More people are camping, hiking and fishing. But it comes with a cost
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.