Poop on public lands a problem in Montana

By: - April 29, 2022 5:41 pm

The trail to the Grinnell Overlook was busy one day in July, as was all of Glacier National Park, in 2021. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

“Go before you go.”

That’s the advice Glacier National Park’s Bradley Blickhan has for hikers heading up a trail. Translation? Go to the bathroom before you go on your adventure.

“We have a staff of wilderness rangers, and part of their job is to take care of these structures,” Blickhan said. “But we’re finding it used to be a structure gets visited once a week, every two weeks, and cleaning wasn’t that bad.

“And (now), we go back the next day, and it’s destroyed.”

Earlier this week, Outside Magazine published a story called “Outdoor Poop Etiquette Is Changing (You’re Probably Not Going to Like It).” It talked about the mounting pressure more people — more poopers — are putting on public lands, and the growing problem of human waste in the woods.

View from Ptarmigan Tunnel in Glacier National Park. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

If a latrine is especially ripe, people might squat behind it, and hikers might do their business just off a trail instead. But Outside Magazine notes part of the problem is human waste doesn’t easily break down in a “cat hole,” which Montana researchers found as early as 1982, and outdoor enthusiasts are seeing more unburied waste and even toilet paper littered on popular trails.

In Montana, Glacier has seen a record number of travelers in recent years, with total annual visits topping 3 million, and more people are visiting state parks and other public lands as well. In 2020, Montana State Parks saw its highest ever number of visitors, at 3.4 million, nearly reached again in 2021, but a 28 percent increase from 2019, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“We are seeing lots of different kinds of impacts from more outdoor recreation use on the landscape,” said FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon in an email. “Human waste is certainly one we deal with and hear about.”

Glacier: 1 million acres, 10 crew members

Glacier counts more than 100 toilet “structures” in the wilderness and backcountry, probably too many given the resources available to take care of them, Blickhan said. In the park of 1 million acres, just 10 workers have regular jobs that include cleaning the latrines, he said, and national parks are perpetually underfunded for maintenance.

“There’s really no dedicated funding to take care of them,” said Blickhan, with Glacier some 30 years.

These days, more people with less experience in the outdoors are using the bathrooms too, and that can exacerbate problems. The only things that are supposed to go into a pit toilet in the woods are human waste and toilet paper, for instance, but Blickhan said some hikers toss trash inside, and that means grizzly bears visit.

“The bears dig up a lot of them, so there’s some work there,” he said.

The National Park Service counts roughly $12 billion in deferred maintenance for roads, buildings, and utility systems across the country, but Blickhan said those are the items that get attention, not the latrines.

“Because it’s not the big-ticket items, it doesn’t reach that same critical mass,” said Blickhan, wilderness and wild and scenic river coordinator. “But it’s still really important. What’s the long-term effect?”

Long-term effect includes contamination

More gastrointestinal discomfort might be one.

The Outside story noted a recent study of the San Juan River, which runs through several Western states, showed that in some places, E. coli associated with human waste was nearly 12 times higher than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. More fecal matter means more related bacteria, and another study cited by Outside found “fecal indicator bacteria” in sand, and another report said beachgoers who played in sand were more likely to get sick.

Already, people are supposed to pack out human waste when camping along “wild and scenic rivers,” the North Fork and Middle Fork of the Flathead, Blickhan said. He said the Park Service and U.S. Forest Service have the same regulation.

“Solid human waste must be self-contained and packed out to an approved disposal site during overnight stays at locations without toilet facilities,” reads the regulation, in part. It noted a “disposable biodegradable bag toilet system” as one option, as did the Outside story, which described a “WAG bag,” a setup with typically a bag for a toilet, some TP, hand sanitizer, and crystals that “render human waste inert and minimize the smell.”

On the consumer end, outfitter REI has been carrying more products related to packing out human waste, especially since the pandemic pushed more people outside, said Dania Rinker, with the distribution center in Sumner, Washington. Rinker said more and more related products are coming on the market, and items related to human waste are among those REI frequently discusses in its free “virtual outfitting” sessions.

There certainly is more interest,” said Rinker, in REI customer service. ” I feel like people are becoming more aware that it is actually a concern.”

Lemon said if people are at an FWP site, the agency would like them to use the facilities. At this point, FWP is continuing to recommend that in the mountains or away from a facility, people bury human waste “to reduce environmental impacts and the impacts to others.”

“We are looking at implementing a human waste pack out rule on the Smith River. The corridor that people float is actually a state park,” Lemon said. “Human waste management has been a big deal in the park over the years.”

Testing for the future

In Glacier, Blickhan is hoping to get ahead of any problems. He reached out to the National Park Service’s water quality division with a question about how surface and groundwater might be affected by E. coli, and he said park officials will be designing a pilot protocol for testing to begin this summer.

Especially in Glacier, with its short season and lack of soil microbes at deep levels, human waste doesn’t necessarily break down, he said. (He said the short season is one reason that composting isn’t a great way to handle waste in Glacier either.) 

“Hopefully, we’re setting up a system for the future,” he said. 

They plan to test at Avalanche Lake, Iceberg Lake, and Virginia Falls. Last year, Glacier counted its highest number of visits year-to-date through May, with 294,742, and Blickhan said the trail to Avalanche Lake is popular and can see 2,700 visitors a day in the summer.

“I am worried about groundwater, surface water,” Blickhan said. “We may not have a problem, but I want to get ahead of them (if we do).”

People frequently suggest flying out waste, he said, and the park does so from Granite and Sperry chalets. However, he said helicopters are costly and cause motorized impacts, and preparing barrels of waste to be flown is labor intensive: “So that’s not really a long term, viable solution.”

In the meantime, Glacier Public Affairs Officer Gina Kerzman said the park encourages people to plan ahead, whether it be for the drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road or for those times on the trail when nature calls between facilities. At the very least, she suggested people carry a Ziploc bag in order to pack out their toilet paper, if not their deposits.

“That makes it so much more pleasant for everybody that’s visiting the park,” Kerzman said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

MORE FROM AUTHOR