Pathfinder's Blog

Leave no trace (of anything)

The Outdoor Writer ( this morning carries an interesting piece on the issue of human waste in popular national park destinations. 

When you answer the call of nature, there are occasionally other calls that simply can't be ignored. Without going into the details of scatological needs, there are times in the outdoors when nature's "other call" must be answered.

That simple fact of life is causing problems in some of the more popular places in the Rocky Mountains. It's gotten to the point that officials in the Rocky Mountain National Park are asking that visitors turn over a new leaf, so to speak, in their battle to keep the park clean.

Jim Dougan, wilderness coordinator in the park, told the Rocky Mountain News it has reached the point in some of the most popular places that "if you moved a rock, you found someone else had already made a deposit prior to you."

In other words, the place was being turned into a toilet- to the point that wisps of toilet paper were said to be sticking out from under rocks.

This past June, the park started distributing bags to people at each trailhead. In August, rangers started passing out bags with camping permits on certain parts of the more popular camping destinations.

The program is voluntary, so rangers don't ask people if people use them, but the bags at Long's Peak have the camper's name on them. That allows rangers to track down campers who use the bags - but discard them (remember the rock).

The bags are made by a California company and are double layered. The inside is a foil like substance that contains a chemical that neutralizes waste. That bag seals and is folded inside a plastic outer bag. A complete kit, it even comes with toilet paper - all in a bag about the size of a kitchen garbage bag.

It might sound nasty, but any big-city dweller will tell you that curbing your pets is a fact of life. Like they say in nursery school "if you opened it, close it. If you…" well you get the point.

Greg Sievers, the past chairman of the Central Rockies Section of the Amercan Alpine Club, says he's a bit squeamish about putting a bag of "waste" in his backpack. A longtime climber in the park, his Alpine Club bought the first 200 bags and Sievers even built the box on one trailhead (Lumpy Ridge - I'm not kidding) where the bags are available. He says his wife enjoys teasing him about his reluctance, but so far he's not had the need to employ his own suggestion.

No public outbreaks of disease have been traced to the people who are leaving some traces behind, but the Park Service says the time to be proactive is now, before there are any health issues.

Other parks already employ similar programs. In Grand Teton National Park, officials say that five years into the program, it seems people are carrying out about eight tons of waste a year. They're fairly certain about their numbers for the area studied, that's how much the Park Service used to fly out by helicopter from outhouses.

It might seem like great material for a comic monologue, but the idea of "leave no trace" should cover this area of our organic waste. A couple of years ago, we reported on a similar system to give campers a sanitary option for their campsites that relieved the need to, well, seek relief. It came complete with a popup tent, folding toilet seat and "wag bags" -- containers that contained organic chemicals that actually converted waste back into inert material.

The Fishing Wire recently reported on a new system for fishing boats that allows anglers to quickly and easily find relief without risking an exposure issue.

This latest initiative from the Park Service is really a simple idea that can keep a visit to the great outdoors, well, great.

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The Native Americans, the mountain men, the French voyageurs, the pioneers, the...
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