The problem has vexed public lands managers to no end: Why do people who come to enjoy their pristine beauty leave behind trash, which damages the very essence of what they came to visit in the first place.
“People throw their problems onto public lands, and then public land managers have to deal with it,” said Tom Rice, the recreation staff officer for the U.S. Forest Service’s Dolores Ranger District.
“And not only is it unsightly and bad for the environment, it diverts our attention away from more important things like improving trails and looking for more opportunities to access the forest,” he said.
The top 5The Durango Herald asked the San Juan National Forest to survey its employees to find out the top items left as trash on public lands. The results will come as no surprise to anyone who regularly hikes and camps around the area.
Coming in at No. 1, with unanimous agreement: beverage containers, including cans, glass bottles, plastic bottles and, most common, “name-brand cheap beer.”“This is especially a big issue at some of our popular party spots,” Rice said. “We will go clean up an area and weeks later someone will throw a big party and the problem returns.”
No. 2: Used toilet paper and latrine seats.Proper disposal of human waste includes finding a spot at least 200 feet from a water source, digging a hole 6 to 8 inches deep, burying it and packing out used toilet paper.
Most people don’t do that, Rice said.
The third most common littered item found on public lands is trash left in fire rings.Kathe Hayes of the San Juan Mountains Association said people try to burn things that don’t burn, like cans and aluminum foil.
“We end up with fire rings with huge amounts of trash in them,” she said.
Then, when the next round of campers come by and want a fire, they just build another fire ring, which is a major no-no according to Leave No Trace ethics, which promote minimal impact to the forest, Hayes said.
Micro-trash comes in at No. 4.Micro-trash is small items, such as the corners of food wrappers, bread bag fasteners, pieces of broken plastic, cigarette butts, batteries, etc., that cumulatively add up in a big way on forest floors.
Hayes said micro-trash littering is usually not deliberate. Instead, these little items of trash tend to fall out of pockets or off of food without our knowledge.
One way to curb the problem is to rethink how to package foods when hiking or camping, Hayes said, by simply bringing less packaging. And she said, just because certain things are biodegradable doesn’t mean it’s a free pass to throw them away.
And at No. 5, broken clay pigeons.For the unacquainted, clay pigeons are thrown into the air and used as targets for shooting practice. Rice added that where broken clay pigeons are left on the ground, there’s sure to be shells and cartridges nearby.
“It’s legal to shoot on public lands, but when you squeeze off a whole box of shells, hundreds of shells are left on the ground, and that just promotes more people leaving shells and cartridges on the ground,” he said.
Stores do sell environmentally friendly, biodegradable clay pigeons, but not everyone uses them, and even so, it takes a while for them to break down.
Big items a big problemWhile these are the top littered items, they are not, however, what cause public land managers the most trouble.
Rice said it’s the big items, such as furniture and appliances, that people dump off the side of the road that take a lot of time to clean up. And it happens on a weekly basis, he said.
“Micro-trash is unsightly and an issue, but it’s these bigger efforts where people go down a road and drop these bigger trash piles, then we have to deal with them,” he said.
On occasion, Rice said, the culprits are caught and ticketed. It’s not unusual for violators to be found by going through their trash and finding letters or documents with their names and addresses, he said.
It’s hard to know why people dump trash on public lands, Hayes said. Perhaps it’s an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.
“People don’t want to deal with their trash, so as soon as it leaves their person, they don’t have to think about it anymore,” she said. “Some trash is mindless and thoughtless, but other times, people don’t want to deal with it and they throw it out.”
Hayes said the San Juan Mountains Association has various educational efforts to help curb the issue and even offers hikes to pick up trash throughout the year. It’s an uphill battle, she said, but a worthwhile one.
“After 21 years or so of handing out this same message, it can be discouraging when you keep seeing it, but I feel like the only way to help solve it is to keep educating,” she said.
Curious litterThe Forest Service provided the Herald with some of the strangest items employees have found:
A complete set of false teeth sitting on a tree stump.People camping north of Dolores set up a free-range chicken operation, along with a pony.A picture of a woman left at a campsite that had the word “ex-wife” written on it.Hunters who leave their entire camp behind, thinking the cost of a hunting license includes cleanup service of the camp.A freezer full of rotten meat that was tossed sometime in the late winter and found in the spring.A full-sized fiberglass port-a-potty in a boulder field on the Beaver Slope Road.Old shelving units, cabinets, plumbing, etc. from a kitchen remodelA stuffed dog or coyote.An RV.A “wide array of items, personal and otherwise, in abandoned transient camps are probably a category all to themselves.”A sleeping bag in a toilet vault.And one time, Hayes’ “Leave No Trace” hat fell into the Animas River, and she wasn’t able to catch it.“I thought, ‘Oh brother, someone’s going to find that,’” she joked.