Millions of people visit Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) every year. It is one of the most popular national parks in the country. Scientists are trying to understand the impact of these crowds on the environment.
In its ongoing “Science Behind the Scenery” series, RMNP held a public forum on three ongoing research projects under a program titled “Seen and Unseen: Impacts of Visitation on Natural Resources” on Tuesday, March 8 .
Community-led impact mapping
Paige Lambert of the National Park Service spoke about the Community Led Impact Mapping (CLIM) program.
“Rocky is still one of the most visited parks with a peak of 4.6 million visitors in 2019,” Lambert said. “Some of the impacts like congestion on roads and in parking lots are obvious, but we are trying to identify and quantify the impact of visitor numbers on natural resources.”
CLIM was developed and piloted in 2020 in response to increased visits.
“Qualities of wilderness are defined by these five qualities: natural, untrammeled, undeveloped, opportunities for solitude, and characteristics of value,” Lambert explained. “We focused on solitude. We had infrared track counters. As people cross the beam, a count is recorded. »
The CLIM 2020 project focused on the very popular Glacier Gorge off Bear Lake Road. The data included social (or informal) pathways, gathering areas, and human waste.
“We are concerned about human waste because unburied waste, including toilet paper and soiled tampons, is not just an aesthetic concern, but also a health concern,” Lambert pointed out. “This waste could be washed into the watershed.”
Informal paths and gathering areas at places like waterfalls and lookouts with great views create trampling of vegetation and soil erosion.
The data showed 25 miles of informal trails in the Glacier Gorge corridor and 88 staging areas. Those who helped collect the information also found 306 human waste sites.
The CLIM 2021 project focused on the wilderness basin on the southeast side of the park.
Data showed 4.5 miles of social trails and 149 staging areas at Wild Basin. There were 110 spots with human waste.
“The next steps are to suggest management actions,” Lambert explained. “We promote awareness and awareness of Leave No Trace. We have a wag bag dispenser in Longs Peak. It is a foil bag for packing human waste. We are also considering additional toilets in the desert. And we will expand our research on the impacts of visitors on ecological processes.
The CLIM project will continue to map additional locations in 2022.
Anyone interested in community science who would like to volunteer to help with this study, contact Lambert at [email protected]
Laura Scott, Ph.D., is an antimicrobial resistance geneticist and works for the USGS Alaska Science Center spoke on “Leave No Trace? Assessing the microbial impacts of visitor use on soil and water in the park. »
“Germs are disease and infection risk agents,” Scott said. “We want to know if there are antibiotic resistant bacteria in the park. Some can exist without human intervention. But with evidence of human waste, there is a risk of faecal contamination in the environment.
The scientists examined popular destinations in the park by looking at factors such as the number of cars passing through the gates and the sites tagged on social media.
They collected bacteria, exposed them to antibiotics, and used a laser to count how many bacteria survived and how many didn’t.
“There was a greater abundance of resistant bacteria in places where people go,” Scott pointed out. “Downstream of any type of toilet, we measure more antibiotic resistance. And we found evidence of them deeper in the park than expected.
The data will help managers know where to place toilets and help them understand human impacts on park resources, including water and soil.
Loch Vale Water Survey
Since 1983, scientists have studied the Loch Vale area of the RMNP.
Jill Baron of Colorado State University and the US Geological Survey discussed her research in a report titled “The Contribution of Human Waste to Nitrate in Loch Vale Water, or, Groundhogs Don’t Drink Coffee.”
Although that sounds silly, Baron explained that researchers measured caffeine levels to study the impact of human waste, because animals like groundhogs and elk don’t drink coffee, sodas or energy drinks.
“When solid waste or urine is deposited in pit toilets or on the ground, it can flush into soils and surface waters,” Baron said. “We need to quantify the impact of people, not animals.”
Loch Vale is a popular day destination for RMNP visitors. The scientists looked for nitrogen to see if human urine impacted levels there.
Again, the scientist installed trail counters to measure crowds. They examined soils and surface waters and measured nitrogen and caffeine. The presence of caffeine shows a direct human input into the soils and waters of Loch Vale.
While the data showed that only around 2% of the nitrogen in the region came from human waste, Baron said the information was valuable to both RMNP and a nitrogen deposition reduction group in statewide.