A multi-county project to address months of heavy traffic and littering in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area will begin Saturday, with volunteers in high demand.
Spearheaded by the National Forest Foundation, Idaho Conservation League, Sawtooth Society and Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association, the project goal is to restore the central Idaho landscape to its pre-pandemic state.
According to Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson, this summer’s influx of travelers from surrounding states to the Sawtooth National Forest—mostly from Utah, California and Oregon—has been unprecedented.
“It’s great that people are out enjoying their national forests and doing weekend road trips. But we have folks parking next to ‘Do not park’ signs, local residents finding human waste in the backcountry and motorcycles on nonmotorized trails,” he said. “It’s been very eye-opening.”
According to the cleanup project’s sign-up webpage, trails most in need of trash pickup include the Pole Creek and Fourth of July trails in the White Cloud Mountains and the Stanley Lake to Elk Mountain, Alice-Toxaway loop, Elk Creek and Grandjean trails in the Sawtooths. Lakeside spots that have received high traffic include the Redfish Overflow, Sawtooth Lake, Goat Lake, Hell Roaring Lake, Boulder Chain Lakes, Big Boulder Lakes and Born Lakes.
Within the Ketchum Ranger District, Nelson said visitor activity at trailheads and dispersed camping sites has been “crazy,” particularly on weekends. Normally uncrowded access points such as Greenhorn Gulch and Fox Creek have seen a dramatic spike in tourist traffic, he said. On one recent afternoon, Nelson counted 33 vehicles at the Hyndman Trailhead.
“The fact is that Idaho has become a desired destination for a lot of people. We’re seeing plates we don’t normally see. It’s a different vibe,” he said. “Our challenge now is how do we accommodate these new folks without having a negative impact on our natural resources.”
Nelson said one downside has been “disturbing” amounts of trash and human waste behind by trail users with limited camping experience, meaning rangers have had to pick up extra janitorial work.
“The more trash we have around, the more time we have to spend time picking up after folks instead of engaging in the kind of educational activities we’d like to do,” he said.
Another discouraging trend has been the use of ATVs and motorcycles on nonmotorized trails, resulting in damage to the environment.
“One of our staffers spotted three motorcycles at Baker Lake. I’m not sure if people just don’t know [trail regulations] or are choosing to ignore the rules,” he said.
It’s not just ‘Leave no trace’ practices that have fallen by the wayside—trail etiquette has also been lacking, Nelson said. Downhill-traveling bikers, hikers and motorists should always give uphill travelers the right of way, for instance, and equestrians should be given a wide berth to ensure that horses aren’t spooked.
The flurry of out-of-staters and regional travelers hasn’t been entirely negative for the valley, Nelson said. A surge in demand for mountain bikes and camping gear has benefited local business, for example, and that demand should continue with travelers coming from wildfire-ravaged areas in the Pacific Northwest, he said.
“It’s not just our region,” Nelson said. “The Boise National Forest has seen similar, staggering increases in use. People are saying, ‘Let’s go find some clean air.’ And they’re staying for a while.”
To participate in the self-guided SNRA cleanup project, RSVP at bit.ly/3iz68fB. (Cleanup supply kits will be provided.) Participants can choose from a list of front-country or backcountry locations or write in their own. For more information, contact Sawtooth Society Stewardship Coordinator Dalton Warr at firstname.lastname@example.org or Idaho Conservation League Engagement Assistant Hannah Smay at email@example.com.