DENVER — Earlier this summer, Adam Ducharme made an unpleasant discovery while helping volunteers install signs telling visitors where to camp, park or launch boats near Leadville, a mountain town surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks in central Colorado.
“We were digging holes, putting in signs, and then backfilling the holes with rocks and sort of compounding it with dirt,” Ducharme said. “And every third rock that I picked up to put into the hole had human waste on it.”
Ducharme, the region’s first tourism director, was hired last year to not only market the area, but also to help manage the effects of throngs of visitors who have descended on the state after outdoor recreation boomed during the pandemic.
To address sustainability concerns, Colorado is the first state to fold what tourism officials call a “destination stewardship” department into its state-level tourism office, said Hayes Norris, the communications manager at the Colorado Tourism Office.
Most states welcome visitors, who are vital to their economies — in Pennsylvania, for example, 124 state parks attract 40 million visitors annually, according to the governor’s office. Outdoor recreation adds an estimated $14 billion annually to the Pennsylvania economy and supports 150,000 jobs, the state said. But the economic benefits are accompanied by crowds that can degrade the natural resources of fragile ecosystems.
There’s even evidence of human waste in the regional groundwater supply in and around Leadville, Ducharme said. One of his tourism counterparts in Ouray, a high-altitude Colorado town with a population of 923 known as the Switzerland of America, said officials no longer actively promote their summer season because they are at capacity. Instead, they try to draw people year-round to lessen the impact of one season, and they focus on encouraging responsible tourism among their existing visitors.
“Summertime, we don’t really necessarily promote coming to Ouray,” said Kailey Rhoten, the tourism and destination marketing director for the city. “We promote what you can do when you’re in Ouray. Summertime is when I’m actually going out in the field, meeting people. That’s when we’re hitting it the hardest with more of that educational piece.”
The outdoor recreation boom was already on the rise before people sought socially distant fun during the early days of the pandemic. But it has been exacerbated by heavy use as people continue to plan hikes, pitch tents and seek out lakes and rivers during the extreme heat events that are now part of most American summers. Often, that recreation is in places that haven’t had adequate budgets for maintenance or staff, said Marci Mowery, president of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Parks & Forests Foundation.
In Pennsylvania — where all state parks and parking are free — there’s an effort to direct people to less-visited parks or trails, Mowery said. Their volunteers also have been actively teaching some visitors about Leave No Trace principles, which are a framework of minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors.
“We need to educate people that there are other alternatives and to have an alternative in their pocket,” Mowery said. “So if they show up at a very popular trailhead, rather than making their own parking space and wedging themselves in, to go to another trail in the state park system or in the forest or in a nearby park.”
Overuse can diminish the overall visitor experience for people seeking the solitude of wilderness or the outdoors. And it can make it more challenging for rural search-and-rescue teams to respond to emergencies, especially when new or inexperienced outdoor enthusiasts seek out adventure.
In Washington, for example, a popular federal wilderness area known as the Enchantments allows limited overnight camping, accessible only to backpackers via a competitive lottery. But people are allowed to hike the challenging 18-mile route during the day without a permit. Fueled by social media posts of clear mountain lakes and mountain goats, as well as online lists touting the Enchantments trek as a world trail-running highlight, a growing number of enthusiasts try to complete the trek in one go. They can’t always finish, and some must call for emergency help, the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office told the Seattle Times.
A study of pandemic recreation habits by Pennsylvania State University, the University of Montana and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics found that nearly half of adults in the United States now participate in outdoor recreation “at least once per month.” Twenty percent of those people may be entirely new to outdoor recreation since the pandemic, the study found.
That new popularity coincides with the challenges many state parks now face because of climate change, said Rachel Norton, executive director of the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that supports state parks and forests. She points to the 2020 fires that burned more than 97 percent of the state’s beloved Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Portions of the park reopened last year for day visitors with reservations.
“It was really a gut punch to a lot of people in California because that park was so well loved and it was like, OK, it’s here,’” Norton said. “We love these places, we value these places, and now climate change is here and it’s threatening these places. They’re actually getting beat up more by the impacts of climate change and visitation. And so there’s just really a need to fund them and maintain them and manage them somewhat differently as the climate changes.”
In Pennsylvania, state parks and forests got a $75 million bump in the 2022 state budget, thanks to money from federal American Rescue Plan Act. It is “a down payment on this larger need to invest,” Mowery said. But state funding often is not enough to address the backlog of needs or the future effects of climate change, she said, pointing to the flood damage at one park that recently experienced 51/2 inches of rain in 45 minutes.
To manage crowds and provide more opportunities for local and out-of-state visitors, some states, including California, North Dakota and Pennsylvania, have opened or are planning new state parks or trail systems to accommodate more visitors.
North Dakota recently devoted $17.9 million to its maintenance backlog, and has an $8 million plan to expand a remote recreation area near the Canadian border into its 14th state park. Plans call for 35 campsites and about six cabins at the Pembina Gorge in northeastern North Dakota, which has steep valley cliffs and the largest continuous, undisturbed forest in the state.
The gorge is closer to Winnipeg than it is to any populous North Dakota cities, said state parks Director Cody Schulz, so officials anticipate that when it opens in 2025, the new park will be a four-season draw for Canadian visitors. He said he was struck when he started the job two years ago by how, while the borders were closed during the height of the pandemic, Canadian visitors to state parks dropped by 63 percent. But overall visits to state parks were up by about 20 percent and continue to remain steady. The park hopes to tap the Canadian market even as it serves its own residents, he said.
“There’s some pent-up demand and we just want to make sure that our supply matches the demand,” he said. “This is a unique opportunity for us to check all of those strategic boxes: stewardship and conservation, economic development and tourism.”
Even as they accommodate more visitors, many state parks also hope to expand who has access to the outdoors, especially visitors of color who have been excluded in the past, and those of limited economic means who rely on the affordability of state parks for recreation.
In California, where it can cost as much as $20 a day to park at some beach parks, the state plans to boost spending on a popular program that allows people to check out free day passes from their local libraries. And at North Dakota state parks, visitors can nab a $2 tent camping site on Tuesdays, a less popular day for visitors.
Other state park systems, including in Colorado and Oregon, have tweaked their online reservation systems so that people who can’t plan ahead for a spot at popular campsites are more likely to land last-minute vacancies.
Colorado has tried to tailor its tourism marketing efforts to the needs of individual communities, Norris said. About a third of the state’s 17 recent tourism marketing grants to local boosters have an element of responsible tourism or destination stewardship.
Other state marketing efforts include campaigns like “Doo Colorado Right,” a $40,000 push aimed at educating visitors about outdoor toilet etiquette. The campaign began in the Gunnison Valley, another highly trafficked locale with many backcountry visitors. Local tourism officials around the state handed out 3,500 backpacking trowels with fungal mycelium-based tablets that speed the disintegration of human waste. The instructions: Dig a 6-inch-deep cathole, drop in the tablets and a biodegradable wipe, and cover it up with dirt.
Ducharme said that his own family has adapted new toilet habits when camping, based on what he’s unearthed recently — and the campaign. When car camping in remote places without bathroom facilities, for example, they bring a portable toilet. So-called wag bags also are an option for backpackers, who can pack out waste and dispose of it in municipal trash instead of digging up fragile high-elevation tundra.
The trowel campaign is a playful take on the state’s existing “Do Colorado Right” messaging, Norris said. That campaign got its start during the pandemic to educate visitors about responsible and respectful travel in Colorado — even as they make the most of their trip by choosing lesser-known attractions and off-peak times for their visits, she said.
“It’s done really well on social channels, does really well on TikTok and Instagram because it makes it very fun and lighthearted and less finger-wagging,” Norris said. “It’s more like ‘do this and you’ll have a better experience.’”