Ken Yager speaking in front of a crowd

How To Keep Parks Clean

Photo: Yosemite Climbing Association

Tips on reducing your impact on public lands from Yosemite climbing advocate Ken Yager, who organizes the removal of 10,000 pounds of trash annually from the park and is now taking his cleanup movement international.  

For 45 years, Ken Yager has scaled the walls of Yosemite National Park, where—to succeed—he’s learned to travel lightly as he ascends their faces, which can take upwards of a week or more. With practice, he’s discovered how much water he’s needed to drink each day, how much food to eat, and how to dispose of human waste safely and correctly. He became a minimalist out of necessity; if he carried too much, he’d never make it off the ground.

Yager learned to apply that same type of mindful, minimal resourcefulness to building the nonprofit Yosemite Climbing Association (YCA) in 2003, which he compares to climbing walls. “You have to make due with the tools you have,” Yager says of founding YCA, which has museums in both Yosemite Valley and nearby Mariposa, Calif., to help preserve the park’s rich climbing history, “whether it’s time, money or energy.” With the latter, Yager started the Yosemite Facelift to help the park maintain a future for Yosemite climbing. At first, 360 people showed up; now the annual event is the park’s biggest get-together of the year, where everyone picks up trash and attends community events.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Facelift, which Yager spearheaded after getting fed up with coming across visitors’ used toilet paper stashed in the woods. Back then, he worked as a guide for the Yosemite Mountaineering School and was embarrassed by the human race’s total disregard for the environment. People were leaving human excrement at the base of walls he was guiding, and micro-trash accumulated, such as candy bar wrappers, cigarette butts, and plastic bottles. 

For the first years, Yager recruited his friends in the climbing community, and with them, he filled the back of his maroon Toyota pickup truck four times. The community included 120 volunteers from the historic climber’s campground Camp 4. The event grew to include park service personnel, concession workers, and park guests. Within a decade, his efforts removed more than 1 million pounds of trash.

During the peak of COVID in 2020, and to help slow the spread of the virus, Yager and YCA started Facelift Act Local, where he urged participants to select a local area to pick up trash and to spread the word through their communities. After the success of Act Local, which went global, this year Yager’s expanded Facelift to include: Joshua Tree National Park, Mammoth Lakes and South Lake Tahoe in California, and the New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia. There will be 20 to 25 other Facelifts in 2023, including Canada and Mexico.  

Below are Yager’s tips on taking care of our public lands, whether on the walls of El Capitan or a family hike on terra firma. 

Volunteers show trash they have picked up Photo: Yosemite Climbing Association

PUBLIC LANDS: Can you explain intentional and unintentional trash? 

KEN YAGER: One example of unintentional trash is leaving car doors open when you pull over and people get out of their vehicles. You must be especially careful in windy areas, where gusts catch napkins and other items in your car. Another form is stashing trash in your pocket; if you pull something out, it can accidentally fall out. Bring a container so you can house trash immediately. 

And there’s intentional trash, like here in Yosemite and in the surrounding Sierra foothills, when visitors see full trash cans and just discard their items nearby. Our cleanups help people be more aware of their trash and be more careful. 

When it comes to human waste, sometimes you or someone in your party has to go. What then? 

It also comes down to education. Like if they’re going to poop in the woods—and burying it—you need to be 200 feet from a campsite, a water source, and trails. For more information, check out the book How to Poop in the Woods.

People have accidents and can’t always find a restroom in time. When spending the night on big walls, it’s required to bring wag bags and dispose of them properly after the climb. If you’re underprepared, the park service will fine you. Wag bags are puncture-proof containers that come with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. 

Since Facelift happens only once a year (September in Yosemite) and throughout spring and fall at various locations, how can you do your part when visiting national parks and recreation areas? 

A friend recently told me that though Facelift is effective, there’s trash everywhere in the grand scheme of things, so what difference does it matter? He also noted that picking up trash once a year isn’t as productive as tackling more significant items like global change. 

What it does do, is that people get more educated. When they help at these events, they want to do more—pick up trash on their own. So, to me, attending a Facelift is a good stepping stone, the first step. By getting everybody involved with picking up trash, they see what’s out there as consumers, and it clicks that reusable containers are better. And maybe we should demand that manufacturers use recyclable or environmentally friendly packaging.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.