SALT LAKE CITY — If you are thinking of heading out to the mountains to fish or camp, fire up the boat or visit Utah's red rock country, join the crowds.
Visitation is booming on public lands, from state parks to national forests and Bureau of Land Management desert country.
At the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, visitation is at 10.7 million people annually — up 20 percent over five years ago.
All these humans, however, aren't doing the land any favors when they forge new trails, cut down trees for firewood, feed the wildlife or relieve themselves in the wild.
"We have seen the impacts of the tremendous visitor use that we get on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest," said Dave Whittekiend, forest supervisor.
"There are areas where we have redundant trails. One of the most prominent examples is the trail to Timpanogos Peak with people taking short cuts. … It is a constant struggle to maintain the trail system there."
The U.S. Geological Survey is studying the science of overuse on public lands, examining tree cuts, water contamination, native and rare plants trampled underfoot, soil erosion and wildlife that grow less averse to humans.
In 2017, more than 330 million people visited national parks alone, with millions more venturing into forests and other public land.
"With so many people visiting and enjoying the great outdoors and exploring the wonders of nature off the beaten path, leaving no trace can be a real challenge,” said Jeffrey Marion, a research ecologist with the survey. “But our science can inform decisions being made across the landscape to help prevent, minimize or mitigate the effects some recreational activities are having on our wildernesses.”
The agency found, for example, that 44 percent of campground trees had been damaged in some way, and each campsite at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota had approximately 18 trees that had been cut down, primarily for firewood.
That type of damage, Marion says, significantly alters natural environments, especially wildlife habitat.
"With 2,000 campsites in Boundary Waters, that’s approximately 36,000 tree stumps in a single wilderness area,” said Marion. “Understanding the effects that campers are having on the area can help rangers develop strategies on the best way to prevent further tree loss and explore options for recovery.”
Local Forest Service rangers see the evidence left behind when campers poach live trees for firewood.
To counter human impacts, multiple agencies, national organizations and local groups are working to spread the mantra of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which teaches people to enjoy outdoor spaces responsibly and in sustainable ways.
Active land management spreads the message that collection of firewood is limited to fallen trees, and absent a park or forest service ranger, signage helps reduce damage, according to Marion.
Human-forged trails off the so-called "beaten path" are another nightmare for land management agencies.
"We identify the trails we want people to hike on. User groups and volunteers work to improve those trails or build those trails," Whittekiend said. "If they invest the time and energy, they'll encourage other users to stay on that trail."
Up Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, for example, Whittekiend said people may venture off on their own and pretty soon, a detour for one turns into a trail for thousands.
"That has impact to the watershed," and is difficult to correct, he said.
To address the trails issue, scientists are collaborating with university social scientists to investigate "sustainable" trail design guidance and actions to deter off-trail hiking.
To protect large numbers of rare plants near the Billy Goat Trail in Washington, D.C., scientists tested a variety of communication methods at formal trailheads and informal trailheads created by visitors. They put up "Don't walk here" signs and placed organic materials, like leaves, to hide unauthorized trails.
The crowds on trails can cause considerable damage. The survey said that heavy foot traffic compacts the soils, increasing water runoff and erosion. The loss of soil, the agency noted, is the most significant and long-lasting environmental impact with visitor use.
Local groups like Save Our Canyons work to minimize contamination of the watershed in the canyons by putting out a supply of baggies at trailheads for people to use for their own waste. Group leaders have said they can't keep supplies stocked.
The survey's science shows, too, that deliberative placement of campsites well away from a water source — such as 200 feet — helps prevent runoff contamination. Designing campsites with durable surfaces like rock away from vegetation also helps prevent soil erosion.
A decade ago, the survey worked with Zion National Park officials to reduce another problem, the feeding of wildlife.
In this instance, daring chipmunks along the Angel's Landing Trail were getting fat and emboldened on people's ill-advised generosity.
Wildlife feeding, either intentional or unintentional, is common in many national parks and protected areas.
The survey said the feeding can lead to "food attraction behavior" by animals that start to associate food with people. That consequence can put dangerous animals, or those that carry disease, in close proximity to people.
Animals also suffer nutritionally and become more vulnerable to predators and death by vehicle.
Researchers teamed up with park rangers and wildlife biologists. Signs and verbal messages delivered to hikers significantly reduced instances of feeding, the survey said.
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics helps agencies evaluate best practices and also provides educational courses and materials.21 comments on this story
Whittekiend said local groups in Utah that include the Boy Scouts and Back Country Horsemen have certified instructors in the "Leave No Trace" curriculum.
Every bit of guidance helps, he said, in the monumental quest to protect natural resources while providing an enjoyable outdoor experience.
"People are looking for a place to get away from all the pressures from society and life and being in the forest is a good place to do that," he said. "But we're struggling.
"It is harder and harder every year to maintain trails, keep toilets clean and keep our trailheads in good shape."