations have plunged an average of 68% since 1970, as humanity pushes the planet’s life support systems to the edge

    Full article here.

    Opening snips below.

    Wildlife populations are in freefall around the world, driven by human overconsumption, population growth and intensive agriculture, according to a major new assessment of the abundance of life on Earth.

    On average, global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles plunged by 68% between 1970 and 2016, according to the WWF and Zoological Society of London (ZSL)’s biennial Living Planet Report 2020. Two years ago, the figure stood at 60%.

    The research is one of the most comprehensive assessments of global biodiversity available and was complied by 134 experts from around the world. It found that from the rainforests of central America to the Pacific Ocean, nature is being exploited and destroyed by humans on a scale never previously recorded.

    The analysis tracked global data on 20,811 populations of 4,392 vertebrate species. Those monitored include high-profile threatened animals such as pandas and polar bears as well as lesser known amphibians and fish. The figures, the latest available, showed that in all regions of the world, vertebrate wildlife populations are collapsing, falling on average by more than two-thirds since 1970.

  5. This is a planning problem isn’t it? The Forest Service recreation planning tool is the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum, which identifies the desired visitor experience for different areas in the forest plan. Managers are then supposed to manage the areas to give visitors that experience. Here’s a FS field guide to ROS (including an example from the Coconino forest plan). https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5335339.pdf

    Unfortunately, this document doesn’t get into the details of how to give visitors that experience (and the link to “visitor management” wasn’t working), but it seems like limiting the amount of use (such as by permits) would have to be an option – otherwise this “planning” would amount to changing the desired experience to match the actual experience as use increases.

    Looking at ROS in the context of the problems being identified today, maybe there is a need for a new classification: “crowded unroaded natural.” Facilities would not be “rustic and rudimentary,” but there would be no motorized use. (But maybe emphasizing the “crowded” would make them less so.)

  6. One point about the feces issue, it’s worth noting (as a commenter on the Denver Post article did), that outhouses on public lands (particularly National Forests) have been closed for much of this year because of COVID. I know the idea was to protect sanitation workers from COVID, but seriously, what did they expect would happen if they closed all the restrooms yet left the National Forest itself open? The exact same thing happened last year in National Parks during the government shutdown.

    In a year when dispersed recreation on public lands has been one of the few things people have still been allowed to do for fun, resulting in huge numbers of people using those lands, the decision to refuse to provide restroom facilities for all those people seems like downright management malpractice. I suspect whole studies could be written on the environmental impacts of poor management decisions like that made in the name of COVID.

    Now I know this has been a problem long before COVID, it seems to me the solution to at least the poop problem should be obvious. If you have areas you know are highly popular for dispersed camping, for instance, instead of banning dispersed camping because of poop, just put up a few outhouses along the road in that area. Maybe even put low maintenance composting toilets in some high use backcountry camping areas in wilderness areas where this has been an issue. I’ve seen a few of those in the backcountry, and more could certainly help.

    • Patrick, I wondered the same when restrooms were closed on FS (well 90% were but not all.. mistake? or focusing on a few?) but were open at State Parks at the same time. I agree that there hasn’t been enough studying of the poop question and potential solutions. But perhaps there has and we are not tied in to that research.

      • We tried to rent a portapotty fir a trailhead on state land as we had previous years and the Covid requirements in Montana required twice daily cleanings of surfaces. It was feasible. Other than the usual horse crap, we didn’t have feces issues, but it close enough to town I expect people took care of the issue at home before coming out.

        • Lance, I’ve always told my friends that a suitable memorial for me when the time comes would be funding renting a portapotty and putting it at one of my favorite spots (that doesn’t have one) for a summer. I don’t know how much that would cost. Right now my candidate is Cottonwood Pass (yes I know there is one a few miles west, but don’t know how many people know that). Maybe more people could adopt this approach? And people whose friends have more money could have it for more than one summer? And yes, someone could think of a way to affix a non-permanent decal of some kind with the “x memorial portapotty installation.”

          • I imagine cost varies with distance and the frequency of emptying, but for us it was around $150 for the season which we split with BCH.


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