It’s not every day a picture of a plastic toy character resembling the Michelin Tire Man catches your attention, but that’s just what happened. On September 19, the stalwart figure was the unofficial mascot on Grand Teton National Park’s Instagram feed recruiting volunteers for National Public Lands Day to help clean up the park after a busy year.
National Public Lands Day is the largest national volunteer effort for public lands and this year it was held on September 25. Having just visited a national park, I was curious to learn what needed to be cleaned up and why.
I caught up with Megan Kohli, Youth and Volunteer Program Manager for Grand Teton National Park. I was expecting to talk trash, that is, litter, during our call, but instead I got something far more valuable from this veteran park employee.
On a crisp Fall morning 80 volunteers gathered at the Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center to get their service assignment, which included trail and vegetation maintenance, chinking on cabins at the historic 4 Lazy F Dude Ranch, repairing fencing or building fences for heavily trafficked areas, and of course, my favorite, picking up litter.
Megan shared visitation to national parks has increased over the last few years—Grand Teton receives about four million visitors a year, mostly from May through September. She explained the human footprint is creeping further and further into areas that were once considered off-limits—taboo.
“Many park visitors take that extra step off the trail to get the perfect picture, but when everyone makes the same decision, it adds up and really degrades our parks. Instead of a two-foot wide trail, we now have a six-foot wide trail,” said Megan.
Another common creep is motor vehicles—specifically people parking on the side of the road once parking areas are full or creating their own space, particularly when there’s wildlife to view. I experienced this firsthand last month in Yellowstone. As my friend and I turned a corner chaos ensued—cars and people were everywhere, it was a free-for-all. The source—bears were in sight. Seeing bears in the park was a goal of mine and there were three just off the side of the road, but there was no place to park safely without risking an accident or blocking the road. All I could do was keep moving forward and hope to find a designated place to park before the bears left.
I desperately wanted to pullover, but didn’t want to add to the growing wildlife jam; luckily, just around another corner was a designated turnout for parking! Mamma and her two cubs were still there when we walked back to the spot and I finally got to see bears the wild—a magical moment.
My almost “near miss” of seeing bears at Yellowstone (think off-road parking creeping onto vegetation) and Megan’s example of visitors going off-trail demonstrates how unintentional impact adds up and the importance of heeding park guidelines. When I asked Megan for additional tips to share with park visitors, she took a more holistic approach for navigating Grand Teton and other national parks:
- Rather than quick stops at every attraction for the sake of pictures, spend quality time at a few locations—take a hike, have a picnic, or just sit. Removing the “franticness” of trying to see it all—do it all will result in deeper and more meaningful experiences.
- Schedule your visit to avoid times of high use—if a popular area or attraction is busy come back, if possible. Often the beginning and end of the day are less busy so it gives you a better experience. Be considerate of other park visitors’ experiences.
- Check out the park website ahead of time (and in some cases the park app) to get suggestions on where-when-how to make the most of your visit. That will also help you plan for any seasonal construction or closures.
“When you spend time at one location you get to know a place more intimately and get to make memories. When you visit a place “slowly” you learn how to take care of it and understand it better, and the better you understand it the more likely you are to take care of it,” said Megan.
Megan went on to say it’s easy for people to get spellbound by the natural beauty of Grand Teton, as it’s very different scenery than what most people see at home; but stressed that national parks aren’t the only place where nature is wild—don’t marginalize the small things happening in our own backyards, local parks, and nature areas. Her advice is for everyone to spend time in their local natural areas and to engage with conservation projects.
Given my enthusiastic focus on trash lately, I was delighted our call didn’t end without getting one trashy statistic: Since the first National Public Lands Day in 1999, 211,950 pounds of litter have been removed from parks on public lands during this one day of service.
Megan explained a lot of what’s picked up is most likely accidental droppings, so be conscientious out there, and if you see something on the ground pick it up. I was happy to hear the park has weekly volunteers dedicated to picking up litter, particularly near areas where the bear population is high.
As I reflect on my conversation with Megan, my main takeaway is to slow down and be present in the beauty that surrounds us. Thank you, Megan.
Megan has been the Youth and Volunteer Program Manager for Grand Teton National Park for three years – prior to this she was in a similar role at Grand Canyon National park for seven years.
What’s your advice for visiting national parks slowly?