In bowels of Conundrum, poop bags for backpackers
May 20, 2009
ASPEN ” The U.S. Forest Service hopes Conundrum won’t be a dirty word this summer.
The agency will try to get backpackers to pack their waste out from campsites near the Conundrum Hot Springs, the most heavily visited overnight wilderness destination in the Aspen area. The Forest Service will place a dispenser full of human poop bags at the trailhead this month and urge backpackers to use them, according to Kevin Warner, wilderness crew supervisor for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
The trailhead is about 7 miles southwest of Aspen via Castle Creek and Conundrum Creek roads. It is an 8-mile hike to the hot springs. About 2,000 backpackers hoof it to the heated water each summer.
The Forest Service received a $2,950 grant from the Aspen Skiing Co. employees’ Environment Foundation this spring to purchase the bags. The manufacturer of a product called Restop 2 also donated to the cause. As a result, the Forest Service has 2,000 of the special human poop bags for use this year.
Warner hopes the program doesn’t present a conundrum for backpackers. He hopes the concept appeals to backpackers’ environmental ethic.
“Two thousand people, two thousand poops ” they start thinking, ‘Definitely something should be done up here,'” Warner said.
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The Forest Service is convinced of something based on findings in past years. “A 2006 study found that 71 percent of campsites had partially unburied solid waste” within a short distance of the core camping area, Warner said. The water at the springs have tested positive in the past for fecal coliform.
Sloan Shoemaker, director of Wilderness Workshop, a local environmental group dedicated to wilderness issues, laid out the stakes in blunt terms for hot springs users: “Bath in it, drink it or pack it out,” he said. “Really, that’s what the choices are. It’s so over-used up there.”
Warner said the concern is that bacteria from human waste may be affecting the water supply in the upper Conundrum Valley. The springs feed Conundrum Creek, which empties into Castle Creek, a stream that feeds into the Roaring Fork River.
As the Conundrum Hot Springs have become more popular over the decades, the Forest Service has toughened management practices. Camping is only allowed in slightly more than 20 spaces immediately surrounding the hot springs. No fires are allowed at those sites. If those spots are taken, backpackers are supposed to backtrack about a half-mile to another camping area, where specific sites aren’t designated.
The hot springs are about 11,000 feet in elevation, in alpine tundra. “The rocky nature makes it difficult to dig a 6-inch cat hole,” Warner said.
And with 2,000 overnight visitors from late May into October, year after year, the problem accumulates. Pit toilets aren’t a legal option in officially designated wilderness lands, where humans’ impact is supposed to be minimal.
In many backcountry areas, it’s appropriate for human to dig a 6-inch hole for their solid waste, and burn or pack out toilet paper. But places such as Zion, Rocky Mountain and Canyonlands national parks require climbers or hikers to use human poop bags in certain areas. River runners also are accustomed to packing out waste.
Restop 2 was selected by the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District as a sanitary option. It is a two-bag system, with waste going into an inner sack that contains polymers and enzymes that change the composition of waste. The inner bag is wrapped in a protective outer bag. The manufacturer’s website says the bags can be disposed of in normal trash and “have been approved by your state’s water resources board for landfill disposal ” just like a baby diaper.”
The Forest Service won’t provide a trash receptacle at the trailhead because it doesn’t want to bear the cost of picking up the waste bags, and probably a substantial amount of other garbage. The waste would likely attract bears.
Warner regards this summer’s poop bag program as a experiment to see if it is a viable solution to the problem.
“With [a] small staff and budget we chose to limit this pilot program to the one drainage that sees the highest use and try to implement it in a professional way,” he said.
If it works, the Forest Service will assess if it should be used in other high-use wilderness destinations.