Dead Horse Point State Park Ranger Aide Alia Welsh straightens a rock cairn to help visitors stay on the designated trail. [Photo courtesy of DHPSP]

Soil loss has become such a significant issue for Moab-area parks that land managers are imploring visitors to heed requests to stay on designated trails.

“We worry about the soil crust, with the volume of people going through the park — it’s one of the challenges we’re most concerned with,” Arches National Park acting chief of interpretation Andy L. Fisher said. “When the soil gets crushed it takes a long time to recover. As soon as we create blowing sand we’re out of healthy soil. Plants can’t root well in that unstable environment.”

Nearly 1.6 million people visit Arches each year — that’s a lot of feet in a small area, and why it’s important to stay on trails and be able to recognize and value the importance of cryptobiotic soil, Fisher said. Comprised of lichens, moss, algae and bacteria, cryptobiotic soil reduces wind and water erosion, holds plants in place, and helps feed and water the soil.

More than 300 million people visited the nation’s national parks last year and millions more visited state parks, wildlife refuges, and federally designated wilderness areas. Land managers say they welcome and want people to visit, enjoy, and cherish these special places — although managing the human impacts on these protected areas is a challenge — especially during an era of reduced federal funding.

Visitation to the nation’s parks has increased substantially over the past decade, said Jeff Marion, a Virginia-based research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who specializes in recreation ecology. Marion investigates visitor impacts on protected areas and works closely with land managers to learn how best to accommodate both the increased visitation and the negative effects that invariably occur.

Like Arches, Dead Horse Point State Park’s manager Dillon Hoyt cited soil compaction as that park’s biggest issue. When people wander off the designated paths they create what’s called “social trails” — which park employees must spend time removing — so as not to incur more damage. An employee is scheduled to do “trail roving” on a daily basis to check on the trails, talk with visitors, and remove trails formed when people cut across terrain.

“In some places, mostly at the Point, we’re losing our grasses, which is happening also along some of our main trails,” Hoyt said.

“We are currently assessing all of our trails to see what we need the signs to say, and we’re putting up new signs. We’ll use symbols instead of words because a lot of visitors are from other countries and don’t speak English. We’ve discovered symbols work better than words.”

The Bureau of Land Management also deals with the impacts of hikers, mountain bikers and motorists who leave the trail, BLM volunteer Sandy Freethey said.

“We’re careful to erase tracks whenever possible, to discourage other people from getting off the designated trail,” Freethey said. “It’s an ongoing process. It starts with education.”

Both the Bureau of Land Management and the area Trail Mix Committee attempt to educate visitors with information at kiosks at trailheads explaining the damage caused to the land when lots of people create their own pathways.

In some cases, trail users have helped agencies make decisions on how to improve and protect areas — even when it meant eliminating trails or roads. Jeep roads on BLM property have been reduced from an approximate 6,000 to 3,000 since 2008. The BLM worked with Grand County, and local jeepers in deciding which jeep roads to eliminate, Freethey said.

Marion travels to Utah to drive and backpack around the state’s parks and monuments where he takes samples, and studies impacts such as soil loss, trail widening, tree damage, and unauthorized creation of campfire pits, trails and day-use sites.

Marion said he found soil conditions “sobering” at Zion National Park where thousands of cubic yards of soil have been lost (the equivalent of 66 10-cubic yard single axle dump trucks). It takes a very long time for soil to come back, he said. Plus, there’s the question of where did the dirt go? Soil that ends up in a creek causes secondary impacts, he added.

Soil is the most critical issue studied by the USGS; people help protect popular parks they love by staying on the trails, Marion said.

While any avid hiker or desert lover likely knows about cryptobiotic soil, some people might not realize that stacking rocks can also be a big deal. Some people get carried away with creating tall, decorative rock piles, Marion said. Rocks help to hold down soil, however, and when you move one, you’re altering the habitat of whatever critter might be living underneath the rock.

Leave No Trace Center, the Boulder, Colorado-based outdoor ethics organization, of which Marion is a founding member, and author of its “Leave No Trace” book of principles, asks that people not remove rocks from streams. Amphibian eggs are often laid underneath the stones.

Feeding wildlife is another human impact, often with tragic consequences. And while perhaps most outdoors enthusiasts know not to feed wildlife, Marion said even leaving crumbs, or tossing some leftover food in the bushes can cause major problems. For that reason, Marion makes a point to pack out crumbs and leftovers from eating food in the wild. He calls it “micro-garbage.”

Bears have a keen sense of smell and if a bear finds food left on a picnic table, in a firepit, or elsewhere in camp, it will return to the area, he said.

“At some point it becomes a negative situation — and the bear will get shot,” Marion added.

Many have heard the phrase “a fed bear is a dead bear” because bears who frequent campgrounds end up being killed by land managers in order to protect people.

In Zion, Marion recalled being besieged by chipmunks begging for food. Though some people persist in feeding critters, human food is not healthy for wildlife.

“Doritos are not in the food pyramid for wildlife,” Marion said.

“At some point someone’s going to get bit. Plus, at the end of the season, when the people go away, there’s suddenly no food — and the chipmunks have bred beyond capacity for the natural habitat to sustain — they’ll probably starve.”

The park service, the BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics all use the science conducted by USGS to develop and communicate low-impact outdoor practices.

“In the eighties we had a lot more staff interacting with visitors,” Marion said. “There’s been a steady trend of doing more with less. It’s reaching dire levels. It’s very challenging.

“Recreation ecology is a very applied science. We have a chance to widely communicate to the world (best practices). We’re looking for both more people, and less impact. “We have tools in our toolbox. There’s science behind what we’re doing to sustain recreation.”

Utah parks use USGS research to protect parks, prevent soil loss, educate visitors

“Doritos are not in the food pyramid for wildlife.”