Spray paint and carvings on bridges and trees at Eldorado Canyon. Graffiti at Roxborough, and graffiti and vandalism at Golden Gate.
Those state parks and others across the Front Range are reporting a host of negative impacts stemming from big increases in visitation that have been linked to reduced recreation options caused by the coronavirus. Many are seeing increases in litter and trash that have forced park managers to bring in larger dumpsters or have their dumpsters emptied more frequently.
And it’s not just state parks.
“We’re experiencing the same things,” said Lawrence Lujan, press officer for the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. Forest Service. “People aren’t taking their trash with them, they’re not obeying the pack-it-in/pack-it-out principle. Where there are dumpsters, they are filling quite quickly. People are going into crowded parking lots, trying to park off-road on the grass, which is troublesome: Your undercarriage could light the grass on fire if it’s a hot, dry day. We’ve been experiencing these recreation pressures for quite some time. Now they’ve skyrocketed because of the number of people who are visiting.”
Visitors have been dumping trash into vaulted outdoor toilets, Lujan said, which is prohibited. In addition to trash and sanitation issues, other problems have included overcrowding, user conflicts and illegal or abandoned campfires.
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“We are finding that there are a lot of first-time forest public-lands visitors,” Lujan said, adding that he is working on a campaign to raise awareness for rules intended to diminish human impact.
At Rocky Mountain National Park, where visitation has been limited to 60% of maximum parking lot capacity from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. due to the pandemic — through the implementation of a timed-entry reservation system — public information officer Kyle Patterson said rangers there “have not seen a noticeable increase in trash or graffiti.” But Time Magazine has reported increases in vandalism, litter and other negative impacts at national parks and forests across the country.
“It’s certainly a national issue,” said Ben Lawhon, education director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, a national organization headquartered in Boulder. “In the case of Rocky, the timed entry that they’ve instituted probably has played a role in helping to minimize what otherwise might be just out-of-control impacts.”
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A surge in visits from people who are inexperienced or unaware of outdoor ethics seems to be compounding increased visitation pressures, public lands officials and outdoors advocates say.
“Much of the impact we see in the outdoors can be categorized as people who are either unskilled, uninformed or under-informed,” Lawhon said. “Or they are just careless.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Jason Clay said Castlewood Canyon State Park has seen a “massive increase” in trash, adding that another “big problem” there has been bags filled with dog excrement discarded along trails.
“Golden Gate has seen an increase in trash and uneducated behavior — from graffiti and vandalism on signs, markers and facilities to illegal fires in our backcountry sites, illegal camping throughout the park and a general disrespect for the resource,” Clay said. “They have been trying to educate new visitors, but it seems as though most don’t bother to read, understand or even care about the regulations in place to protect our natural resources. Mainly, lots of selfish behavior.”
At Eldorado Canyon State Park, there has been a marked increase in weekday visitation with lots of first-time visitors, Clay said. Rangers there report an increase in litter — plastic bottles, gloves, masks and food wrappers throughout the park, including in the creek — and an increase in rescues for heat-exhausted visitors, human and canine.
“Chatfield State Park has seen an uptick in litter, but they are also at a 38% increase in visitation over its busiest year ever,” Clay said. “They said they don’t know how much of the litter is because of inexperienced visitors or just that many more people coming through. It is mostly plastic ice and shopping bags that have blown away and bottles, cans and food scraps on the shoreline. Picking up paper and cloth masks has become an everyday occurrence.”
At Cherry Creek State Park, there has been an increase in dumpster trash and roadside litter.
“Prior to COVID, the park did increase the size of its dumpster capacities, which proved to be a great decision as it is compacting the trash more often, even with the increased capacities,” Clay said. “Alcohol containers, coffee cups, water bottles and fast-food litter primarily makes up the ground litter.”
Jeffco Open Space visitor services manager Mary Ann Bonnell said she noticed an uptick in litter right after pandemic quarantines began, and a lot of that was dog-waste bags left along trails. Those problems seem to have diminished since then, Bonnell said.
“The other issue we are seeing is bagged trash being left in picnic areas next to full trash cans,” Bonnell said. “In this case, the visitor thinks they are doing the right thing by bagging trash and leaving it next to existing trash cans. But bagged trash will be too tempting for wildlife. We’ve had incidents of wildlife, likely bears, opening and rummaging through the bagged trash. This is tragic and dangerous because it teaches bears to look to picnic areas for food, which can make them a nuisance bear. Sometimes, nuisance bears end up being dangerous to humans and may be relocated or lethally managed.”
Bonnell says peer pressure can be a powerful tool to discourage misbehavior on public lands.
“I have seen visitors get after other visitors who fail to pick up trash,” Bonnell said. “In many cases, a fellow visitor saying something is more powerful than a park ranger saying something.”
Public lands continue to see huge increases in visitation. At Brainard Lake Recreation area, for example, daily visitation rates have been running two to four times more than normal despite restrictions that limit parking lots to 80% capacity.
“We know our natural places are important, now more than ever,” Lujan said. “We welcome people to come to our national forests and grasslands. There are things we need them to do while they’re out there.”
U.S. Forest Service rules governing waste and sanitation
The following are prohibited:
- Depositing in toilets, toilet vaults or plumbing fixtures any substance which could damage or interfere with the operation or maintenance of the fixture
- Possessing or leaving refuse, debris or litter in an exposed or unsanitary condition
- Placing in or near a stream, lake or other water any substance which does or may pollute a stream, lake or other water
- Failing to dispose of all garbage, including any paper, can, bottle, sewage, waste water or material, or rubbish either by removal from the site or area, or by depositing it into receptacles or at places provided for such purposes
For more guidance on being responsible in the outdoors, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has a list of “Seven Principles” with detailed explanations on its website.
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