Potty Talk

June 11, 2014 Posted by: Jim Ireland

Your National Park Service has a lofty mission – nothing less than to preserve, unimpaired for future generations, the greatest natural and cultural treasures of our nation while at the same time providing for their enjoyment today, with the highest quality educational programs possible based on the best science available.   Rangers are justifiably proud of the important work they do every day on behalf of the American people, and that mission is why many of us chose to make this our life's work.

The reality is that, in the end, park management often comes down to trash and toilets. Timpanogos Cave is no exception.  Here's a brief look behind the scenes, and how you can help.

We have about 120,000 visitors per year, each staying around 4-5 hours, and almost everybody puts something in a trash can and something in a toilet.  Down on the canyon floor, trash is the biggest challenge, especially because most of it involves food or drink.  Our old trash cans were either open on top or had a rounded lid with a flap that you pushed or pulled.  You might have a nice evening picnic, dutifully put all your trash in one of those cans, and happily head for home.  What you didn't see the next morning was your trash (along with everyone else's) scattered across the picnic area and along the river.  While you were home asleep, our squirrels and raccoons scattered the trash, shredded the paper products and aluminum foil, and generally feasted on your garbage.  Human food really isn't good for animals, and the trash took hours to pick up every day.  This cost tax money, hurt park wildlife, and just wasn't acceptable.

Over the last two years, we have replaced our old cans in the picnic areas and around the visitor center with new, animal resistant cans.  While these new cans are more expensive to properly use, they almost completely eliminate the litter problem and save a tremendous amount of staff time and cost every day.  They are designed to resist animals as large as bears, and cut down the risk of food-habituated critters which often cause safety problems for humans.  Please enjoy the new cans and be sure that the lids latch shut when you close them.  It's a simple solution that saves your tax money and protects the animals.

Up on the cave trail, it gets even more complicated.  We have the same problems with animals, and it is much more time consuming and expensive to send staff up the trail with noisy motorized wheelbarrows to empty all of the cans.  We realized that this was another opportunity to involve every visitor in the better park management.  Last spring, we removed the trash cans along the trail, and asked each of you to simply bring back down everything that you took up.  Some folks worried that the trail would soon be littered with candy wrappers and plastic bottles, but we knew you better than that.  The summer of 2013 came and went with almost no litter and very few complaints.  We soon realized that rangers saw fewer visitors with wasp bites and stings, because we had removed the cans full of sticky, sugary trash that attracted wasps right next to the benches where people sat and rested.  Please keep on packing it in and packing it out, and remember that instead of an expensive disposable bottle of water, you can fill your reusable water bottle with cold American Fork Canyon spring water for free right in front of the visitor center.

So far, so good…but just when we started to feel pretty good about our improved trash management program, we were reminded of the law of unintended consequences.  We have plumbing issues and trash is part of the problem.  Our historic restroom just below the cave entrance, appropriately named "Last Chance", was designed and built when only about 10,000 people hiked the trail each year.  Today, that number is almost 100,000.  In most of your homes, the toilet is connected to a sewer pipe, which carries water and waste out to the municipal sewer system, septic tank, and/or a leach field.   That is how our flush toilets at the visitor center and picnic areas work as well, because we have an adequate water system.   

There is no water system on the trail, so Last Chance is a fairly simple vault toilet - waste drops straight into a tank below the building, where liquids evaporate and solids decompose into a liquefied sludge.  This sludge is allowed to build up and at some point a valve just outside of Last Chance is opened and the sludge is drained through a small pipe to another tank about 100 feet below Last Chance, where it evaporates and returns back to a solid waste.  This second tank is at times opened and the solid waste can be shoveled or pumped out into barrels and hauled down the trail for disposal in the parks sewer system.  

For an 80 year old system handling almost 10 times the use it was originally designed for, it is doing pretty well, and our maintenance crew deserves big kudos for the tough job of keeping it working, but they need your help.  The pipe between the upper and lower vaults has a valve built in to allow us to isolate the tanks.  This valve is easily clogged by a disposable diaper, pair of dirty underwear, plastic grocery bag, etc.  When this happens, the crew must go fishing in the vault to grab and remove the obstruction, which is a dirty, smelly, nasty and completely preventable job.  Please do your part and only put human waste in the toilets.  Parents who hike with children in diapers should carry an air-tight plastic bag to carry out used diapers.  If you need a plastic bag, ask any ranger or trail volunteer and we'll find one for you.

Together, we have made huge progress at saving time and money, protecting wildlife, and keeping the park cleaner and safer.  Thanks for your help in cleaning up after yourselves, using the new trash cans, and packing out everything you take up the trail.  Please help us keep garbage out of the toilets and everything should flow smoothly this summer.

3 Comments Comments icon

  1. February 22, 2015 at 06:26

    I really love your idea, great post, looking forward to read your next post! Fremont sewer replacement

  2. June 24, 2014 at 12:12

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  3. June 11, 2014 at 08:32

    Excellent blog, Jim. I enjoy each of your updates, and I enjoy your writing style.

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Last updated: June 11, 2014

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