Sat, Nov 24, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Crisis in national parks: How tourists are loving
nature to death

As thrill seekers and Instagrammers swarm public lands, reporting from seven sites across the US shows the scale of the threat

By Charlotte Simmonds, et al  /  The Guardian

There are more than 200 vault toilets across the Custer Gallatin, small rooms with a single pot over a large septic tank. Signs on the doors remind users not to throw trash in them because it makes vault pumping extremely difficult.

In such remote places, the cost of servicing toilets has soared. In 2013, forest officials budgeted roughly US$32,000 for toilet pumping across the Custer and Gallatin national forests (the two forests combined in 2014). So far this year. it has cost nearly US$80,000.

And that is only pumping in “priority locations,” said Lauren Oswald, the recreation program manager for the Custer Gallatin.

Beyond the hefty price tag, the logistics of finding a private contractor to do the job have also become more fraught, especially as towns like Bozeman grow and construction sites hire away possible candidates. The toilet at the boat ramp is serviced by a company based in Hardin, Montana — more than 320km away.

Nearby Yellowstone has waste worries, too.

Park spokeswoman Bethany Gassman said park staff pumped 942,147 liters from its 153 vault toilets and other septic systems last year, a 19 percent increase over 2016.

Visitors also run through an average of 1,710 toilet paper rolls per day.

The problem of managing human waste extends to the backcountry — areas far from roads and development and accessible only by trails.

Forest staff have seen an increase in improperly managed excrement — unburied poop — in popular wilderness areas and unofficial campsites.

The problem is that some people do not seem to care how they leave the landscape once they are done with it, Oswald said.

Forest staffers are often faced with the unenviable task of dealing with what slob campers leave behind. It is the kind of work that sanitation workers are hired for in major cities, not what you would expect among the wooded peaks and meadowed valleys of Montana.

“They pick up all garbage, whether it’s toilet paper or diapers or beer bottles,” Oswald said of the cleanup missions. “And generally if they come upon human waste, they try to deal with it by burying it at an appropriate depth.”

Once parks were the ultimate place to disconnect from the modern world, but today visitors have fresh expectations — and in accommodating these new demands, some say parks are unwittingly driving the very behavior that is spoiling them.

On Yosemite’s expansive mountainsides, one redwood stands out among the rest. It is a little bit taller, a little bit too uniform. A metallic shimmer glints in the sun from beneath its branches, colored green and brown to match its neighbors. However, this camouflage masks its true role: coating the wilderness in Wi-Fi.

This tree is helping to usher in a new era in Yosemite — and it is not alone. Grand Tetons, Mount Rainier, Yellowstone and Zion are all being wired with Internet and cell service as part of a plan to attract a new generation of park-goers. In Yosemite there are six towers already constructed, with plans under way for close to a dozen more.

The rapid modernization of Yosemite (annual visitation 4.3 million) is evident at Base Camp Eatery, one of the park’s newest food spots. Here, touchscreens enable hungry hikers to order drinks and snacks and access instant information about park activities. There is even a newly opened — and particularly controversial — branch of Starbucks.

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