“Go before you go.”
That’s Bradley Blickhan of Glacier National Park’s advice for hikers heading up a trail. Translation? Go to the toilet before starting your adventure.
“We have a staff of wilderness rangers, and part of their job is looking after these structures,” Blickhan said. “But we find that it used to be a structure that was visited once a week, every two weeks, and the cleaning wasn’t too bad.
“And (now) we go back the next day and it’s destroyed.”
Earlier this week, Outside Magazine ran a story titled “Outdoor Poop Etiquette Is Changing (You Probably Won’t Like It)”. It spoke of the growing pressure that more and more people – more looters – are putting on public lands and the growing problem of human waste in the forests.
If a latrine is particularly well-engineered, humans could crouch behind it and hikers could instead ply their trade just off a trail. However, Outside Magazine notes that part of the problem is that human waste doesn’t just disintegrate down a “cat hole” that Montana researchers found way back in 1982, and outdoor enthusiasts are seeing more unburied litter and even toilet paper on popular trails .
In Montana, Glacier has seen record numbers of travelers in recent years, totaling over 3 million annual visits, and more people are also visiting state parks and other public areas. In 2020, Montana State Parks saw its highAccording to Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the all-time high attendance of 3.4 million was almost reached again in 2021, but a 28% increase from 2019.
“We’re seeing many different types of impacts on the landscape from more outdoor recreational use,” FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said in an email. “Human waste is certainly one that we deal with and hear about.”
Glacier National Park: 1 million acres, 10 crew members
Glacier counts more than 100 toilet “structures” in the wilderness and backcountry, probably too many to care for given the resources available, Blickhan said. At the 1 million-acre park, only 10 workers have regular jobs that involve cleaning the latrines, he said, and the national parks are perpetually underfunded for upkeep.
“There really isn’t any specific funding to take care of them,” said Blickhan, who has been with Glacier for about 30 years.
More people with less outdoor experience are also using the restroom these days, which can exacerbate the problems. The only things that should go into a pit toilet in the woods, for example, are human excrement and toilet paper, but Blickhan said some hikers throw trash in there, and that means grizzly bears are visiting.
“The bears dig up a lot of these, so there’s some work there,” he said.
The National Park Service counts about $12 billion in deferred maintenance for roads, buildings and utility systems across the country, but Blickhan said those are the things that draw attention, not the latrines.
“Because it’s not the big items, it doesn’t reach the same critical mass,” said Blickhan, wilderness and wild and scenic rivers coordinator. “But it’s still very important. What is the long-term effect?”
Long-term effects include contamination
Other gastrointestinal complaints could be one.
The Outside Story noted that a recent study of the San Juan River, which flows through several western states, showed that in some locations E. coli associated with human excreta was nearly 12 times higher than US Environmental Protection Agency standards . More feces mean more related bacteria, and another study cited by Outside found “faecal indicator bacteria” in the sand, and another report said beachgoers who played in the sand were more likely to get sick.
Already, Blickhan said, people are expected to unpack human waste while camping along “wild and scenic rivers,” the North Fork and Middle Fork of the Flathead. He said the Park Service and the US Forest Service have the same rule.
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“Solid human waste must be self-contained for overnight stays in locations without toilet facilities and packaged at an approved disposal site,” the regulation says in part. It mentioned a “biodegradable, single-use toilet system” as an option, as did the Outside story, which described a “WAG bag,” a facility with usually a bag for a toilet, some TP, hand sanitizer, and crystals that are “human do”. Waste inert and minimize odor.”
On the consumer side, outfitter REI has been pushing more products related to human waste packaging, especially since the pandemic pushed more people outside, said Dania Rinker of the distribution center in Sumner, Washington. Rinker said more related products are coming to market, and articles related to human waste are among those REI frequently discusses in its free “virtual outfit” sessions.
“There’s certainly more interest,” said Rinker of REI customer service. “I feel like people are becoming more aware that it’s actually a concern.”
Lemon said if people are staying at an FWP site, the agency wants them to use the facilities. At this point, FWP continues to recommend that people bury human waste in the mountains or outside of a facility “to reduce the impact on the environment and the impact on others.”
“We are considering introducing a human waste unpacking rule on the Smith River. The corridor that people are levitating is actually a state park,” Lemon said. “Human waste disposal has been a big deal at the park over the years.”
testing for the future
In Glacier, Blickhan hopes to forestall any problems. He reached out to the National Park Service’s Water Quality Department with a question about how surface and groundwater could be affected by E. coli, and said park officials will design a pilot protocol for testing to begin this summer.
Especially in the glacier, with its short season and lack of soil microbes in deep layers, human waste isn’t necessarily broken down, he said. (He said the short season is one reason composting isn’t a good way to deal with waste, even in Glacier.)
“Hopefully we’re building a system for the future,” he said.
They plan to test at Avalanche Lake, Iceberg Lake, and Virginia Falls. Last year, through May, Glacier saw its highest year-to-date visitor count of 294,742, and Blickhan said the trail to Avalanche Lake was popular and could see 2,700 visitors daily in the summer.
“I’m concerned about groundwater and surface water,” said Blickhan. “We may not have a problem, but I want to get ahead of them (if we do).”
People often suggest flying out trash, he said, and the park does so from Granite and Sperry chalets. But he said helicopters are costly and cause motorized impacts, and preparing waste barrels for flight is labor-intensive: “So that’s not really a long-term, viable solution.”
Meanwhile, Glacier Public Affairs Officer Gina Kerzman said the park encourages people to plan ahead, whether for driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road or for those times along the way when nature is calling between facilities. At the very least, she suggested people take a Ziploc bag with them to pack their toilet paper, if not their liners.
“It makes it so much more enjoyable for everyone who visits the park,” Kerzman said.
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