Deep in the fragrant pine and spruce of the Pike National Forest, there's a trail painted with emerald-colored moss and paved with slivers of mica. A clear, cold stream bubbles nearby and birds chat merrily from the trees.
It's a tiny piece of paradise that gives hikers the feeling it's a place that they alone have discovered.
Then they look down and see it: a plastic water bottle.
If there's a universal symbol of man's intrusion on nature, it has to be the disposable water bottle. On public lands, discarding plastic water bottles alongside a trail in a campground has become the equivalent of recording your presence by carving your initials in a tree. The bottles are snared in bushes and wash up at the edges of streams and rivers. They fill the bowels of outhouses and portable toilets in campgrounds and are partially buried in graves of ash in fire rings.
In 2007, according to the Earth Policy Institute, our consumption of bottled water was astronomical almost 200 20-ounce bottles per person. Some of those bottles are recyclable. All are disposable. Few are biodegradable. And when they're empty, they get in the way, rolling around on the floors of our cars and taking up space in our coolers and our backpacks. So what do we do?
"Pitch them. They just pitch those bottles," says Gail Allen. "Those damn bottles."
In the 1980s, Allen, from Colorado Springs, began working on eroded parts of Barr Trail. Along the way, she started Trail Dogs, a volunteer maintenance group. Its members still watch over the trail like anxious parents.
Allen cursed plastic bottles for years on Barr, but saw much more: energy bar wrappers, orange and banana peels, Red Bull cans, blossoms of used toilet paper. The trail, estimated to welcome 15,000 to 20,000 hikers, runners and mountain bikers each year, isn't exactly a garbage dump, but it does offer a glimpse of the way people treat public lands.
"There's a general lack of respect," says Frank Landis, recreation program manager for the Pikes Peak Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. "There are so many people who don't think it's a privilege to have access to public lands, but a right."
And there are so many people out there. According to a 2007 National Recreation Survey, one-half of all Coloradans say they hike. One-third go camping. A 2003 Forest Service survey showed that across the country, 56.3 million camped at developed sites; 33.9 million camped at primitive sites; and 62 million went freshwater fishing. Compare those numbers to a 1960 Forest Service survey that showed between 10 and 14 million people camping.
Those kinds of numbers work against the considerable gains made by campaigns such as Leave No Trace, known for its "Take only pictures; leave only footprints" slogan.
"There's an increase in pressure from population growth, especially in the Colorado Springs area, where the forest has 180 miles of common boundary with the city," Landis says.
Combine the population with easy access, and you get destruction.
"There are people who are taking chain saws and cutting illegal motorized trails between their subdivisions into the forest," Landis says. Trees are getting shot down in recreational shooting. Household trash is being dumped in draws and canyons. And OHVs [off-highway vehicles] are creating unauthorized routes, busting everything to pieces in the forest."
OHV use of public lands has exploded in popularity in the past decade. The vehicles ATVs, dirt bikes, dune buggies, UTVs (larger, two-passenger ATVs) and pocket bikes (miniature off-road motorcycles) are licensed by the Colorado Department of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. Last season, 121,000 OHVs were registered. This season, that number has increased by nearly 10,000.
Today, OHV use is one of the most contentious issues concerning public lands. OHV clubs around the state schedule trail maintenance workdays into their activity schedules, and a statewide group, the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, promotes responsible use through education. But OHV drivers can cause more damage more quickly because of the weight and size of their vehicles.
The way some of them abuse public lands frustrates many in their ranks, says Chuck Wells of Monument, author of popular four-wheel-drive and ATV guidebooks.
"I feel very strongly about staying on the trail," he says, "and I feel frustrated when I see the damage done by people who have no sense whatsoever."
Wells says he often talks with people who are flagrantly violating forest rules. So does Landis when he heads out on patrol each weekend.
"We continue to try to educate people," he says. The agency installs educational kiosks at key points, "and they get vandalized. We put them up again, and they get vandalized again."
A shot-out kiosk. A campground Dumpster that's the final resting place for a rusted refrigerator, water heater and a pair of truck tires. A pit toilet filled with a stew of human waste and garbage including plastic bottles that must be separated by hand.
Those are the everyday realities for John Mayns and his crew. Mayns is regional manager for Rocky Mountain Recreation Co., the private concessionaire hired by the forest service. Under Mayns' watch, RMR is responsible for 57 developed campgrounds and more than 25 day-use areas in the Pikes Peak, South Platte and San Carlos ranger districts of Pike National Forest.
Its employees work as camp hosts and perform maintenance duties, but Mayns says taking care of trash consumes much of their time.
"Plastic bags and bottles are the worst," he says. "Then add in potato chip bags, Coke cans, anything you drink out of."
Campground rings are routinely piled with charred cans, glass shards, eggshells and plastic that melts into lumps. Dumpsters hold the detritus of discarded camp food, tent boxes and bent camp chairs.
During the summer months, Dumpsters are installed at Forest Service campgrounds. Some campgrounds have pit toilets; others have portable toilets. Still, campers avoid the toilets, instead relieving themselves in campground parking lots or in the trees just beyond their campsite, leaving behind ribbons of toilet paper that turn to mush in the rain. And the pit toilets are often used as convenient trash bins, Mayns says.
"There's a pit toilet by Indian Creek off Rampart Range Road. When a man goes in to pump out that bathroom, he gets 10 to 15 bags of trash that he has to separate. And there's a Dumpster right outside the bathroom."
Controlling trash "is one of the biggest expenses of running a campground," Mayns says. "We have 50 Dumpsters we place in campgrounds in the South Platte and Pike districts each summer."
Each Dumpster holds three cubic yards of trash about 27 wheelbarrow loads each and has to be emptied at least once a week. During periods of high use, such as the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends, the Dumpsters overflow.
Making the leap
It sounds bleak. Hopeless, even. But those who love the mountains and meadows haven't given up hope.
David Lien is a hunter, climber and Front Range co-chairman of the Colorado chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He has climbed many of the world's tallest mountains and spends much of his free time in the Rocky Mountain backcountry.
Lien is active in public lands issues, including drilling on the Roan Plateau in northwest Colorado. He believes such large-scale measures could trash public lands in more far-reaching ways than dumping garbage.
"I think humans are a highly intelligent species that has come a long ways in a very short time," he says. "If enough people, day-to-day-folks, are able to recognize the pressing issues that are facing the country, such as running out of fossil fuels and needing to conserve more, we can make a big difference."
Jim Lockhart of Colorado Springs, conservation chair for the Pikes Peak Group of the Sierra Club, says he has observed "many people becoming more and more aware and responsible in the outdoors."
Lockhart sees another sign of hope: "For the first time in at least a decade, probably 20 years, the environment is moving to the top of the public polls. People are thinking more about the future of the environment."
But does that mean we'll take the leap and stop flinging our own water bottles to the side of a trail?
Lockhart believes there's a direct connection that we must make, and he quotes famed naturalist John Muir: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
Truth: Leaving any evidence of your presence is just not cool, especially if it's lunch leftovers that will take forever to decompose in the woods. And no, the cute little squirrels don't want to chow down on an orange peel any more than you do. Take a bag with you and take your trash home.
Myth: You can burn almost anything in your campfire.
Truth: Some high-tech packaging actually gives off toxic fumes. And cans? Come on. Turn-of-the-century sites (and we're not talking this century) yield fire-blackened cans.
Myth: After you set up camp in bear country, mark your campsite boundary by peeing. That will keep you safe from wild critters.
Truth: Some people believe this, but most would rather deal with the possibility of a wild animal encounter than with a campsite that smells like pee. And some animals are actually attracted to human urine.