Human Waste Challenges (and Toilet Trap) at San Juan National Forest

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The tremendous popularity of Rocky Mountain National Park — it's currently the third-most visited national park in the country — has brought with it a number of less positive developments, including isolated incidents of parking-lot rage and a high volume of human waste. While most of the latter is left in structures made for collecting it, plenty more has been winding up in less proper locations.

But such issues aren't unique to RMNP. Indeed, federal land open for recreational purposes throughout Colorado is under stress due in part to substantial increases in numbers of visitors. And many of the problems with which Rocky Mountain National Park staffers must deal are also being faced by their colleagues at places that seem farther from the beaten path.

Take San Juan National Forest,  1.8 million gorgeous acres located in Colorado's southwestern corner, not far from Durango.

Earlier this month, two people were trapped in a San Juan toilet facility, part of which had to be closed for more than a week when repairs couldn't be made immediately. Events like these highlight the challenges connected to acts of nature associated with humans at the national forest.

"We are constantly working to keep our facilities up to snuff — keep them safe and sanitary for public use," says Brian White, San Juan National Forest's recreation program manager. "But there's not an endless pot of money to operate them, and we're wrestling with that, just like a lot of other agencies."

Matt Janowiak, ranger for the Columbine Ranger district, which encompasses the San Juan National Forest, strikes a similar chord.

"It's definitely a struggle to keep the toilets cleaned and keep them pumped out," Janowiak acknowledges. "A couple of times earlier this year, the vaults filled up so quickly that we had to lock them and put signs on them before we could call the septic company and have them pumped out. That's another indicator that we're seeing more use, because that hasn't happened before."

Neither has a visitor previously been trapped in a toilet — but Janowiak says it happened "on two different occasions. The first time, someone went to use the facilities and the latch wouldn't operate — and they were trapped inside. They were basically at the mercy of other passersby, and I think it took a half an hour or so before they were able to get the door pried open."

Unfortunately, SJNF personnel didn't learn about this situation before it happened again.

"There was another case of a woman getting trapped in there right after that," Janowiak confirms. "This time, she had her husband with her, and he managed to get her out, but it wasn't easy. The latch handle wasn't engaging, and he had to pull pretty hard on the door to get it to open."

Afterward, staff members removed the deadbolt on the bathroom and put up a sign, labeling it closed for repair — and because the part was on back order, the closure lingered for a week-plus. Moreover, the expense of fixing it is considerable.

"We have well over a hundred toilet units at our national forest," recreation program manager White says, "and some of them are along highway corridors — so they're basically highway rest stops. We manage them, and that's becoming increasingly challenging. They have hundreds of uses every day, and it could be in the thousands. That means increased pumping costs and extra cleaning time. We need to clean them three times a day — and the private lock that all the toilets have cost between $300 and $500 apiece. They only last so long, and with a hundred toilets all with $300 lock sets — you do the math."

Campgrounds — more than forty of them at San Juan — are typically operated by concessionaires who are responsible for keeping the toilet facilities at those locations spic and span. But because, as White concedes, it's difficult to recruit volunteers willing to tidy up public toilets, most of the work on other toilet facilities has to be done by San Juan employees, who have a lot of other duties — including making sure that the additional visitors to the area are safe.

White estimates that between one million and two million people visit San Juan each year, and, Janowiak says, "there's definitely been an uptick in use, especially on the weekends. There are days when the parking lots are overflowing and we don't have enough space for all the cars that want to park at the trailheads. So people have been parking on both sides of a narrow road, and that can make a tight fit for RVs trying to get further up the road."

There's also been more trash and litter, though not "a huge increase," Janowiak says. "I find that to be an encouraging thing — something we can build on." But when the toilet facilities are overwhelmed (and sometimes when they're not), human waste has been showing up on or near some of the busiest trails in the forest, he notes: "It tends to be concentrated in certain areas, and there's not a whole lot we can do about it other than reminding people that if they go in the woods, they should dig a little hole and try to be as sanitary as they can be."

Most folks are responsible, White believes. "I'd say 1 percent of visitors may not be familiar with how to treat public lands or they may have ill intent — and I think we're doing a good job of putting our resources where they need to be."

But the more people who come to San Juan, the trickier that can be.

"It's a two-edged sword for us," Janowiak says. "We really want the public to come out and enjoy their land. But when we get what we want, it's a challenge to keep up with that increased visitorship."

Especially when nature calls.

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