A Dirty Issue: waste management is worsening at national and state parks

A view from a pathway at Crater Lake national park, southern Oregon. Photo by Aly Ambler

With the growing number of tourists at national and state parks, the waste management system is struggling to keep up.

By Charlie Ambler

Matt Olhen travels down a long, dirt strip of trail. He is heading towards the south corridor at Yellowstone national park. Around a quarter way into his journey he stops dead in his tracks.

“Looks like someone forgot their lunch,” said Olhen as he pulled a plastic bag filled to the brim with discarded granola bar wrappers and soda cans from a large crevice in a rock just off the main trail.

In 2018, Yellowstone recycled, composted, and sent to landfill 4,117 tons of waste. “It is plain and simple: this is not sustainable,” said Olhen.

When thinking about tourists at America’s parks, waste management may be the first thing that someone would think of as a problem facing these parks. Correct. It is one of the worst issues, and one of the most widely-known problems. Then why is it only getting worse?

“I would say that trash and human waste are issues that are probably the most widely known around the world. Erosion and bad-behavior coming from the tourists are not as talked about. This leads me to my next question: if waste is a widely known problem amongst the public, why is it a growing problem?,” said Dr. Stephen McCool. 

Over-tourism has led to an unstoppable production of waste. When speaking about waste, “there are two subsections,” said Olhen. 

Olhen has dealt with waste management at Yellowstone for nearly 10 years since joining the National Park Service. “There is litter and trash and then there is human excrement. Urine and that kind of stuff. Wastewater treatment plants at national and state parks take care of that, while trash from tourists, whether it was thrown on the ground or properly disposed of, is another subsection of waste.”

When discussing the first subsection of waste management at parks, retired Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk made it clear that with tourists, comes the prospect of “vandalism.” 

Recently, Yosemite national park received what is widely known as a ‘facelift.’ It is the process of cleaning up a certain section of a park, with a high intensity. After the 2015 facelift of Yosemite, it yielded over 20,000 pounds of poorly-disposed trash. When asked what he made of the recent facelifts, Wenk replied: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force it to take a sip.”

“When it comes to litter, purposely thrown onto the ground or accidentally. When it comes to defecation in an inappropriate, unsanctioned area, that is all vandalism. You are given areas to go to the bathroom. You are given trash cans and bags to carry trash until you find a can. If you do not comply with those orders, it is vandalism, and plain, ignorant behavior,” said Wenk.

On the other hand, human waste such as wastewater and portable toilets, are the second subsection to waste management. 

Professor Richard Butler at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow,  stated that waste management such as sewage, should be a top concern. 

Crater Lake national park, southern Oregon. Photo by Aly Ambler

“You look at the risks stemming from this over-tourism, and you can see it just pounding away at disposal systems. They are becoming obsolete because it is growing at a faster rate than even what the engineers were expecting years ago when building these systems of disposal,” said Professor Butler. “There has been an education effort when it comes to properly disposing of trash. But, even with proper disposal, comes the issue of what to do with it, you know?”

“Littering is one thing. But actual waste produced and maintained properly by us… that is a whole nother beast,” said Yellowstone park ranger, Ohlen. 

The National Park Service has made efforts in order to keep up with the growing size of visitors each year at a variety of national and state parks, yet a majority of the time, their actions are futile. 

“Let’s run numbers here. A normal group size is about three, and you have about 5, 000 hotel rooms and campgrounds. You have about 15, 000 people right there staying overnight at Yellowstone. Then you look at employees. You have probably 5,000 employees between the concessions and  National Park service people. So you have an overnight of 10,000 employees plus 15,000 guests. That is over 20,000 people just overnight,” said Wenk.

“During the day, we look at 10-15 thousand day visitors. That is an incredible amount of trash. Parks are quite literally  small cities, but not as integrated because it is a bloody park,” said Professor Butler. 

Dealing with the issue of waste management and wastewater management systems is difficult as the geological terrain at state and national parks make it nearly impossible to properly pump, and dispose of it like a city such as Boston would be able to.

“Thinking in terms of a city. There are at least 10 wastewater treatment plants. We have to do these in individual, developed areas because you cannot send the waste water out, and you have to make your own water.  You cannot send your waste water out via pipes. If you open a fire pipe field with water, well that will blow steam for about an hour.” said Wenk.

Parks cannot simply pump wastewater out of the park because pipes and their constant pressure would cause catastrophic damage. Further, you cannot have the wastewater sitting in the park’s designated areas for too long.

There are current solutions. “You have garbage trucks and pump trucks running back and forth. It is like a small city, and all its aspects. But in a world of the unknown,” said Wenk.

A powerful solution that parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite follow would be recycling water and the proper disposal of their physical trash.

In 2018, Data accumulated by the National Park Service showed that Yellowstone diverted 34 percent of its trash to recycling methods, 18 percent of its trash was sent to compost facilities, and 48 percent was sent to landfills.

“Our park rules with waste management must get a bit more strict in the future. But as of right now, we are stuck. It worries me,” said Wenk.