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The ecological impact of designated camping sites?


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  • #3739439
    chris w
    BPL Member

    @wildingo

    Dear BL Community,

    I’m involved, along with some other keen  hikers, with a Cartographer who in making a new set of maps for the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Mountains, here in South Africa.  We are having a debate about whether or not it is good to have designated camping sites (marked on the map) that take the “ecological hit” for the the wilderness area, or whether it is better to have this impact spread at random over the entire wilderness.  This area is a World Heritage site, and the major watershed for South Africa and Lesotho.

    I would like to hear from Ecologists in the group what the answer is, and also what are the ecological heuristics for choosing  designated camping sites, if they are, in fact, a good idea,

    There are also no current trails on the escarpment, so the same  ecological question applies  to the suggested route we are contemplating  to mark on the map.  Does a suggested  route and the associated degradation cause more or less harm than having people path find at random?

    Thanks in advance.

    Chris

     

    #3739454
    DWR D
    BPL Member

    @dwr-2

    When I read this, I think of Mt. Rainier National Park, where they have mandatory camping at designated sites. All sites are away from water and all sites have a toilet provided. This is a bit frustrating for someone who is used to camping in the Sierra in California where most areas you can camp wherever you want. But thinking of the hordes of people hiking on Mt. Rainier, it would be a disaster if everyone could just camp wherever they way. Most everyone would camp next to a lake or stream… and be defecating in those locations. The vegetation would be trampled in more places than with the designated camps, and the water would be polluted. My conclusion is that Mt. Rainier is doing it right. Maybe you could contact that park and ask who you would talk with there about this issue. But in answer to your question, I would think it depends on how may visitations you anticipate… the more users, the more designated sites make sense. Same with trails… if you don’t actually build a trail, people will walk anywhere they want… which is okay with just a few people per year… but if it is thousands, you will get an unsightly maze of ‘volunteer’ trails going every which way…

    #3739463
    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member

    @balzaccom

    Locale: Wine Country

    The picy on Rainier is similar to highly trafficked sites in the Sierra, as well, such as Carson Pass, Little Yosemite Valley, etc.  It’s really a question of managing the numbers.  Lots of people = more specifics in terms of campsites, outhouses, etc.

    In Yellowstone, campsites are also designated to protect bears.  People cannot be trusted to follow correct procedures on food storage, etc.

    #3739526
    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member

    @rex

    Besides bears, campsites and even hiking trails can have big impacts on other wildlife, from pumas to insects, and in unexpected ways, including “trophic cascades”. Just read a report on the major impact dog urination and defecation can have on nitrogen and phosphate inputs to otherwise low-nutrient ecosystems. I’ll bet most humans can deposit a LOT more per individual. In the U.S.A, hikers in the vicinity of Mt Whitney must carry out all their solid waste.

    And another report I recently stumbled across documented pumas abandoning deer kills when human noises were played nearby. Resulted in the pumas killing more deer to make up for the lost calories.

    Got my undergraduate degree in ecology decades ago, but never really used it. Hope this helps.

    — Rex

    PS – Might be worth asking local indigenous people for advice, too. They probably spent a few hundred thousand years figuring out stuff like this.

    #3739571
    Jon Fong
    BPL Member

    @jonfong

    Locale: FLAT CAT GEAR

    This is such a difficult question. I am not an ecologist, however; my wife is a Professor at UCLA in the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Department at UCLA and I have hung around and know a lot of the faculty members there. My general impression is that the impacts will first be noticed due to changes in animal behavior. Given the region that you are taking about, people (and their activities) can have a significant impact on animals particularly those that have a large range or migration patten. As those patterns change, it can bring a whole onslaught of changes to the community. With respect to the impact due to people, this can be frequency & duration dependent. This is the kind of study that can take years to evaluate. My 2 cents.

    #3739600
    Bruce Tolley
    BPL Member

    @btolley

    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    @ Chris

    This is a classic land management problem faced by folks at agencies in the USA such as the National Park Service, US Forest Service.  I would guess there is established body of research on the question.

    Some of the private conservancy organizations buy the land for conservation purposes and then RESTRICT all human access.  But most land management agencies in the USA have a commitment to access if not recreational use of the backcountry.

    As indicated in the above posts, I think the more people you have the more you restrict the access to designated trails and campsites, and then you aggressively manage and monitor.

    Many folks in the USA complain for various reasons about need to file wildness permits to access designated wilderness and to possess fire permits to camp in National Forest land that is not designated wilderness. But those permits are one of many sources of data that is used to estimate users accessing the lands and to manage the impacts.

    Since the land is designated by the UN as a World Heritage site, there might be guidelines available at the UN that could serve as a starting point.

    #3739606
    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member

    @rex

    Might be worth considering other options if possible:

    – Designated campsites that move every so many years, so the old locations can recover.

    – Closing designated campsites for recovery from time-to-time. Or even closing whole areas.

    In the U.S.A, wildfires, floods, droughts, trail failure, budget cuts, and similar events can close designated campsites and areas for long periods, but not to manage ecological impact. A bit of planning might be worthwhile.

    — Rex

    #3739607
    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member

    @retiredjerry

    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    I have noticed animals using trails

    For example a deer came from the other direction, when it saw me it got off the trail, I passed, it got back on trail and continued.

    Lots of bear and coyote poop on trails that makes me thing they use trails.

    Its easier for animals to get from point A to point B on a trail, just like humans.

    So, maybe trails are actually a good thing for animals.  Mitigates some of the other damage we cause.

    #3739620
    Chris R
    BPL Member

    @bothwell-voyageur

    Fair bit of academic research on this believe. A lot depends on the amount of usage. With very low numbers of users dispersed camping is fine. As numbers increase then problems increase mainly because folk don’t tent to randomly camp. They tend to over use the best spots so you get problems of erosion, human waste and campfires etc.
    Trails can be a real problem as they allow predators to more easily travel across the landscape. The classic case is wolves and woodland caribou where logging roads and even snowmobile trails have tipped the balance in favour of the wolves. Caribou are well adapted to deep snow. Caribou also lose out from paddlers camping on islands that caribou use for calving, not a hiker issue I realize but you can imagine similar issues for hikers camping in similarly sensitive areas affecting other wildlife.
    closing campsites or areas at certain times is a good way of managing impact but you need to have buy in from users or the resources to enforce it.

    #3739621
    jscott
    BPL Member

    @book

    Locale: Northern California

    A bit off topic, but Jerry’s post reminded me of this little story. I was travelling over a new (to me) trail in snow. I didn’t have gps. At one point I was pretty unsure about the where the trail went. Then I noticed coyote tracks. I followed the tracks for about a mile through woods and then began seeing signs that I was indeed on the trail. Thanks, coyote!

    #3739623
    rubmybelly!
    BPL Member

    @sleeping

    Locale: The Cascades

    “Thanks, coyote!”

    Good thing it wasn’t Wile E. or it might have ended differently….

    #3739627
    lisa r
    BPL Member

    @lisina10

    Locale: Western OR

    This sounds like a question to be asking the responsible land managers (I say this as someone who works for the US Forest Service), and to be informed by the research that has been on done on the topic. There is, indeed, a science to recreation management. Here’s one example to get you started: https://ijw.org/2018-applying-recreation-ecology-science-to-sustainably-manage-camping-impacts/

    #3739636
    chris w
    BPL Member

    @wildingo

    Thank you all for your inputs.  Most helpful!  I would highly recommend the article Lisa r suggested.

    #3739638
    JCH
    BPL Member

    @pastyj-2-2

    “I would highly recommend the article Lisa r suggested.”

    Fascinating and eye opening!

    #3739655
    jscott
    BPL Member

    @book

    Locale: Northern California

    I seem to recall a ranger saying that another benefit to requiring bear canisters in Yosemite was that it allowed/encouraged dispersed camping in the wilderness. He took it for granted that this was a better model than people clustering around bear cables and boxes.

    #3739660
    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member

    @retiredjerry

    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    yeah, great article

    the dispersed camping model never made sense to me in high use areas

    another thing is when a designated site has no flat place to put a tent.  It’s like forest managers just don’t want to deal with humans, just restrict the number of us humans so managers don’t have to deal with us

    that’s a good technique to construct a flat place for a tent on a slope.  If it’s done one time then used by many people over time

    #3739661
    Jon Fong
    BPL Member

    @jonfong

    Locale: FLAT CAT GEAR

    Keep in mind, based on your OP, you were asking about Ecology and what you are looking for is Land Management/Policy regarding wilderness.  2 entirely different topics.  My 2 cents.

    #3739715
    David Gardner
    BPL Member

    @gearmaker

    Locale: Northern California

    My experience over 50+ years is that even when rules for campsite placement and waste “disposal” (as opposed to packed out) are followed, in very heavily trafficked areas with limited local environmental factors to cause biodegrading such as Mt. Whitney and Mt. Shasta hikers, either tight entry/use quotas are imposed or campers are eventually required to use only designated campsites, then pack it out, and ultimately some kind of facility might be installed. At Mt. Shasta the trailhead now has a dispenser for pack out kits, which include paper instructions with a target on the back and a sealable plastic bag. Don’t know about Mt. Whitney but I hope it now has similar. And at Moose Lake in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon National park, there is now a “throne” that wasn’t there in the 80’s with privacy walls on three sides and a view of Triple Divide Peak and area :-)

    So you may start out with one system but progress to others if necessary.

    #3752972
    Josh B
    BPL Member

    @jbalisteri

    Locale: Western New York

    But they are deeply related. You create policies to manage/reduce ecological impacts.  I am both an Ecologist and a land manager for a Land Trust in Western New York. I have a minor in recreation management. As many have said, the designated site’s model is widely considered the best option for high-use areas. When talking about impacts to wildlife and plants, establishing designated trails/campsites allows “sanctuary zones” in the un-designated areas for flora/fauna. For example, when we protect a property we try to have trails impact less than 50% of total property area.

    #3752989
    HkNewman
    BPL Member

    @hknewman

    Locale: The West is (still) the Best

    Worked in the field once (more in the plant/soil arena) and humans don’t have such an compaction impact that most soils won’t spring back if left fallow, assuming seasonal rains in an arid area.  Repeated vehicle or even horse drawn carriages will compact the soil much more heavily, the damage so far lasting a couple centuries.

    That said human waste is becoming a big problem on all sorts of popular trails in the US.

    https://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/environment/outdoor-poop-etiquette/

    .. more places are going to this solution too

    dispenser for pack out kits, which include paper instructions with a target on the back and a sealable plastic bag.

     

    Having privies could work too but more places in the US are requiring hikers pack out their own waste.  It’s actually successful too.  I’m guessing the US has  had regulations that dog owner use a bag to pick up their pets waste in public spaces for a decade (the bag goes over the hand grabbing the poo and then the bag is inverted as it’s drawn to closure), so the gross out factor has been minimized.

     

    Does this apply to outdoor recreation?  I can only give some anecdotal evidence based on a number of years trying to grow plants and measure them:

    Hiking the PCT a couple times I noticed a few campsites I used in 2017 which were cleared out for multiple tents were pretty much brush covered by 2021 (more started camping near a water tank maintained on private land).  The compaction must not have been that much for seedlings to be successful.

    Now something like trying to get a Grand Canyon corridor campsite (dedicated campsites requiring a reservation for a specific plot within) used everyday for the past 4 to 5 decades = lots of compaction) back to fallow may require a pick to bust up the hard packed dirt.  The Grand Canyon maintains much, much more visitation data than the PCT though, and if there’s a bunch of various hikers, think their model would be a really good start.

    #3753027
    Stumphges
    BPL Member

    @stumphges

    One place where designated campsites does seem to work is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. As I understand it, the geology and topography are such that flat spots that will accommodate tents are difficult to find. Such spots that also have nearby locations that will serve as reservoirs for human waste, preventing it from seeping or running off into the lakes, are even more difficult to find. By designating sites that have both characteristics, the rangers keep the ecological impact of the campers contained to those sites.

    The slabs are almost always located over a large slab of rock, and the soil will eventually compact and erode off the slab, then the site is dismantled (fire grate removed, privy removed and filled), taken off the maps and left fallow.

    I’m sure people have studied this, but an interesting comparison would be between the BWCA and Quetico Provincial Park just across the border. In Quetico, there are no designated sites. The rub might be that Quetico has far fewer visitors.

    #3753032
    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member

    @retiredjerry

    Locale: Oregon and Washington
    #3753123
    Chris R
    BPL Member

    @bothwell-voyageur

    Quetico may not have designated sites but in reality it may as well have. The outfitters provide maps, even going so far as to give them star ratings. Since you are not allowed to cut live vegetation new sites are rarely created though the rules woul allow you to camp on a beach if you wanted.

    People only tend to use the lower rated sites when the others are full and from what we have seen these become overgrown and less desirable over time and as a consequence see even less use. The speed at which trails and campsites return to nature in the boreal forest is quite fast and takes much less time than in alpine areas.

    #3753194
    Stumphges
    BPL Member

    @stumphges

    Chris, yeah, I figured that the Quetico landscape would effectively self-select its campsites. I wonder how much more sewer water gets into the water up there as compared to in BWCA, where the privies are placed in places where drainage will tend to go straight down.

    #3753213
    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member

    @retiredjerry

    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    I read that outsideonline article a while ago hknewman

    I’m a bit skeptical – they’re right, I’m not going to like hauling my poop out

    The article mentioned Noname Lake in Three Sisters Wilderness.  That is alpine – just gravel, no trees or soil.  Plus, it’s sort of “gone viral” so a bunch of people now go there.  I would never poop there.  If someone had to poop there, then I agree, carry your poop out.

    But most places, in organic soil with plants and roots, poop decomposes after a while.

    I have a lot of experience digging catholes.  I  have rarely encountered someone’s previous poop and toilet paper.  The couple times I have, I just move over a little.

    Strawberry Point in Olympic National Park is a spot with too much poop.  There’s a small area for cat holes.  A lot of people camp there.  I had a hard time finding a spot for a cat hole.  That might be a spot where people should carry their poop out.  I won’t camp there again.

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