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September 12, 2023

The Rocky Mountain National Park Continental Divide Learning Center September newsletter has an article titled "Let Me Count the Ways: How Citizen Scientists Helped a Park Measure Visitor Impacts" that highlights a collaborative research effort between FORT researcher Jill Baron and RMNP to document the impacts of visitor use on park natural resources. 

map of the Loch Vale Watershed with human waste icons distributed along a trail.
A map of improperly buried human waste documented in the Glacier Gorge trail corridor in 2020. Photo from the National Park Service. 

Highly visited parks like Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) are impacted heavily by the millions of visitors they welcome each year. For years, FORT scientist Jill Baron has been measuring human-caused drivers of change in RMNP, with a particular interest in the impact of park visitation on watersheds in the park. Most recently, her research group determined that human urine contributes 2% of all nitrogen found in waters of the Loch Vale watershed, a popular park spot for swimming, hiking, and other recreational activities. 

In this article, the Continental Divide Learning Center describes a large, collaborative project between Jill and other scientists at both USGS and the National Park Service (NPS) that aimed to measure large-scale impacts of park visitation. To do this, they trained a group of citizen scientists to collect data on human waste, trash, and other visitor impacts along different types of wilderness trails. They found that the extent of visitor impact (for example, the number of human waste points) was much larger on highly used wilderness trails, where there is limited access to toilets and other facilities. The data from this years-long study have been used in public presentations on the impact of park visitation, and will be useful in developing the park's long-term visitor use plans. 

This article was initially published in Park Science Volume 37, Issue 1, Summer 2023. For more information contact Jill Baron ( 

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