As Alaskans are staycationing on public lands, the waste is getting out of hand

Trash dumped near a recreational access road in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

While out-of-state tourism is way down in Alaska this summer, the number of Alaskans visiting outdoor spaces is way up. Trails and campgrounds are packed. 

Lots of people generate a lot of waste, and in some areas, that trash is being left behind. 

The issue has led to the indefinite closure of at least one campground. 

Leah Eskelin, with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which spans millions of acres on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, says the lands have been really popular this summer. It’s hard to say exactly how numbers compare to other years, because they’re not tracking every visitor.

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“Visitation has been really significant,” said Eskelin. “And it doesn’t slow down. We typically go in waves on a normal summer. And it’s been steady for the entire time, since mid-May.”

Eskelin is a park ranger and leads the visitor’s services division at the refuge. She manages the visitor center and supervises park rangers who operate the seasonal recreation facilities, like campgrounds and day-use areas. 

Eskelin says in a lot of ways, more visitors is a really good thing – she wants to see people taking advantage of Alaska’s public lands. 

But, she says, there are also some major downsides.  

“With more use comes just more impacts,” said Eskelin. “There’s more trash in the dumpsters. There’s more trash out of the dumpsters. There’s more ash in the fire pits that we have to go in and reduce so they maintain the safety that a fire pit provides. There’s more rock rings in parking lots.”

Lake Louise campground (Photo from Alaska State Parks)

Eskelin says the issues have mostly been isolated to campgrounds and day use areas. But recently, trash was also found near a trailhead and an in an area only accessible by boat. 

Eskelin says it’s likely this mess is being made by Alaskans. The refuge doesn’t officially keep track of visitors, but she says they do patrol campgrounds and record license plates. And it’s clear, a lot of the vehicles are registered in Alaska. 

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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are far fewer out-of-state visitors traveling to Alaska than there would be in a typical year. 

The refuge hasn’t had to close any facilities. But further north, the Lake Louise State Recreation Area near Glennallen is closed indefinitely because of similar waste issues. 

The Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation says in a statement, the decision was made because of vandalism and “lack of care by campers and recreators.” 

Wendy Sailors is a public information officer with the agency. She says garbage and human waste have become a big issue. 

“Over the course of the last month, it’s increasingly been more and more trash has been left by those who are using the facility,” said Sailors. “The community has cleaned it up a couple of times and they worked together to do that.”

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Sailors says the community didn’t ask for the closure, but DNR decided it was the best course of action. 

The Lake Louise site is a little different than others in the agency’s jurisdiction. In recent years, it was operated by a commercial operator. That operator pulled out earlier in the season, and DNR tried to find a camp host to help maintain the area until they could establish a new contract. But, Sailors says, DNR couldn’t find anyone. 

So, they put the area into “passive management.” Basically, they stopped charging fees, but also stopped garbage service and locked the bathrooms – but it didn’t go well.

Like Eskelin, on the Kenai, Sailors says visitor numbers at DNR facilities are up around the state. 

“It’s not surprising, because people are really getting out this year,” said Sailors. “Alaskans are spending more time in the parks than we’ve ever seen. We are definitely seeing the same numbers that we normally see with tourists, but with Alaskans.”

Eskelin says she doesn’t want to discourage people from visiting – especially people new to the outdoors. In fact, just the opposite. 

“This is a great summer to be able to experience this beautiful place that people have on their bucketlist,” said Eskelin.

But, she says, it’s important to recreate responsibly, and to take advantage of educational resources if you’re not sure what that means. 

Eskelin said, in addition to checking out online resources, people traveling to the refuge can get in touch with the visitor’s center at 907-260-2820.