Can State Parks Keep Waste Out Of Landfills?

Aug 4, 2017

Credit CGP Grey (2009-09-09T19-50-42 -- DSC_0245 4893627106) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Eighty-three-year-old Ralph Deckett stood outside the Curt Gowdy State Park visitor center, broom in hand. Now retired from the FBI, Deckett spends much of his time looking after museums and recreation sites like Curt Gowdy, where he had been volunteering since the beginning of July.

“We just try to keep it nice, the best we can around here. It’s amazing how people can trash out a place,” Deckett said.

And Deckett is not alone. Driving around the park, Assistant Superintendent Darrell Richardson told me Curt Gowdy depends on volunteers like Deckett.

“Our volunteer program is one of the biggest things we have going for us around here,” Richardson said.

During the summer, Richardson said, Curt Gowdy’s campsites are full. The trails are well trafficked. And for many people, disposables are part of the outdoor experience.

“It’s primarily paper, you know, people come camping and they’re going to have paper and cardboard,” Richardson said. “And then there’s a lot of cans, and I’m sure plastic bottles because everybody’s all into drinking bottled water anymore.”

Curt Gowdy employs only two full-time staff and two part-time staff. About 20 volunteers and a few seasonal workers do the rest of the work picking up trash. To pay for that help, state parks use entrance fees and Wyoming’s general fund. According to Curt Gowdy Superintendent Bill Conner, waste disposal takes up about ten percent of the park’s budget. 

Each week, he said, a private company empties twenty dumpsters spread across the park and drops the waste in Cheyenne’s landfill. Richardson said he is not aware of any entities that could transport recycling from Curt Gowdy.  

“Nobody services this area,” Richardson said. “It would be something we’d have to collect ourselves and take it to town or take it to the landfill. I don’t even know if the landfill even has recycle boxes or anything.”

Richardson said, if there was a way to have recycling hauled away, he would put bins around the park. But Curt Gowdy is nearly 30 miles from Cheyenne and it is hard to take advantage of the city’s services.

You would think recycling would be easy for a park situated inside a town. The location has not helped Kevin Skates, the superintendent of Wyoming’s busiest state park in the middle of Thermopolis.

“Right now, we are not recycling at all,” Skates said.

Since the town of Thermopolis lacks a recycling program, so does Hot Springs State Park.

Meanwhile, Grand Teton National Park is trying to deliver its waste to Teton County’s transfer station themselves. And they’re trying to send less of it to the landfill. Sustainability Coordinator Margaret Wilson said, for a long time, Grand Teton was like most state parks – they didn’t have money or staff to devote to recycling. Then they joined the Zero Landfill Initiative – a pilot project to try and divert most of the waste generated inside national parks. Wilson said part of that is educating tourists.

“[We’re] trying to reach people before they come and visit and let them try to pack accordingly," Wilson said. “Say, bring refillable water bottles, or maybe bring utensils.”

With supporters like Subaru and the National Park Foundation, Grand Teton could afford to hire a new recycling crew and place bins all over the park. Last year, it diverted a third of its waste through recycling.  Wilson said they made some discoveries about the makeup of Grand Teton's trash.

“I think the most surprising, at least for me, was that 50 percent of our waste is compostable,” Wilson said.

So the park, along with a few businesses in Jackson, started hauling food waste to an industrial composter in West Yellowstone more than 75 miles away. Wilson said that will change – Teton County plans to open up its own compost facility in 2020. Right now, the park’s trash and recyclables go with Jackson’s waste to Idaho.

Wilson said in the last year, she has learned a lot about the park’s waste system – and Grand Teton needed someone with the time to do that.  

“Each park has to have a champion or someone who’s overseeing the whole project,” Wilson said.

According to State Parks and Historic Sites Administrator Domenic Bravo, dedicating one staff member to the trash problem won’t work for state parks.

“Many of my state parks and historic sites may only have one employee, so they pretty much wear all of the hats for that one specific job,” Bravo said. 

Even though visitation is climbing for State and National Parks, a place like Curt Gowdy sees nowhere near the rush affecting Grand Teton. So the need for recycling is not as urgent, in the way the absence of recycling in Thermopolis is not as dire as it would be in Denver.

Wilson hopes that Grand Teton waste program will influence people beyond the park.

“It’s actually reminding people hopefully even in their home lives to think twice about the amount that they’re purchasing and that they’re throwing away. Because the amount of waste that we’re sending to the landfills – it’s not just a problem in national parks, it’s a problem nationally,” Wilson said.

There could be a solution for Curt Gowdy, after all. A company called WYCO is about to take over recycling in Cheyenne, with plans to pick up trailers from all over Laramie County. I called them up and asked if they’d go as far as Curt Gowdy, and they said they could. When I told Richardson about WYCO, he asked me for their phone number, with hopes that eventually Curt Gowdy could recycle more of its trash as visitor numbers rise.