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The concept of "pack it in, pack it out" is about to get a little more complicated in Canyonlands National Park. Beginning Sunday, campers staying in certain campsites in the Needles district will be required to tote their waste out of the backcountry.
"It's our pilot year. We'll see how it works. We chose those sites because they are so highly used," said Keri Nelson, a law-enforcement ranger. The new rule will apply to the designated campsites Chesler Park and Elephant Canyon, as well as some vehicle destinations, but could expand to other parts of the Needles.
This move affects just some of the few thousand people who camp in the Needles each year, but it reflects a trend on public lands, particularly at popular desert and alpine destinations where feces can linger intact for months.
"There are ample social impacts to consider in desert environments," said Susy Alkaitis, deputy director of the Colorado-based Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. "No one wants to turn a corner to piles of partially decomposed human waste because there wasn't appropriate soil to break them down."
Under standard "leave no trace" ethics, backcountry visitors should deposit their waste in "catholes" 6 to 8 inches deep at least 200 feet from a lake or stream and pack out toilet paper. But in high-use desert destinations those guidelines might not be enough.
Grand Canyon National Park has long struggled with human waste near its trails, and new rules that resemble Canyonlands' may emerge from that revised backcountry management plan due out next year.
Canyonlands' Chesler Park and Elephant Canyon, located a few miles from the Elephant Hill and Squaw Flat trailheads, have eight campsites scattered around slickrock outcrops.
It's getting to the point where it's hard to dig a cathole there without striking someone else's cache.
Needles' backpackers can buy "wag bags" for $3.25 when they get their backcountry permits, Nelson said.
Packing out poop is nothing new for climbers, canyoneers and river-runners in southern Utah, but those activities unfold in settings where people run the risk of sleeping in one another's sewage unless strict rules are applied. Similar rules have applied for years to those visiting Indian Creek, the Bureau of Land Management recreation area just outside the Needles, and hiking the Subway in Zion National Park.
"Though packing out human waste can seem extreme, there are select ecosystems, such as the fragile Utah desert, where it can be the best solution," Alkaitis said. "When visitor use is high, nutrient-rich soil to maximize decomposition is sparse and when there is a risk of water runoff that could quickly contaminate large areas, packing out human waste ... can be the least impactful."
Meanwhile, the National Park Service is removing vault toilets from two car-camping destinations at Peekaboo and New Bates Wilson in the Needles, so campers there will have to carry out their waste. Nelson said it is often not possible to get pumper trucks up the rough roads to service these toilets.