The Growing Poop Problem In Our Public Lands

The Growing Poop Problem In Our Public Lands

More people than ever before are headed outside to recreate, in fact, a survey by the Outdoor Industry Association found that as many as 160 million people are participating in various forms of outdoor recreation. This is great. But, evidence of these adventures often remains long after everyone heads home. Many people find themselves unprepared when they need to poop in the wilderness, leaving them no choice but to improperly dispose of their waste. When large numbers of visitors come to the same places to recreate, it is increasingly clear how many come unprepared. These areas become a minefield of poop that negatively affects the experience of other visitors, future visitors, and the environment.

The Poop Problem

When you’re in the wilderness and you have to poop, the effects of your chosen method (bury, pack out, etc.) may not be the first thing on your mind. Whether you are prepared for it or not, when you have to go, you have to go. Many visitors who find themselves without a plan turn to less than ideal solutions, and end up disposing of their waste improperly. With our partner Moosejaw, we surveyed 25,000 outdoor enthusiasts on their outdoor bathroom experiences, and found that 72% had a time in the outdoors when they had to go to the bathroom but were unprepared to do so properly.

Whether visitors leave waste on the surface unburied, don’t pack out their toilet paper, go too close to waterways and campsites, or don’t pack out within fragile environments, improper methods of disposing of waste may cause potential harm to future human or animal visitors. 

Others who may dispose of their waste properly, but with the high volume of visitors that come to certain areas, natural decomposition processes cannot keep up with the rate of waste elimination. Within highly trafficked areas of outdoor recreation, the high volume of poop takes a large toll on both the visitor experience and the surrounding environment.

How is our poop different from animals? While all animals (including humans) poop, human waste is much more toxic and therefore and therefore potentially hazardous to the environment. The majority of us eat a much different diet than animals, and the things we eat, including refined sugars, preservatives, prescription medications and many other things, cause bad bacteria to grow within our guts. Humans are also exposed to a far greater variety of bacteria and viruses than animals in the wild. Many of the viruses and bacteria that we carry within us are sustained within our waste, and when we poop in the wilderness, it can end up in the soil, causing harm to the surrounding environment.

Visitor Experience 

Within Colorado, a state where this issue is incredibly prevalent, outdoor recreation and tourism is an essential part of the economy. In 2022, the outdoor recreation industry contributed 30,000 direct jobs, and the travel industry generated $26.1 billion. With the economic reliance on the condition of Colorado’s outdoors, the poop problem not only takes away from the connection to nature that visitors yearn for, but hurts the thousands of people who rely on pristine natural beauty to support them economically. Nothing ruins the feeling of Colorado’s pristine beauty faster than seeing poop on a hike or at a campsite. 

Most people find themselves in the woods to enjoy that feeling of pristine beauty. Coming across a fellow explorer’s waste is a fast way to ruin that feeling, and deter a visitor from returning to the area. During a study done by Elli Morris, a Northern Arizona University graduate student and National Forest Foundation Research Fellow, one hiker was quoted stating, "overall, the place is not so pristine, beautiful, and clean as I thought.” This same study found that 75% of respondents would not return to a wilderness area if they found used toilet paper between one and three times. The outdoor economy is dependent upon visitors returning. 82% of overnight travelers in Colorado, for example, are repeat visitors. Human waste should never be the reason that somebody wouldn’t want to visit again.

Resource Burden 

The large quantities of human waste found at and around campsites and trails is also becoming unmanageable for maintenance crews to handle. Many outdoor areas are being forced to increase their rules and regulations to counter this issue. In our home town of Crested Butte, Colorado, E. coli rates within the nearby Slate River have steadily increased, and large quantities of human waste have been collected across campsites. This poor camping etiquette has forced thousands of acres of land to be transitioned from dispersed to designated only camping. Rules and regulations are being increased in countless other outdoor areas, with the poop problem commonly cited as a key reason for the changes.

When talking to public land managers, they’re taking a strong stance on this issue. Joe Lavorini, formerly with the National Forest Foundation stated that “Human waste is one of the biggest resource issues we’re seeing as a result of increased recreation on public lands…I’ve heard too many stories of dogs rolling in human poop, or a half-assed job of burying waste that leads to unhappy campers. Not only is this just gross, it’s not healthy. And it can lead to a regulatory crackdown and restricted access to some of our favorite places. We can and must do better.

Not only is this poop problem a critical sanitation issue, but it takes up valuable time and resources that could be focused elsewhere. Focusing resources on picking up waste takes away from trailwork or other critical projects that would maintain and improve our public lands. 

Environmental Degradation 

“This tsunami of turds isn’t just unsightly—it has repercussions for human and environmental health,” remarked journalist Krista Langlois while examining the dangers human feces presents in the outdoors. When waste is left at the surface, or when the microbes present within the soil can’t keep up with buried waste, many problems are created. Pathogens within the waste itself can persist for up to a year, continuing to be a potential hazard to humans and animals who may come in contact with it. 

Last year, Outside Magazine examined the danger these pathogens present, “they [pathogens] can then spread into waterways and even become naturalized into an ecosystem, reproducing and living on after the feces have decomposed. This is a problem particularly because modern-day human feces are likely to contain chemicals, hormones (from prescription medications), and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” 

Within Colorado’s San Juan River, waste has taken over the waterways. Test results from the Colorado-New Mexico border showed the Animas River, a major tributary of the San Juan River, showed human waste in 70 to 100 percent of the samples taken. Further up the river, areas with a high concentration of human recreation were shown to have a far higher concentration of E. coli than areas within minimal human impact. This issue is a large concern for the downstream Navajo Nation, whose farmers “rely on the San Juan River for farming, drinking water and their way of life,” but don’t have a large voice within the conversation.

What To Doo About It

Poop should never be a reason that we have to create barriers to access like converting dispersed camping to fee-based or issuing less backcountry permits. David Ochs, the Executive Director of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, an organization that has dealt with growing amounts of human waste as visitation has increased says, “people don’t poop on the surface and leave it because they’re bad. They do it because they’re naive and unprepared.” 

We agree. Finger pointing and villainizing the culprits isn’t the answer. We’ve all had “a moment” at some point in our outdoor adventuring when we found ourselves unprepared. Our own research supports that fact. At PACT Outdoors, we believe that if you give people better tools, they’ll happily use them for the benefit of themselves and the environment. 

Poop can be a challenging topic to discuss openly, causing many budding adventurers to find themselves without the guidance on how to properly manage this natural human process. Giving fellow adventures the tools needed to properly care for our environment is the first step towards solving the poop problem.

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