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Opinion: We need more water stations on federal lands

As outdoor participation increases, we need to rethink how we deal with water—and, more to the point, plastic bottles—on federal lands.

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The pandemic boosted the profile of our public lands by drawing more visitors looking to explore the great outdoors, but increased traffic to national parks and other sites has highlighted an ongoing, and now rapidly growing, problem in recreational areas around the country.

More than 300 million people visit national parks each year, generating millions of tons of trash and posing an imminent threat to iconic destinations from Acadia to Zion. As visitation grows—which is expected amid the lingering pandemic and industry-wide efforts to grow and sustain participation—so will waste.

Single-use plastic remains one of the biggest culprits. Unfortunately, the sale and use of plastic water bottles in national parks devolved into partisan politics because of the National Park Service’s policy on single-use plastic flip-flopping between the last few Democratic and Republican administrations.

Greg Williamson is a runner, skier, and has served as president of CamelBak since July 2018.
(Photo: CamelBak)

But this isn’t a partisan issue. The result of a throwaway culture is more plastic waste finding its way into landfills or, worse, into waterways. It’s taking an environmental toll on the lands we all love, regardless of which party we support at the ballot box.

Thankfully, a solution to this problem exists. Expanding water refilling stations on public lands, along with promoting the practice of reusable water bottles and hydration packs, would give visitors more options for staying hydrated, improve the visitor experience, and reduce waste and trash collection costs.

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Consider what happened at Zion National Park in recent years. When the park’s administration implemented a ban on plastic bottles, it yielded the reduction of 5,000 pounds of plastic water bottle waste and a 78 percent increase in the sale of reusable bottles. But the benefit extended beyond the park boundaries. Once visitors took those reusable water bottles home or onto their next adventure, their continued use of those bottles further prevented plastic waste.

What’s more, a heightened emphasis on hydration would promote safety, especially in hotter climates or under environmentally unsafe conditions. A recent investigation into deaths in California’s Sierra National Forest found that three people perished on a trail in August 2021 due, in part, to dehydration and lack of safe drinking water.

At CamelBak, we’re pushing for a solution that would address the ongoing issues and find common ground for all stakeholders of our public lands. CamelBak’s longstanding mission has been for the world to “ditch disposable.” The brand believes that if national parks and federal recreation areas had a robust infrastructure of water refilling stations, single-use plastic would be further reduced—just as it was in Zion. 

Such a network of refilling stations would also encourage more people to bring their reusable bottles and hydration packs to national parks, keeping the parks cleaner in the long term.

All of these reasons are why CamelBak is launching a campaign to work with Congress to get more federal land management agencies to install water refilling stations on our public lands. A clear and concise federal policy on hydration infrastructure, which does not exist, would provide better hydration options while conserving our national parks and other recreation areas.

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It’s an area where we believe a public-private partnership would be a perfect fit. CamelBak is seeking partners in this mission—along with bipartisan sponsors in the House and Senate—in hopes of expanding hydration and promoting conservation of our public lands.

The time to invest in the outdoors is now, as evidenced by recently passed legislation such as the Great American Outdoors Act. By raising our collective voices and demanding that the government invest in water refilling stations, the return on this investment will be enjoyed for generations to come.