To Carry It Out or Leave it. That's the Stinky Question Facing the Grand Canyon Managers.

Apr 30, 2012

Grand Canyon National Park is in the lengthy process of revamping its back country management plan, which  regulates where people can go and what rules they have to follow. 

The park’s plan is still a ways off, but one proposal that’s likely to surface could cause quite a stink.

Zack Summit, from Prescott, and a couple of his friends went backpacking in the Grand Canyon in early April.

Overall they had a pleasant time.

But Summit isn’t likely to forget his one early morning surprise.

"Actually when I went out in the morning at Granite Rapids to dig my hole and do my business," he recounted recently, "I picked a great spot and lo and behold, a couple inches down, there was toilet paper. So I had to move on. So that’s what you get for going for a toilet with a view in Grand Canyon."

Summit’s experience may be more common than you’d expect.

Upwards of 40,000 people visit the backcountry in a year’s time.

The more remote camping areas lack composting toilets that are available in the higher use areas.

And many of those remote areas are less than ideal places to properly dispose of waste.

Vanya Pryputniewicz is an outdoor recreation planner at Grand Canyon.

She likes to joke that she’s been involved in this issue for so long she has a degree in it.  

"In my widely varied and checkered career past," she says, "my greatest achievement may be earning a master of fecal arts as a result of nearly a decade of maintaining backcountry toilets at Grand Canyon."

Pryputniewicz says there are several ways to tackle the waste problem in the backcountry.

The park could build more toilets, or backpackers could bag their waste and pack it out.

Hiker Zack Summit likes the first option.

"As a backpacker, the idea of adding 10 pounds of fecal matter to my backpack and walking out with it in 70 degree heat really would affect my experience," he predicts. "So I think that maybe more composting toilets down in the backcountry would be a really excellent solution."

But Pryputniewic says adding infrastructure like toilets can really affect the backcountry’s wilderness quality.

And then there’s the question of how to get rid of all the waste.

Even composting toilets have to be emptied from time to time.

The Park has to pay people to transport it on the river, hike it out, fly it out on helicopters.

And if climbing out of the Grand Canyon with a 10-pound bag of your own waste sounds distasteful, imagine being the Grand Canyon staffer charged with emptying the backcountry toilets.

At the ever-popular Indian Gardens, Pryputniewic once emptied 22,000 pounds of human waste.

"Well, you do that one with mules," she said. "You get your mules together and ride down the trail and then you get on your tyvek suit and booties and a mask and goggles and big rubber gloves and open up the bottom of the toilet, get a shovel and start digging out the waste. And there’s a lot of handling involved and it’s very intimate."

The park will likely come out with a draft of the backcountry management plan early next year. 

Then members of the public will get ample chance to comment.

Meanwhile, Pryputniewic hopes that Grand Canyon’s backcountry users will begin to think of what they’re willing to do to preserve their wilderness experience.