Garbage flowing on Mount St. Helens

Officials say campers, visitors leaving trash on public lands is a growing problem

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

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Keeping garbage off public lands and convincing campers to pick up after themselves are perennial struggles for land management agencies, but local officials with the U.S. Forest Service say they’re seeing more trash now than at any point in recent memory.

One area on the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, which is often used for primitive and free camping, was left in a galling state when Forest Service workers visited it in early September.

“It was a disaster,” said Chelsea Muise, the monument’s recreation program manager.

Several tents and a gazebo were left with piles of clothing trailing out of them. A bathroom area with a primitive toilet was left behind. Empty cans and food bags were piled around the site.

The Forest Service allows up to 14 consecutive days of camping at one site. What workers found indicated whoever left the mess was there longer.

“They had as much food as they could possibly store,” Muise said. “Our initial thought is they were living on the forest. It had probably been weeks, if not a month or so, they’d been living there.”

Crews cleaned up the site and the details were reported to Forest Service law enforcement officials who then began an investigation.

Muise said it isn’t an isolated incident. Forest Service employees are seeing a growing number of trashed campsites that show evidence of people living in the forest.

“We see it two to three times per year when we never used to see it at all,” she said.

Brett Duling, a recreation supervisor on the monument agreed.

“It’s getting more and more frequent,” he said. “People are losing their houses and not having a place to go so they’re coming out here. That’s just (speaking) for the monument really, not the rest of the forest.”

In general, Forest Service employees say they see more people turning to public lands for recreation and that means increased impacts.

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest are easily accessible for people in the Portland-Vancouver metro area and the southern Puget Sound region.

Recreating on public lands is also an affordable option for those who can’t or won’t pay for seasonal permits to access private forest lands. National Forest passes cost $5 for a day or $30 for an annual pass, whereas timber companies sometimes charge hundreds of dollars for an annual pass. For example, Weyerhaeuser charges $200 or more for seasonal recreational access on its properties in Washington and Oregon.

“Usage is up everywhere, which contributes to more trash everywhere,” said Gifford Pinchot National Forest spokeswoman Sue Ripp.

Duling said they’re seeing the most trash at dispersed camping sites along Roads 25, 81 and 83 near Mount St. Helens. At the end of the weekend, crews might haul 20 to 40 bags of trash out of the campsites in the area.

At one campsite they found a pile of trash with a note on top. The campers explained how they loved the forest and appreciated workers cleaning up the mess for them, since they didn’t have room in their car to take the trash.

“It’s like, you packed it out in your car, but you don’t have the room to bring it home?” Muise said rhetorically.

When workers find a trashed site, they’ll look for receipts or notes — anything they can pass on to Forest Service law enforcement that might lead to the people who left the trash.

Now that winter is setting in, there are fewer campers in the forest but visitors are leaving trash behind. Campers left one site with the charred remains of wooden pallets and trash that didn’t vanish in the campfire.

Muise said the Forest Service can’t put dumpsters on undeveloped campsites because there’s no one to pick them up. In areas where they have dumpsters, the Forest Service must contend with people who fill them with trash from home.

There are trash cans at fee sites, but that doesn’t stop people from littering in those areas. Officials expect similar results if they placed receptacles around the dispersed camping areas.

Instead, the Forest Service is trying a more direct approach, by visiting campers or day-use visitors to offer them garbage bags and asking them to pack out what they pack in.

“Other people that come in to recreate don’t want to see that,” Muise said. “It has mixed success, some people are receptive … Others don’t want to hear that message.”

Dameon Pesanti: 360-735-4541; dameon.pesanti@columbian.com; twitter.com/dameonoemad