Forests Dealing With Visitor Surge and Trash

  • By Diana Fredlund, Public Affairs Officer, Stanislaus National Forest and Paul Wade, Public Affairs Specialist, Pacific Southwest Regional Office
Two dumpsters piled over with trash stacked around them. Off-road marks dug into protected meadow area. Cars illegally parked along road at popular forest location. A vaulted toilet restroom is covered in trash and human feces.

Piles of trash, overflowing pit toilets, and damage to trails and roads are just a few issues USDA Forest Service staff are attempting to address on many of the 18 National Forest across California this summer. Historic levels of visitors are flowing into forests daily, but unfortunately they are leaving a damaging scar behind. We need a call to action to help keep our forests healthy and safe.

Reports of unmanageable surges of visitors traveling to their nearest national forest are filling the airwaves. Visitors seeking a change of scenery from the stay-at-home policy during this pandemic period find the fresh air and solitude of forests as their answer – unfortunately it has been the answer for far too many visitors all at once.

The great outdoors, and certainly the expansive National Forest lands, offer fresh air, exercise, adventure. However, visitors are finding a different sort of adventure lately, as flocks of seasoned and novice visitor’s race to the nearest lake, beach, vista, and campground. The impacts of this are easily seen in the congested parking lots and side roads; by the trash overflowing in dumpsters or along forest trails, while restroom facilities are mistreated and left in a state of disrepair. On many forests, graffiti has been found on rocks, structures, and facility walls.

Employees across the Stanislaus National Forest, which resides near Yosemite National Park, are seeing upwards of three times more visitors than they have seen in previous years. It also appears that many visitors are either new to camping or are unaware how their actions impact forest and wildlife health.

It’s not just the on-the-ground employees seeing the impacts. The Calaveras Ranger District Visitor Information Specialist, Alison Nilsen, starts sharing the stewardship message when visitors make their first call about camping on the Stanislaus.

“I tell them to bring their Be Prepared bag, which includes toilet paper, hand sanitizer, soap, and garbage bags,” said Nilsen.


Visitor Information Specialists across the forest are reminding visitors that forest health is everyone’s responsibility and are sharing the Leave No Trace® ( and Pack it In, Pack it Out principles along with an explanation of fire restrictions.

“I am surprised and saddened at the stories visitors call and tell me about the trash and human waste being left in public areas,” added Nilsen.


Additionally, the Forest Service and partners created the Be Safe Outdoors campaign to provide an education platform to help the public understand safe and effective ways to be safe outdoors, while also protecting the forest when they go home for the day. The campaign can be found at    

“Whether it’s developed camping, dispersed camping, using off-highway recreation vehicles, kayaking, or stand-up paddle boards, recreational activities on the forest are very popular,” said Casey Jardine, public service officer for the Calaveras Ranger District. “We are so grateful to the dedicated recreation crew who is cleaning the toilets and picking up that abandoned trash. They are our essential personnel.”

It doesn't take much to do the right thing. 


When visitors see crowded parking lots it is best to have a few backup plans and find another place to recreate. Do not park illegally or block side roads. This can easily become a safety concern in case someone gets injured and emergency personnel need access. It could also be a fire hazard if a brush fire starts and everyone needs to evacuate.


The forests are doing what they can to adjust to the amount of trash being placed in bins and dumpsters, but once they are full, do not pile it outside. Trash already attracts wildlife, and having easy access causes problems for both humans and animals. Instead, simply pack out what you brought in by strapping to your vehicle and dumping it at the next available trash receptacle, which could be a few minutes down the road. 

National Forests are your public lands and considered national treasures. Treat them as your own and leave them better than how you found them so others can enjoy that fresh air, beautiful scenery, and that much needed getaway.

Dispersed campsite covered in trash.

Due to crowding at established campgrounds dispersed camping was encouraged but some visitors are mistreating those harder to reach and clean areas also. Nicely leaving bagged up garbage isn’t an option as wildlife will tear into it and scatter the remains. Best bet is to pack out what you packed in. (Photo courtesy of Forest Service)

Graffiti covers an outdoor restroom on a forest.

This costs money and time to fix. This can be painted over but when it’s done on rocks it needs a special machine. Help us stop these violations. Report it. If you came to your forest then you came for the fresh air, scenery, nature, quiet and a change-of-pace. You shouldn’t have to see this. (Photo courtesy of Forest Service)