Trails for everyone, forever
At the very moment when public lands need passionate hikers as advocates, more people are falling in love with Washington’s backcountry trails. But decades of budget cuts have wreaked havoc on backcountry infrastructure, creating problems with no easy solution. Managing poop, it turns out, is one of those problems | By Loren Drummond
“The most difficult thing with finding a new place to put a toilet is not accidentally digging into previous years’ toilets,” said Madi Hatfield, the U.S. Forest Service crew leader for the Darrington District on Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, standing hip deep in a hole she had dug at remote White Pass in Glacier Peak Wilderness. “Three years ago, here, I was digging and the corner of my hole hit an old hole, and it was not decomposed. It looked like regular poop.”
Moving privy sites is physical work, and Madi and four others had three toilets to dig and move in a day. It was late July, and the three backcountry toilets in the sprawling meadow of established campsites were full — not-safe-to-sit-down full.
“It’s become a huge problem,” said Bridget Wisniewski, a forestry technician for the Forest Service who has been working on the Darrington Ranger District since 1988.
A popular climbing route, and located along the Pacific Crest Trail, White Pass is a high-traffic area, and the toilets fill up every year. But at White Pass, and many other areas around the state, land managers are running out of places to relocate backcountry privies. Chronic funding cuts to public lands, coupled with a burgeoning interest in visiting our state’s backcountry, are compounding the problem.
“You can’t be moving a toilet every year,” said Bridget. “You’re going to run out of real estate.”
For decades, national forests and parks have taken the approach of locating privies near a grouped set of sites in hopes of concentrating human waste and reducing its impact on the environment. But convincing hikers to go where you want them to is only the first step in managing backcountry waste, explains Geoff Hill, a climber-turned-scientist who earned his Ph.D. researching backcountry waste management after learning that a former pit toilet site in Rocky Mountain National Park had barely decomposed after 40 years. According to Geoff, you also have to decide what to do with that waste.
In some areas, pit toilets are capped, with the waste buried in place. But spurred in part by lack of space, and in part by environmental concerns, national parks are moving away from pit toilets and toward vaults, which store human waste before it can be removed from the parks. At Seven Lakes Basin, a popular backcountry camp in Olympic National Park, there’s a lineup of waste containers behind the central privy, each waiting their turn.
In Washington’s iconic Enchantments region in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the Forest Service also removes some hiker waste by helicopter. At the end of last season, 19 vault toilets from five sites, each full of 40 gallons of human excrement, were flown out of the Enchantments. Rangers also buried 532 piles of human waste found on the ground.
In some parks, waste is packed out by rangers or pack animals. Many areas, however, aren’t suited to a pack-out program, Geoff says. And, Bridget explains, even getting pack support for basic trail work grows more difficult and expensive as forest roads deteriorate; the horse trailers or waste vacuum trucks for trailhead toilets simply can’t negotiate the roads safely. Removing waste from high-use backcountry sites takes resources. And resources are in shorter and shorter supply these days.
In Washington, people love to spend time in nature. And more people are doing it; hiking is up 50 percent across the country in the last decade. Hiking is good for us, mentally and physically. It’s also good for our economy. The state recreation economy generates 201,000 direct jobs and $21.6 billion in consumer spending. (The total benefits outpace the aerospace industry.) But to support more hikers — and the many benefits they represent — public lands need serious investment.
It would cost roughly $900 million to bring the trails, facilities and roads on state and federal lands up to standard. The maintenance backlog numbers are so large as to become abstract, but they represent the most basic things: trails, roads, bridges, signs — and yes, toilets.
In May, the Forest Service announced a list of seasonal facilities closures, including 14 toilets on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, such as at the Sauk Mountain and McClellan Butte trailheads. Without the funding to keep popular trailhead toilets open, poop will become more of a problem, especially in popular, delicate areas.
“It’s the number two management problem on the forest,” said Sarah Lange, outdoor recreation planner with the Forest Service, with her tongue firmly in cheek.
Places like White Pass are running out of room. Moving vaults of hazardous waste over wilderness by helicopter is expensive and dangerous. Hydrologists on the forest are growing concerned about water quality. Near Lake Ann on Mount Baker, Sarah reports that waste isn’t decomposing in some old pit sites.
Everyone seems to accept that backcountry sites need a new solution — and fast.
Geoff thinks waste separation is at least one part of the solution facing public lands. If you can divert urine (a relatively benign waste product that most alpine environments can handle), the problem of poop becomes much simpler.
Without urine, poop and paper dry out, making it lighter to remove, less likely to leach into water sources and easier for microorganisms to reduce. Introducing invertebrates from nearby soil —even at altitudes with short summer seasons — in a urine-diverting toilet can drastically break down and reduce the total volume of poop, meaning dramatically less maintenance. Plus, it smells less.
Keeping urine and solids separate is more complicated than it sounds. Designing a toilet to separate liquids and solids, while fitting all ages and body types and surviving in the backcountry without regular clogs and breakdowns, is tricky.
Geoff found the solution high in the French Alps, in a toilet design that utilized a simple pedal-powered conveyor belt to allow liquid to drain off the front while pushing solids off the back. Geoff’s small Seattle-based company, Toilet Tech, imported the model and has been installing them in U.S. and British Columbia parks with promising results. There’s one at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon that’s been up and running since 2015, and Geoff estimates it will allow the park to go from emptying a 4-foot-by-8-foot vault three times a year to once every 10 or 15 years. The park reports that nearby non urine-diverting toilets have generated more than 30,000 pounds of waste in five years. In the same period, the Toilet Tech system has produced no waste that had to be disposed of.
Situated in a jaw-dropping alpine basin off the Mountain Loop Highway, Gothic Basin is seeing record numbers of visitors, including backpackers. They’re drawn to the basin’s beauty, with dramatic stone slabs, tarns and delicate heather meadows — terrain that makes it more than challenging for hikers to dispose of their own human waste sans toilet.
“(I) went up to Gothic Basin to watch the Perseid meteor shower Sunday night,” wrote trip reporter jadrew last August. “The human waste situation at the basin is out of control. People have been crapping anywhere and everywhere. Much of the ground in this area is rocky and it is often difficult/impossible to bury your waste, so be prepared to pack out your poop.”
That may be changing. At the end of the 2018 summer season, DNR, the state agency that manages Gothic Basin flew in a urine-diverting toilet by helicopter. It was installed near a cluster of well-established campsites in the summer of 2019.
One toilet won’t address all the infrastructure needs for a place like Gothic Basin, but it’s an experiment that other backcountry managers are watching closely.
Farther north, another pilot project is taking a different approach.
Last year, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest started requesting anyone hiking above 4,000 feet around Artist Point and Mount Baker to use the “blue bag” or “WAG bag” system. Rather than placing toilets near established camps or helicoptering out more vaults, the Forest Service is asking people to take responsibility for removing their own poop from the backcountry.
Forest officials hopes the pack-out program will take pressure off of the pit toilet system, especially at places like iconic Lake Ann, which have no locations for new pits at an appropriate distance from water. The pilot project is also trying to determine what it will take to stop surface pooping and get toilet paper “blooms” off of fragile landscapes.
Geoff is skeptical that a blue-bag model can work well in a place like Mount Baker without more infrastructure to restrict points of access, as well as massive investment in education and enforcement. Where it works best, he found in his research, is in places like Denali National Park, where rangers can educate and monitor compliance from a small number of access points — and heavily enforce the rules. It’s hard to convince people to carry out their waste if they don’t have to.
Sarah knows the Forest Service has an uphill battle for adoption at Mount Baker. Tens of thousands of people visit Artist Point, though most of those don’t stray far from the parking lot. Backcountry use is harder to estimate, but she knows it’s way up, even in winter. And not all of those winter users responsibly pack out their waste either.
"Don’t go in the snow,” Sarah said. “You’re pooping in water.”
Starting last fall, after scraping together funding, the agency added signs and staff to educate hikers. But it will be a big lift to normalize the idea of picking up your own poop and packing it out. Plus, all that poop piles up in trash cans at trailheads, which need to be bear- and wildlife-proof.
The challenges facing the blue bag program beg the question: Could Geoff’s toilet design be a better solution for Lake Ann or White Pass? Maybe, but the Forest Service doesn’t have a lot of funding to play with. And each privy site needs to contend with site-specific challenges like wilderness regulations or winter conditions. (Mount Baker has some of the biggest and heaviest snow loads in the lower 48.)
In the end, whether the solution to backcountry waste is massive hiker education and enforcement of a broader blue-bag program or deployment of enough urine-diverting toilets to make a difference, everything comes back to one thing: money.
Public lands were established for the public to visit and enjoy, as well as to protect resources like our drinking water supply, ecosystems and wildlife. And they just may be an important tool in solving our public health and economic challenges. Ignoring (and defunding) unsexy infrastructure like backcountry waste management (or trails or road fixes), threatens all of those purposes.
This could be a watershed moment if more hikers support and get involved with organizations like WTA that are working to restore funding to public lands.
And the next time you’re hiking, use existing toilets. If no toilets are available, dig a proper 6-inch cathole and bury your waste or pack it out. Just don’t be a surface pooper.
What's your favorite view from a privy in Washington?