Are we loving Idaho’s nature to death? Why some have hope for outdoors with record use

In 2020, 7.6 million people visited Idaho State Parks, breaking the previous record by 1.2 million visitors

By: - July 22, 2021 4:30 am

Boise’s Ridge to Rivers system includes 200 miles of trails the have experienced record use in the past year. Photo courtesy of City of Boise.

Outdoor guide Ryan Bentley spent a recent day cleaning up a section of beach along the Payette River with some students participating in an outdoors program he runs. 

Bentley, who is based in Horseshoe Bend, spends about 300 days a year outdoors guiding clients from the high alpine of the Cascade Range to the lowlands of Arizona, with plenty of adventures in Idaho. 

In 20 years in the industry, he’s helped introduce and guide thousands of people into the outdoors, mountains and public lands, from at-risk youth who would never otherwise have the opportunity to experience the exhilaration of a rafting trip to 1%er billionaires who are looking to climb a multi-pitch rock route or ski a secret powder stash deep in the backcountry.  

If you can climb it, raft it, ski it or rappel off of it, Bentley can probably guide you through.

During the winter, he runs the snowcat at Soldier Mountain near Fairfield.  

He’s also the director of Youth Dynamics Adventures Idaho, which offers mountain adventures and Christian youth ministry. 

On the day of the river cleanup, Bentley was working with a group of students in the Total Outdoor Adventure Students (TOADS) group to clean up a section of beach along the lower portion of the Payette River. It was a small section, maybe 200 feet by 200 feet, not as well known or frequently used as nearby Parnell Beach.

But the beach was in much worse shape than Bentley expected.

Broken glass.

Baby bottles.

Baby diapers.

Used prophylactics.

They filled seven entire garbage bags.

“To me, that was eye opening,” Bentley said. 

Trash is piled up inside a fire ring at a campground in Idaho. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

With record numbers of people heading outdoors to enjoy public lands in Idaho and across the West over the past two years, what Bentley encountered is hardly unique. 

Outdoor photographers, rafting guides and federal and city agency staff all told the Idaho Capital Sun they have seen a spike in public lands and outdoor usage over the past two years. 

That larger footprint can affect and change the lands, trails, mountains, rivers, lakes, hot springs, wildlife and vegetation that millions of people love and enjoy.

Whether its scarcity of parking spaces at trailheads, increased risk for wildfires, competition for a favorite dispersed camping site that nobody seemed to know about three years ago, more boats on the river, trash in campgrounds and along forest service trails, injuries and rescues, conflicts between user groups, dog poop in the foothills and damage to native vegetation that is already part of a delicate and dry ecosystem, the impact can take different forms. 


Many outdoors enthusiasts interviewed for this article believe the increase in usage is ultimately a positive thing that nevertheless raises the need for awareness, education, conservation and changes in behavior.

But in some cases, the increased human impact could threaten water sources, wildlife or private property and lead to or threaten closures of these places.

Is Idaho’s wilderness being loved to death?

For Moscow-based outdoor photographer Ben Herndon, it raises complicated questions: Are we in danger of loving these special places to death?

Moscow-based photographer is taking steps to minimize how his commercial photography can impact the outdoor places he loves. Photo courtesy of Ben Herndon.

“I’ve seen what everyone has seen, especially in the last year with COVID. People trying to get out more, which is the hard part because you want people to get out, right, and enjoy these places. But there are definitely a lot of things people can do to not love things to death,” said Herndon, who has taken photographs for Runner’s World, The North Face, Patagonia and Climbing Magazine. 

Herndon has become especially sensitive to the way social media sites like Instagram can draw large crowds to scenic and wild places. Now, Herndon isn’t likely to tag the location on Instagram of the outdoor spots he shoots. In some cases, he may not post a photo to Instagram, where he has about 1,000 followers, at all. 

“A lot of that involves not giving away a ton of information about every little thing you’re doing,” Herndon added, saying some of his favorite wild spots have been fouled by trash and crowds once they made a splash on Instagram. “And I don’t pretend to think necessarily I’m doing this great thing for these places with my work. But what you can do is try to do less harm.”

How many more people are using public lands in Idaho?

Officials with the Bureau of Land Management and Ridge to Rivers trail system say the land they oversee has seen record-breaking usage over the past year.

In 2020, 7.6 million people visited Idaho State Parks, breaking the previous record by 1.2 million visitors, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

In the Boise National Forest, recreation fee collections were up 27% in 2020, while toilet pumping needs doubled or tripled and many Dumpsters overflowed, public affairs lead Venetia Gempler said.

Last year, Idaho fishing licenses increased by 55,000, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

During the coronavirus pandemic, usage of Boise’s Ridge to Rivers 200-plus-mile trail system increased by an estimated three times, Boise’s outdoor spaces coordinator Sara Arkle said. 

The huge increase we’ve seen in usage in 2019-2020 is really driving a broader conversation about how to deal with crowing and conflict and safety,” Arkle said. “It’s a super complex thing, and there is no one solution everybody is going to stack hands on.”

Those increases are happening as Idaho has been one of the fastest growing states. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Idaho was the second fastest growing state between 2010 and 2020, growing by 17.3%. 

People have adjusted to the coronavirus pandemic, in part by choosing outdoor activities over indoor events and gatherings that may have been limited or restricted and by fleeing cities in favor of more remote or secluded locations in the West. 

How are people responding to usage?

Agencies are responding in a number of ways. The Ridge to Rivers program is testing a pilot program on some of its popular trails, testing out different trail management strategies including one-way traffic on some and alternating days between uphill and downhill traffic on others. 

We are so fortunate we have so much access and so many miles of trails to explore, and it’s a totally free, healthy activity,” Arkle said. “We want to keep it welcoming and accessible and keep it something to be proud of and that requires daily individual actions.”

Ridge to Rivers also launched its Happy Trails Pledge campaign, which encourages trail users to say hello and show respect to others. 

After seeing an increase in trash at campgrounds and campsites, the Bureau of Land Management is reboubling its calls for people to Leave no Trace by packing in what they pack out. Bureau of Land Management officials are also expanding recreational opportunities, said Jennifer Jones, the agency’s deputy state director for communications.

That includes constructing more than 80 miles of new trails in the Sun Valley area and acquiring land in southern Idaho and North Idaho that will increase recreation opportunities. 

“Providing outdoor recreation is an important part of our mission,” Jones said. “They are public lands, and they are funded by taxpayers’ dollars. Everyone knows being out there is good for your body and mind and soul.”

What are some tips for minimizing your impact

Rafting guide Daniel Gardner says people need to be especially vigilant about fire and packing out anything they pack into the outdoors.

He’s been concerned about the number of unofficial fire rings he sees crop up and abandoned, even along places like the Selway River, which is remote and requires a permit to float. 

Gardner carries a fire pan, which he can set wood on for a fire. When he is finished, he extinguishes it dead out and then dumps it in the trash to haul out. Gardner realizes that packing in a fire pan and hauling out his ashes is more work than assembling a makeshift fire ring, which is why more people don’t do it. 

This is the new future; this is our new world. Fires are going to be how it is,” Gardner said. “It calls upon us to be incredibly vigilant about how we burn.

“Everything is going to keep getting busier. There is nothing in our tourism world that tells us otherwise,” Gardner added. “I think things are going to keep getting busier in our state year by year. So it’s good to think about it now.” 


Knowing where private property is and respecting those restrictions is also important.

Many trails cross private property, where owners have given permission for the public to use trails that cross their land. Sometimes that permission is permanent, other times it is revocable.  Recently, the Crestline Trail off Claremont Drive in the Ridge to Rivers trail system closed after conflicts between users and private property owners. Arkle said there was extensive partying, litter and damage to property there. 

Sometimes it’s illegal behavior, sometimes it’s irresponsible,” she said. 

Herndon, the outdoor photographer, has been grappling with his own work and the impact it creates. He asks others who enjoy the outdoors to do the same and consider the impact of sharing the location of sensitive spots on social media sites where beautiful posts can go viral. 

“It all adds up, and it means more traffic,” Herndon said. “Even if it’s just a small percentage of people who aren’t maybe quite in tune with outdoor ethics, it can create far reaching impacts to places.”

“​​I would say less is more,” Herndon added. “I feel like it’s always our natural inclination to share where we’re going and kind of brand our lifestyles. But in the end, if a place is getting loved to death, then what is the point?”

Isn’t it a good thing that record numbers of people are enjoying the outdoors?

As a whitewater rafting guide, Gardner has enchanted thousands of clients with trips down the Snake and Salmon rivers in Idaho. He has been guiding for his family’s outfitter, Idaho Guide Service, which is based out of the Billingsley Creek Lodge in Hagerman, for the past 11 years. His family has been in business for more than 30 years, and Gardner’s father has been recreating in Idaho for more than 50 years. 

Over the last six years, he has seen Blue Heart Springs transform from a hidden gem to one of the hottest attractions in the Magic Valley. At any given time, Gardner might spot six motorboats and 20-30 kayaks and paddleboards. 

The Twin Falls Times-News reported that growth of two types of aquatic plant — one native and one nonnative — are expanding and threatening spring’s famous blue waters by obscuring the bottom. 

We are seeing some kinds of overuse that are happening and creating things for the water that might not inherently be good,” Gardner said. 

Gardner has also seen a dramatic increase in paddlers on the Snake River between Centennial Park and Pillar Falls. He estimates usage went from 25-50 boats in a given day six years ago to 300 or more canoes and kayaks on a typical day now. 

Gardner worries about the increase in usage and how it could affect the water of the Snake River, and he really worries that if more people are going outdoors, there will be more situations where people could get injured or require a rescue.

But Gardner is overwhelmingly optimistic about more people going outdoors, and he traces that optimism directly back to interactions with thousands of clients. 

“Every single day on my raft trips we have a focus where we talk about human’s relationship with the waterways,” Gardner said. “One hundred times a summer, any person who sits on my boat will hear about how we as humans have affected this place. And you’re hearing it from someone who truly cares about it. As you listen to someone and see how passionate they are and you see these sites and see your experiences … you have some sort of change moment.”

Bentley, the guide who helped clean up a section of the Payette River, is also optimistic about all the people enjoying the outdoors and the potential they have to protect the places they are coming to love. 

“When you look at a lot of the environmental movements that have happened to protect the places we cherish, it was because people took other people out there and gave them a vision of the value of it,” Bentley said. “If we don’t get people emotionally invested in where we are at to herald it and protect it, then who knows what will happen. I see my job as an outfitter as a way to invite people into stewardship of our public lands.” 


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Clark Corbin
Clark Corbin

Clark Corbin has more than a decade of experience covering Idaho government and politics. He has covered every Idaho legislative session since 2011 gavel-to-gavel. Prior to joining the Idaho Capital Sun he reported for the Idaho Falls Post Register and Idaho Education News. His reporting in Idaho has helped uncover a multimillion-dollar investment scam and exposed inaccurate data that school districts submitted to the state.