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Social media is ruining the wilderness.
That’s the claim that many are making. In preparing to write this article, I read dozens of similar articles or posts about how social media has decimated beautiful wilderness locations. I fully agree with many of the points made in these articles, but it’s not that simple.
Geotagging your images on Instagram or writing detailed trip reports have certainly led masses of people to head for the hills, but isn’t that a good thing?
After all, numerous studies show that spending time in nature improves our physical and mental health, improves creativity, reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, high blood pressure, and more.
I don’t know about you, but I want everyone around me to be healthier and have a better quality of life, but I also don’t want all those same people out destroying our natural wonders.
Our National Parks
Since the inception of national parks in 1904, visitation has steadily climbed reaching a peak of 330,971,689 visitors in 2016. Many of those visits occur at a handful of parks. Traffic and congestion are certainly issues at places like Zion, Yellowstone, or Yosemite. People often go to these natural wonders to escape the hustle and bustle of city life or to connect with nature. This isn’t as easy when there are lines, crowds, and full parking lots, but isn’t preserving these natural wonders for human enjoyment exactly the goal many conservationists are working toward? The conservationists understand the value of nature and want to preserve nature for all to experience.
The words: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” adorn the Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. These words come from the legislation that allowed the preservation of natural lands like Yellowstone as national parks.
Conservationists are in favor of the preservation of natural lands – and for what other reason than for the benefit and enjoyment of the people? So we can all live healthier, more meaningful lives.
The problem is that the way many people benefit from and enjoy our natural lands is destructive and the more people visit, the more people there are to do damage.
Is geotagging the problem?
This is why so many are decrying posting hot spots on social media like Instagram. Many feel that geotagging a specific location can cause masses of people to visit a spot leaving it wrecked and ruined for current and future generations. It’s true that this happens regularly, but I believe the situation is more nuanced than that.
It’s not so much that social media drives hordes of people to one spot or that public lands are more accessible than ever before. What I see is a general lack of stewardship of the land and lack of education of what human impacts look like and how to avoid them that causes damage.
I don’t believe social media and sharing beautiful locations is the root cause of the problem. Instant gratification, the need to feel accepted, greed, ingratitude, and selfishness make up the root problems.
I recently climbed to the top of remote wilderness canyon that ended in a beautiful cirque with a reservoir and flowing waterfalls all around. This isn’t an easy hike, but the location and views are breathtaking. Other than the dam built by the CCC, traces of humans are next to nil. There were a few footprints in the mud around the reservoir, but the rest of the area was pristine. This place takes significant work to access compared to surrounding features, but it’s within two hours of a metropolitan area.
It’s not a secret area either. It’s well-publicized in area guide books and online resources like The Outbound Collective. It’s not that it isn’t regularly visited by humans either. It gets year-round visitors. I believe the reason it remains in good condition is that the visitors coming here are those connected with nature on a deep enough level to respect it. They have to work to earn the views and typically know what they are doing in the wilderness. These people have training and experience in the outdoors and know what outdoor stewardship is.
Teaching outdoor stewardship
Outdoor stewardship is more than just practicing leave no trace, it goes deeper than that. Outdoor stewardship is taking responsibility for the welfare of the wild lands we love. It means engaging in volunteer events to clean up and educate the public on land usage. It means being aware of public policy that has the potential to impact natural resources and engaging to preserve what we have. Outdoor stewardship means using the lands we have, but using them responsibly with leave no trace principles.
Leave No Trace principles
Here are the seven leave no trace principles from the Leave No Trace website. Each one is a principle to be applied judiciously and takes time and effort to understand and master. Take time to study each principle and learn how it can be applied in various situations. Understanding the why behind the principles is more important than understanding the specific do’s and dont’s.
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
- Bonus: Social Media Guidance
Although the social media guidance issued by The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics isn’t an official principle, it serves as a guide for the ethical use of social media in our outdoor adventures.
Here’s an excerpt from the Social Media Guidance:
Leave No Trace is a spectrum and there are no rights or wrongs. It’s a framework for making good decisions about enjoying the outdoors responsibly, regardless of how one chooses to do so. If outdoor enthusiasts stop and think about the potential impacts and associated consequences of a particular action, it can go a long way towards ensuring protection of our shared outdoor spaces. To that end, we encourage outdoor enthusiasts to stop and think about their actions and the potential consequences of posting pictures, GPS data, detailed maps, etc. to social media.New Social Media Guidance – The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics
The guidance doesn’t give a directive to not geotag or post other location details of your adventures on social media. It gives guidance on how to make the right decision about when it may be appropriate or inappropriate to geotag.
This sort of stewardship arises when a person spends time in nature and connects with it on a deep, spiritual level. As we come to love nature and spend time in the wilderness, we naturally want to take better care of it. This takes more than just spending time outside though. We have to be made aware of the impact and effects each individual can have on nature. That takes study and thought.
Most people wouldn’t intuitively know that cryptobiotic soil takes years to grow and trampling it causes avoidable ecosystem disturbances Staying on the trail or on durable surfaces like slickrock easily prevents this damage. Another example I see often – many people think that since a banana peel came from nature, it’s okay to leave it in nature. Following leave no trace principles would dictate otherwise unless of course, you were in a banana grove where bananas grow naturally.
We must educate new adventurers
This is where education plays a role. As those who’ve been taught how to be stewards, we must work to teach others in a respectful way what leave no trace or negative trace ethics look like. The national parks services work tirelessly at this but they’re often ignored. People often break the rules when that cute chipmunk approaches them begging for a bite of sandwich. They fail to think through the negative consequences their actions could have on the environment around them for generations to come.
If we adopted the mindset that we are responsible for passing down to future generations each natural location we enjoy in the same beautiful state we enjoy it in, we’d be more careful. Truly packing out everything we pack in and nothing else. Truly minimizing our footprints by consciously avoiding stepping anywhere that would erode or damage the environment beyond the already-trodden trail. Learning to be respectful of plants and animals so as not to disturb their normal activities of living. Learning that when we see traces of humans such as old fire rings or dropped garbage, we can do our part by removing the garbage and dismantling the fire ring.
I want to encourage access and use of public lands, but I want us to use these lands responsibly and consciously. I view it as a great trend that so many people are choosing to #optoutside. We should encourage people to get out in nature, but responsibly. If that includes posting a few selfies from that spectacular viewpoint, so be it – as long as they didn’t break any park rules or squish any wildflower sprouts to get the shot.
So what do we do? We educate and set a good example. To learn more about outdoor ethics see this post.