Clear Your Pallet

Keeping Bozeman's water clean.

Every winter, piles of pallets slowly make their pilgrimage up Hyalite Canyon Road and into the canyon’s many fire pits, providing fuel for bonfires and winter cheer. Long after the revelers have left, hundreds of nails and staples are left behind to puncture tires, pollute our waterways, and litter our national forest.

“It’s definitely the largest contributor to the trash that we clear out of Hyalite every spring, and the nails are ubiquitous,” says Hilary Eisen, president of Friends of Hyalite, a nonprofit partner with the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. “I dare anybody to search around in the dirt by a fire ring or in a parking lot—they’ll probably find nails, even after we clean an area up.”

Winter in particular is a popular time to burn fuel and bring light to our long, dark winter evenings. According to traffic counters managed by Friends of Hyalite and the Forest Service, the average number of vehicles in Hyalite on a winter weekend easily reaches 1,200 (and nearly double that on a summer weekend). 

The canyon’s popularity, coupled with how easy pallets are to come by, is an unfortunate combination resulting in cleanup events dominated by pallet debris. Friends of Hyalite hosts two cleanup days each year and a handful of stewardship nights in the summertime, most of which are spent cleaning out campsites and fire rings. Large magnets on rollers often yield a jaw-dropping amount of scrap metal from piles of pallet remains.

“Pallets burn very hot and quickly, resulting in damage to paved parking areas and to the provided fire rings at recreation sites,” says Wendi Urie, recreation program manager for the Bozeman Ranger District. “Pallet fires result in the need for hundreds of hours of Forest Service staff time and volunteer labor to clean up the nails and ashes.”

Trash, damaged campsites, and punctured tires aside, Hyalite is one of the primary water sources for the city of Bozeman. Keeping Hyalite clean not only makes it more enjoyable to recreate in, but it improves the health and safety of our community.

Friends of Hyalite and the Forest Service remind those recreating in the canyon accompanied by a toasty bonfire, that wood is a plentiful resource and there are plenty of ways to enjoy a crackling fire without pollution. Collect dead wood from the forest floor or bring lumber scraps from the many construction sites around Bozeman—provided they don’t have nails and haven’t been treated with chemicals. Firewood permits can be purchased for felling standing dead timber. 

Whatever wood you choose to burn, be sure to use an established fire ring. All fires should be cold to the touch before leaving—bring a shovel or drown them in water, to prevent the risk of forest fires. And the next time you drink a glass of tap water or your favorite local microbrew, consider the quality of water we’re lucky to have here in the Gallatin Valley—and then think about the things you can do to keep it that way.

Mira Brody is a local writer, recreationist, and Friends of Hyalite board member.