Human Impact in the National Forest

If you spend time in any National Forest, you have probably seen the negative human impact. If you’re like me, you’ve been disappointed by others’ inability to leave no trace. Litter finds its way into every nook and cranny in the forest, making beloved campsites not only look  unpleasant, but it’s also bad for animals.

This article addresses some of what I see happening in Colorado.

human impact
From a campsite off of Bunce School Road in Lyons, CO

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Human Impact on Rocky Mountains National Forest

I currently live in Allenspark, CO, relatively close to Rocky Mountain National Park. We camp and explore the area regularly, and we often find ourselves cleaning our campsites before we enjoy them. Throughout our adventures, we have found just about everything – the norm including hundreds of shotgun shells and bullets, broken beer bottles and cans, plastic wrappers and containers, and plastic bags full of dog poop. Even more destructive, we have seen healthy trees that were shot down for fun, and entire rock formations covered with graffiti. The purpose of this article is to encourage conversation and critical thought. To facilitate this dialogue, I want to discuss some of the contributing factors.

careless human impact
From a campsite off of Bunce School Road in Lyons, CO

human impact of open shooting



One major staple in this issue is the way that homelessness impacts our public lands. For example, as the price of living in Colorado continues to increase, more and more folks head into the national forest. There is no rent, very limited supervision and policing, and all in all the national forest provides a safer haven for those experiencing homelessness. Tracy Ross wrote an incredibly compelling article on homelessness in the forests around the town of Nederland. In this article, she describes the rules and regulations for camping that homeless campers are able to navigate. For dispersed camping, the maximum amount of time individuals are allowed to camp in one location is 14 days. After this, they must move 3 miles from their previous location. Due to these laws, frequent movement results in piles of trash and belongings being left behind.

homeless human impact
Photo by Terry Ratzlaff, from article titled “Danger in the Forest”
homeless human impact
Photo by Tracy Ross, author of “Danger in the Forest”



Tracy Ross describes a site that had a “discarded Coleman fuel canister, a moldy tarp, Converse high-tops, and a windblown pile of marijuana.” To this, Joe Hall, founder of Peak 2 Peak Forest Watch, replied “I can take you around the forest here and show you easily more than a hundred camps just like this,” followed by “on top of the hundred we can see, there are probably 150 to 200 we can’t, because they’re too deep in the woods or on private property within the forest.” This crisis of homeless communities being pushed out of cities and into the wilderness isn’t isolated to Colorado. It is happening in San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland as well.

ATV Rental Companies

Next, there are numerous variations of ATV rental companies that operate on public land. For example, Backbone Adventures is a local ATV rental company that attracts a lot of people to Lyons, CO. They deliver ATVs to the base of Bunce School Road so that people can rip around and explore the national forest without having to do any heavy lifting. This service attracts a lot of people for obvious reasons,  it is a convenient and fun way to get outside without having to invest in your own ATV, a trailer to haul an ATV, or an off-roading vehicle. However, these services raise a lot of questions in terms of attracting individuals that leave behind a lot of trash and damage to the national forest.

ATV rentals human impact
Photo courtesy of United States Dep’t of Agriculture, Forest Service
ATV rentals human impact
Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor












Along with ATV rental companies, it is worth considering the generous amount of roads that allow for motorized vehicle access. While I love the accessibility to free campsites in the forest, motorized vehicle access allows for large amounts of traffic. Removing such access would significantly decrease traffic, which would reduce the amount of litter and destruction. However, most people, like myself, do not want this to happen as it would limit where and how we camp and hike.

So, then what?

Pinpointing the reasons for forest destruction seems impossible, but it is worth questioning the role that homelessness, open shooting practice, and ATV rental companies play in leaving behind copious amounts of trash. These areas of human impact are obvious and deserve our attention.

Should ATV rental companies be allowed to operate 100% on public land?

Do these companies have a responsibility to help keep our forests clean?

How do we address the increasing price of living that is driving homelessness and pushing people into mountain communities?

To take it even further – should roads that are accessible to motorized vehicles be regulated and limited?

Do we find a way to regulate target practice and guns in the national forest?

Should we require permits to participate in such activities?

human impact open shooting
From a campsite off of Bunce School Road in Lyons, CO

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These are all difficult questions that come up in conversation with others who call the national forest their backyard. These questions matter because for those of us that live in these areas, there are daily consequences and risks. In general, picking up trash remains from other adults who enter into these beloved lands can be disheartening. However, there are reasons to be hopeful!

People Are Good

Overall, in response to the problem of litter and human impact in the national forest, I would encourage anyone who benefits from our public lands to support your local land-loving non-profits. For folks in Colorado, a few strong advocates of “Leave No Trace” to check out include Clean Trails and Can’d Aid. There are thousands of non-profits nation-wide that aim to improve the conditions of our shared public land, and we should all find a way to do our part. Understandably, time and money can be barriers to supporting your local non-profit. An easy way to lend a hand is to always carry spare trash bags on your adventures and pick up trash along the way, always keeping your own safety in mind.

Together, we can all make a difference. It starts with having tough conversations about land conservation, asking questions that challenge the norms, and using our voices to get more individuals involved. We love these lands, and it is our responsibility to protect them. However, to do so we must acknowledge the basis of humanity that creates these problems in the first place.

We can do better and we will do better.


Photos taken by Abbi Arneson, Michael Eldridge, Terry Ratzlaff, and Tracy Ross

Article referenced: “Danger in the Forest”

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Comments (1)

How do you teach people who come here for a week & feel entitled? Make the rental companies responsible. Yes! It’s a tough issue because these are public lands & you can’t restrict who enters. Or can you? The permitting process in AZ at one beautiful spot we go is working. It limits people per day & the area has restricted entry with forest service workers checking permits. I haven’t seen that kind of trash in RMNP. You might be going to more urban spots that are more easily accessed by the lazy portion of the public who couldn’t walk a mile if they had to. Education at a young age & teaching by example are really important! Good points Abbie!

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