AP NEWS

Garbage, Human Waste Collect in Rocky Mountain National Park As Government Shutdown Continues

January 3, 2019
Kristine Cain, left with her son Nicholas, both visiting from Raleigh, North Carolina, walk into Rocky Mountain National Park while roads are closed due to a federal government shutdown on Dec. 27, 2018, in Estes Park. Visitors are able to walk into the park but not drive their vehicles.

More than 400 people a day have been visiting the Rocky Mountain Conservancy’s emergency visitor center just outside the mostly inaccessible Rocky Mountain National Park as the federal government’s partial shutdown continues.

Access to the interior of the park is severely curtailed because roads are not being plowed.

The Rocky Mountain Conservancy generally closes its Fall River Road visitor center on Dec. 30, but the nonprofit’s staff has decided to keep the facility - on private land just outside the park - open for the remainder of the shutdown, executive director Estee Rivera Murdock said Wednesday.

Because the park’s official visitors centers have all closed due to the lapse in funding, the conservancy’s operation has become the go-to hub for information during the shutdown, which was in its 12th day on Wednesday.

“By and large, visitors have been kind to our staff but very frustrated by the lack of information, the lack of accessibility,” she said. “For some people this is their bucket-list opportunity with their family to see the park.”

Trash collection and waste disposal have remained a problem in the park since there is no government staff to clean up. The pit toilets at Lily Lake on U.S. 7 south of Estes Park have become particularly nasty, Rivera Murdock said. The lake and its facilities are adjacent to the highway, making it one of the few easily accessible spots in the park.

As trash bins fill, people have started to throw garbage into the toilets, Rivera Murdock said. That refuse will have to be picked out before the toilets can be cleaned.

“Those bathrooms are seeing some really horrendous impacts,” she said.

The park service closed the main entrances to the park on Sunday in anticipation of a winter storm that dumped snow on the Front Range. The park also started closing restrooms and trash bins due to “human waste issues, wildlife concerns and overall public health,” according to a Sunday news release .

People are allowed to enter the park on foot - and webcams at park entrances show they are doing so - but ranger assistance and emergency services are nearly nonexistent.

In addition to unplowed roads, sidewalks are not being maintained and all programming has halted at the national park, which is one of the most-visited in the U.S. About 112,830 people visited Rocky Mountain National Park in December 2017 .

Visitors have been picking up trash as they can, Rivera Murdock said, and some brave souls have volunteered to clean the bathrooms, though that hasn’t happened yet.

Because most park staff are forbidden from working, conservancy employees at the visitor center have taken on the task of guiding visitors to alternative outdoor adventures not in the park and keeping tabs on road conditions.

During the summer, the conservancy operates the visitor center with the help of a volunteer and one National Park Service staff member. Generally, the nonprofit runs gift shops in the park and works toward long-term education and conservation programs and doesn’t act as guides to the park itself.

“This is not normally what we do,” she said.

The road closures have kept many people out of the interior of the park. Many other national parks where roads remain open, like Yosemite and Joshua Tree in California, have struggled to maintain facilities as visitors continue to stream into the understaffed public lands.

There are not many ways right now for those who want to help Rocky Mountain National Park to pitch in, Rivera Murdock said. Park service volunteers are not able to serve during the shutdown and she does not recommend volunteers attempt to clean pit toilets, which contain biohazard material.

But Rivera Murdock sees at least one silver lining to the chaos.

“We’re really lucky that it’s not active bear season,” she said. “That would be a whole other problem”

AP RADIO
Update hourly