Every year, over 270 million people visit national parks throughout the US.[1] Of that number, 73.3 million are hikers, 43.1 million are single-track mountain bikers, and 4.3 million are horseback riders.[2] Many people enjoy the outdoors every year, and yet the average number of rural acres lost to city expansion is about 1 million annually.[3][4] The result is that many popular areas are increasingly overcrowded and worn down. The combined effects of millions of environmentally-destructive outdoor visits contributes to a seriously degraded outdoor experience for all.[5]

Outdoor loos

Human waste is one of the most common backcountry management issues faced by the US National Park Service.[6] Popular outdoor areas are increasingly overcrowded with evidence of people, horses, tents, and campfires. Consider the combined effects of millions of outdoor visitors. One poorly located toilet may have little significance, but thousands of such instances seriously degrade the outdoor experience for all.[5]

Human waste can pollute fresh water streams and lakes, spreading disease and harming native wildlife and other humans.[7] Campers and scientists alike used to believe that solid human waste became innocuous in a short period of time, but studies have shown that fecal matter can contain pathogens even one year after original burial. Disease can spread laterally through soil and water from these sites.[8][9]

Blazing through green

Humans are responsible for half of all forest fires every year.[10] Over 3 million acres of land were destroyed by human-caused wildfires in 2007 throughout the US.[11] The effects of wildfires on animals, birds, insects, and plants can be dire.[12] Flames and heat will kill the eggs and young of many animals, but especially those of invertebrates and microorganisms. Fires can also remove the vegetation along streams and rivers, which in turn increases erosion and sedimentation, leading to many other ecosystem problems.[13]

Fighting fires is an extremely expensive endeavor, costing approximately $1 billion annually.[14] And the costs are set to increase with long-term droughts. Global warming is also playing a role in the increased wildfires. Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that there was a four-fold increase in the number of wildfires beginning in the mid-1980s compared to the 1970s and early 1980s. The total area burned also increased six and a half times and the fire season lengthened by 64 percent. Scripps researchers have attributed these increases to the rise in global climate change.[15] Conversely, wildfires also compound climate change by releasing billions of tons of carbon held in trees and other vegetation. What’s more, forest fires add polluting gases and particulate matter to the atmosphere, which can be carried to far flung cities, contributing to smog.[16][17]

Flushing out dirty soaps

Commercial soaps usually contain ingredients that are harmful to your body[18] and the environment.[19] Most soap, including soaps used by campers for personal cleansing and dishwashing, contain phosphates.[20] Phosphates are nutrients to all living organisms, especially algae. When phosphates in products enter waterways they cause the algae population to grow, turning the water green, denying it oxygen, and causing the death of other aquatic plants and fish. And while there are biodegradable soaps, they only break down into their separate ingredients, which is not sufficient when those ingredients are composed of toxic or harmful chemicals and compounds. As a result, soap-free cleaning methods are recommended for camping excursions whenever possible.[21]

Indiscriminate harvesting

The earth’s biodiversity is at risk—one in eight plants worldwide are currently listed as threatened or near extinction.[22] Biodiversity is an often overlooked component of planetary health. The dizzying array of plants on the planet is the result of 3.8 billion years of evolution. Plants make all life possible, provide the basis of every ecosystem, and can resist almost any destructive threat except humans.[23]

Although species loss is part of the earth’s natural system, human activity (including damage from outdoor recreation and indiscriminate picking) has bumped the extinction rate up 100-fold[24] to levels rivaling the five mass extinctions of past geologic history. Genetic diversity helps plants endure harsh environments and enables them to compete with weeds, and thereby survive.[25] When one plant species becomes extinct, it can contribute to the disappearance of up to 30 other plant species and wildlife.[26] Today, 21 percent of all medicinal plants are at risk of being lost—that’s about 15,000 species in all.[27] "We are living in an era when our great-grandchildren may live in a world in which more than half of the plant species that exist now will be known only as specimens," said Dr. Peter Raven, a world leader in plant conservation, who presented his findings at the Sixteenth International Botanical Congress.[25]

Talking trash

Many assume that leaving food scraps behind in the wild is an acceptable practice, since this kind of garbage will biodegrade in time. However, neither burying nor burning organic waste, like orange peels and eggshells, will adequately break down the food. Inevitably this type of trash attracts animals, making them dependent on humans,[28]and resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to park equipment and vehicles every year.[29] Discarded trash may also suffocate and kill rare and endangered plants by depriving them of light and water.[30] Finally, campsite garbage can injure and even kill wildlife. Every year, 100,000 marine mammals and turtles die from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic debris.[31]

Related health issues

Exposing children to activities in nature before the age of 11 is also strongly correlated to both stronger environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood, according to a recent Cornell University study.[32] Spending time outdoors has even been shown to reduce ADHD symptoms,[33] increase academic performance, and improve health.[34]


Aren’t forest fires natural?

Forest fires certainly are natural occurrences, especially when started by lightning. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture's Forest Service manages fire through a combination of prevention, suppression, and structured burns to effectively prevent damaging wildfires.[35][36] These controlled fires have the added benefit of thinning out dense vegetation and clutter, modifying habitat structure, and managing various plant communities that thrive after fire conditions.[37] However, unintentional wildfires generally tend to be much hotter than controlled fires, burning many thousands more acres of land and destroying critical wildlife habitat in the process. Therefore, campers should exercise caution at all times when lighting fires in parks and campgrounds.[38]


  • biodiversity: Biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals.

External links


  1. US National Park Service - Doing Business with the National Park Service
  2. National Trails Training Partnership
  3. Leave No Trace Tracker Newsletter - Spring 2000: Index Page 5
  4. E/The Environmental Magazine - Selling Off the Parks
  5. American Camp Association - Reducing Your Impact
  6. US National Park Service - Backcountry Recreation Management: Backcountry Recreational Use Management Issues and Strategies
  7. Leave No Trace - Human waste
  8. Sustainable Tourism - Human Waste Contamination at Huts and Campsites in the Back Country of Tasmania: Impacts of the Burial of Human Toilet Waste on Vegetation and Soils Around Huts and Campsites Page 17
  9. National Outdoor Leadership School - Camp Hygiene
  10. Nomadik Outdoor Life Guide - Smokey the Bear was Right
  11. US National Interagency Fire Center - Fire Information: Wildland Fire Statistics
  12. British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Lands - Fire Effects on Livestock and Wildlife
  13. US National Interagency Fire Center - Fact Sheets: Fire Effects on Wildlife/Fauna
  14. Environment News Service - Global Warming Linked to Increase in Western US Wildfires
  15. Scripps Institution of Oceanography - Warming Climate Plays Large Role in Western U.S. Wildfires, Scripps-led Study Shows
  16. Environmental Science & Technology Online - Wildfires contribute to climate change
  17. NASA Earth Observatory - Tracking Nature’s Contribution to Pollution
  18. Consumer Reports GreenerChoices - Personal care products: Buying guide 2/06
  19. TreeHugger - There's a Frog Disrupter in my Soap
  20. Wildnerness Medical Society - An Analysis of Wilderness Water in Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks for Coliform and Pathologic Bacteria: Total Bacterial Counts
  21. TreeHugger - Q&A: Wilderness Body Cleaning
  22. BGCI - Major Threats to Plant Diversity
  23. Rocky Mountain Institute - A Tale of Two Botanies
  24. Green Facts - Biodiversity: What are the current trends in biodiversity?
  25. Advancing Science, Serving Society - World's biodiversity becoming extinct at levels rivaling Earth's past 'mass extinctions'
  26. The Native Plant Conservation Campaign - Wild plants and the wild places they live — will they be here for our children?
  27. United Plant Savers - Medicinal Plant Conservation Award
  28. US National Park Service - Science and Nature: Bear Behavior “Clues”
  29. REI - Camp/Hike Expert Advice: Reasons for Using Bear-Resistant Food Containers
  30. Colorado Fourteeners Initiative - Waste Disposal: Pack It In, Pack It Out
  31. Ideal Bite - Does litter bug you out?
  32. Cornell University - Cornell Chronicle: Camping, hiking and fishing in the wild as a child breeds respect for environment in adults Page 9
  33. Project NatureConnect - Alternative Educating Counseling and Healing With Nature: Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder
  34. Children and Nature 2008 - A Report on the Movement to Reconnect Children to the Natural World: Research-Based Indicators Of The Decline Of Children’s Physical Activity Outdoors And Related Concerns Page 15
  35. US Forest Service - Fire Use
  36. US Forest Service - Fire policy and reports, programs and priorities
  37. University of Florida - Effects of Fire on Florida's Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat
  38. Wildlife Conservation Society - Forest Fires and Wildlife