SALT LAKE CITY — With the COVID-19 pandemic driving so many people to the great outdoors in Utah, the great outdoors is becoming not so great in some instances.
At Zion National Park’s Narrows, a ranger cleared out 14 pounds of debris — of which 9 pounds was human waste.
The ranger said he’d never seen the graffiti so egregious in an area covering just under a mile that was marred with more than 1,000 handprints or etchings on the rock walls.
“While it hurts to see such a beautiful and unique place treated like this, I feel honored I have the responsibility to protect it,” the employee’s report said.
Part of the problem was lack of ranger patrols for the canyon’s Virgin River and people failing to heed signs to avoid the water due to high levels of toxins or cyanobacteria that can sicken people and domestic animals. The visiting public did not heed the signs to stay out and instead decided to leave their own print on the landscape protected under federal law.
The Narrows’ condition was dismaying to leaders of The Zion Forever Project, the park’s philanthropic partner.
“This year has challenged all of us, and places like Zion are essential to uplifting us in these difficult times. The Zion Forever Project, as the park’s official nonprofit partner, works side by side with the National Park Service to conserve these lands,” said Lyman Hafen, the project’s executive director.
“When the land is mistreated or marred with graffiti, while devastating, we are only strengthened in our resolve to educate the public about responsible land use, and to ensure the Zion experience remains intact for future generations.”
National park officials, state park managers, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management all have been overwhelmed this year with dramatic increases in visitation while at the same time tasked with caring for the land with flat budgets or even a bottom line that has seen sharp reductions.
Cedar Breaks National Monument, as an example, saw a 35% increase in visitors from 2019 to 2020, and visitation at Zion National Park has more than doubled in the last decade.
While some land managers or volunteer conservation organizations offer wag bags for people — a zip-lock bag to contain feces for proper disposal later — visitors often ignore them or supplies quickly run out.
Even bathrooms at the base of popular hiking trails in the Wasatch Canyons, for example, can become quickly overwhelmed with land managers struggling to keep toilet paper supplies on hand.
Like their counterparts at the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management is seeing similar resource degradation this year due to high visitor counts.
“We do not have any statistics to verify our observations, but we have noted that some of the resource issues associated with high visitation, such as improperly disposed human waste and litter, have been more widespread than normal this year on public lands,” said BLM Utah spokeswoman Kimberly Finch.
This fall, the agency launched a new social media campaign to help drive awareness of taking better care of public lands.
The campaign uses the hashtag #leaveitbetterUtah to address some of what BLM employees are seeing on the ground.
Multiple social media postings detail dumpsters surrounded by litter on the ground, abandoned campsites full of discarded belongings or campfire rings filled to the brim with debris, all of which can cost thousands to clean up.
Earlier this year the BLM discovered an abandoned camper vehicle with household trash on public lands in southern Utah.
The federal agency tracked down the owner, who was charged with hazardous materials dumping and other related offenses.
The bill for removing the abandoned camper came to approximately $13,000, and the suspect was fined and banned from public lands for a year due to being a repeat offender.
The issue of human waste is also a problem for the BLM, which discovered an illegal sewage dump on the lands it manages.
Improperly disposed of human waste is a health hazard, can contaminate water, spread disease and is just plain unsightly for the next visitor to come along.
Finch said fines start at $250 for illegal sewage disposal on BLM lands.
The website, gottagoutah.org offers information on how to properly dispose of human waste.