Balloons in the Backcountry

Today a friend of mine linked to a sad picture on Facebook from the Sonoran Desert Network of a field crew member holding quite a few of “the most conspicuous” pieces of trash found in remote areas of Saguaro National Park – balloons…!?!?! The Facebook post mentions a article from last year that I missed: Helium balloon releases in Tucson trash up nearby Saguaro National Park. A few excerpts from the article:


“Shriveled latex in rainbow colors is ubiquitous in the Rincon and Tucson mountains sections of Saguaro National Park, where the air-filled orbs often land due to local wind patterns, Zylstra found.”

“To Zylstra’s amazement, balloons greatly outnumbered desert tortoises and Western diamondback rattlesnakes in the 120 square kilometers – roughly 75 miles – of parkland she studied to collect the data.”

“In the Rincons, for example, a square kilometer of land had an estimated density of 62 balloons, 30 tortoises, 26 rattlers and 29 plastic bags, which Zylstra also counted.”


Sad stuff from Erin Zylstra who published Accumulation of wind-dispersed trash in desert environments in the Journal of Arid Environments (Volume 89, February 2013) – the first line of the abstract: “Detrimental effects of plastic debris and other trash have been well-studied in marine and coastal environments, but the extent and severity of the threat to terrestrial ecosystems are largely unknown.”

0901 Balloon Litter
Balloon Litter. January 2009.

A picture from 2009, off-trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains, I took the picture above and wrote “I have found a number of balloons in quite remote places on my hikes – they seem so harmless, maybe even beautiful sometimes,  floating up into the sky, but after seeing litter like this too many times they don’t seem so harmless anymore.”

And in 2011…

1112 Balloon Litter
SE Ridge of Pusch Peak. December 2011.


1210 Trash Balloon
Upper Sycamore Canyon. October 2012.


1308 Balloon below Rosewood Point
Below Rosewood Point. August 2013.


1403 Balloon Floating in the South Fork of Edgar Canyon
South Fork of Edgar Canyon – on this trip I saw an equal number of balloons and people… March 2014.

This is not an unknown problem – thankfully in some places mass releases of balloons are actually prohibited (the Balloons Blow… Don’t Let Them Go! has a page on Balloon Laws) – but not here in Tucson – the littering continues…


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