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Trouble on the Trails: Forest Service Grapples with Crowds, Trash and Human Waste

Sean Hurley
The Forest Service's Tiffany Benna in the full Lincoln Woods parking lot.

The coronavirus pandemic has drawn increasing crowds to the great outdoors, including many popular hiking trails, swimming holes and recreation areas in the White Mountains. But the burst in popularity has created new problems for the folks who manage New Hampshire's national forest.

NHPR's Sean Hurley recently visited one of the more popular spots, the Lincoln Woods Trailhead, and filed this report.

Tiffany Benna, who oversees recreation for the U.S. Forest Service, walks through the Lincoln Woods parking lot early on Friday afternoon.  

“I was like almost holding my breath coming around the corner going, ‘Is it going to be?…Oh, wow, it is – it already is full!’ she says.

I can’t find a spot in the 150 space lot, and so I join the 80 cars parked on the shoulder of the Kancamagus Highway where it’s now common, on weekends, to find 300 cars parked, and sometimes double parked, on the road.

Credit Sean Hurley
On weekends, the Forest Service is seeing upwards of 300 cars parked on the Kancamagus Highway.

Benna says the early March and April surge of visitors seeking sanctuary during the pandemic has only grown.

“The numbers that we're seeing are greatly higher than we've ever seen before,” she says. “We're seeing it across all of the forest, in our places where we've kind of labeled them as quieter places. They're at capacity and spilling out as well.”

The Forest Service expected this. Additional porta-potties and dumpsters have been set up in high use areas. What they didn’t expect was the more recent shift in public behavior.

"We're seeing human waste along trails,” Benna says. “We're seeing graffiti which we haven't really seen, on boulders and rocks along the trails, not just on our signs. And we're also seeing a lot of people, like 100 volunteers, you know, go into the forest and pull out, you know, 300 pounds of trash.”

The reason for this, Benna says: First time visitors to the forest who just don’t know what’s expected of them.

“We have a lot of what we would maybe consider ‘new users’ to the forest that maybe aren't prepared to come to a place that has limited facilities,” she says. “You know, there aren't bathrooms everywhere, there isn't trash pickup everywhere. And so these folks need to pack it in, pack it out but that includes human waste. So if you are going in the woods, you need to bury it or pack it out.”

Or, to quote the Maggie Dietz poem: "However long you stay, you must leave nothing."

Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at

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