Are Instagram and Social Media Ruining the Wilderness?

Check out this article in Trail Groove Magazine by Paul Magnanti, creator of PMAGS.com.  It’s an excellent article about Social Media ethics.  It brought up some things I’ve been thinking about for the past year or so and I thought I’d share here.

I was an Instagram cop

I’ve always agreed with the observation that social media, particularly Instagram have contributed to ruining the precious places by causing a crush of tourists that the area can’t possibly handle.  There’s quite a bit written on the subject, and all over the country you can find examples of local spots being ruined with too many visitors that leave garbage, feces, and totally overrun with the blue tooth speaker crowd; in what was a spot locals enjoyed for decades.

I can think of some places locally that have been absolutely violated, presumably as a result of spots blowing up on social media.  The damage is bad enough that these areas have to be regulated with restricting parking, permits, toilets and garbage service added, or even shut down altogether.  Case in point would be Opal Creek or Oneonta Gorge here in Oregon.

Years ago in response to this phenomenon I vowed to stop hash/geo tagging anywhere.  I would play cop on Instagram by telling photographers and dipshits to remove tags and sometimes I’d @ the USFS or other governing entity if people were doing something obviously illegal or damaging.  I’d bet you it had zero effect.  I erred on the side of giving no info out on my personal Instagram account that wasn’t even public if you can believe that.  Over time I learned that if a place blows up on IG, you are powerless to stop it.

On my blog I softened a bit when I started writing it in 2016.  I didn’t feel bad about writing posts about places so many people knew about anyhow.   I also didn’t get more than a visitor or two per day (often zero) when I started this blog.  I even posted the routes I take.  I don’t write about every single excursion I have, or about every single thing I did or saw on a trip.  Some stuff is best left alone for you to experience in the moment and let others discover their own treasures.   There’s plenty out there to discover at this point and with a lot of work we can preserve it for future generations.

The Trump Effect

Since the election of 2016, I’ve realized that our public lands are only protected if the right people are in power.  No legal distinctions/classifications matter, the GOP will make real attempts to dismantle anything of public benefit in the name of profit.  Republicans will always work to privatize public lands for the benefit of rich people and corporations.  There is no meeting these fuckers halfway, their majority must be broken.  In 2018 I encourage you to support their opponents with cash or other work to defeat them.

Democrats tend to (but not always) work to protect more land and preserve what we have.  Large swathes of two National Monuments in Utah have been reduced severely so private entities can get their greedy hands on it thanks to absolute GOP control.  If we don’t get power back starting in 2018, we’ll lose even more I guarantee it.  If a Democrat in your area supports dialing back protections on public lands, primary that motherfucker and support the challenger with your money or time.

In response to the election, I don’t really care if more people visit a place because they read about it on my blog, and at this point I hope they do.  Suddenly, issues like hashtagging and geotagging seemed a luxurious concern when compared to losing public lands outright.  At this point, getting more people outdoors behooves us more than it hurts us in my opinion.   There are responsible ways to promote the outdoors however.

Every blogger and Instagrammer will settle into their own level of comfort around what they want to share whether they have 70 followers or command a multimedia backpacking empire like Section Hiker.  Paul’s article posits the phrase “Not secrecy, but obscurity”.  Like, don’t bogart that shit, but share responsibly.  Even better put is the idea of leaving bread crumbs in another of his articles on the same subject.  There’s a balance to be had and a responsibility to keep.  You want to get more people out and enjoying the outdoors, but like anyone else you don’t want to contribute its damage or ruin what the wilderness is meant to be (the wilderness is not really meant for you in the first place, but that’s a whole other article entirely).

I’ve shifted to err on the side of sharing more than I used to, hoping to plant more seeds.

I surprised myself having this reaction to the election.  But when it comes down to it, I’d rather 20 extra people visit a trail and crowd it a bit in 2018 thanks to my blog.  That could be 20 more people willing to fight for our public lands.  We need all the support we can get right now.  We need more people to join the fight.  I take some solace assuming anyone reading my blog won’t be the type to leave trash behind, shit three feet off the trail, or build bush craft shelters in the wilderness.  Granted my readership is small, so if I had a huge following I may feel differently about any potential impact.

How bad is Instagram, anyhow?

Over time I’ve softened my rules about hashtagging on Instagram.  What I noticed about IG, is that only a certain type of place seems blows up on there.  I looked at articles about spots ruined by Instagram, and found they have some things in common overall. This is anecdotal, but here’s what seems to be required for a spot blow up on IG:

1. Reasonable driving distance for a weekend daytrip from a metropolitan area (even smallish ones).

2. Exceptionally Beautiful and photogenic

3. Very easy roadside access

4. Very short, nearly nonexistent “trail”, often less than a half or quarter mile in length.  Possibly less than 100 yards.

5. With the above ingredients we need only one poster with a ton of IG followers to post about it and fuck it up for everyone.

This past summer, I made a point to explore how badly places were exposed on IG.  Multnomah Falls, the biggest tourist attraction in Oregon has 175k+ posts.  Oneonta Gorge, an “instafamous” location a few minutes down the way has 20k+ posts.  Beautiful Pony Tail falls, on the same road has even fewer, around 3k posts over the years.  Just across the river in Washington State and a tad more of a drive, Badger Creek Wilderness has all of 237 posts since the inception of Instagram.   Even Whittier Ridge, an amazing ridge walk inside the Mt St Helen’s National Monument,  has 42 posts, 10% of which are from yours truly.  Even further from Portland, the massive Deschutes River Canyon, a raftable, bikeable and hikeable area many miles in length has less than 50 posts.

So at least in the case of the above example, the number of IG posts just seems to kinda mirror regular visitor patterns with the exception of Oneonta Gorge/Falls which has soared in popularity, typically blamed on Instagram (but I think the State ad campaign is to blame too).  Compare to the area in which you live and see if the pattern holds true.

My point being that Instagram’s potential to ruin spots is real, but thankfully has its limits.   Instagram also has its peers, i.e. local media, ad campaigns, and guidebooks which in my opinion are just as bad, if not worse.  Our local paper, The Oregonian regularly features trails and hikes a short distance from town which have exploded in popularity as a result.  Dog Mountain is a perfect example of a “Wildflower Hike” that’s been featured in The Oregonian.  Tons more people go there now, many of whom are unprepared, unfit, get injured, and have even had to be rescued by helicopter.   They leave trash, shit in the woods, and carry blue tooth speakers.  They’ve had to restrict parking and start a shuttle bus.  Its so crowded I won’t go anymore 😉 Sound familiar?

To further cloud the matter, the State of Oregon launched a “7 Wonders of Oregon” ad campaign to drive tourism to different parts of the state.  In the Columbia River Gorge section, guess which hikes are promoted?  Multnomah Falls and Oneonta Gorge/Falls.  So who fucked it up first?  Instagram or the State of Oregon?

Do you want to find a trail that isn’t crowded?  Use a map or Caltopo to find trails that aren’t in your guidebook.   If a trail isn’t featured in a guidebook it’s nearly guaranteed to be crowd free.

Last Thoughts

To sum it up, if we get more backpackers out there, I truly believe the effect to be net positive.  I wasn’t so sure of that a year ago.  The election changed the way I view this:  If Trump had lost, I’d have written a much different article.

At any rate, I implore everyone continue to support our public lands and donate money or time to organizations and political candidates that fight to protect them.

 

 

 

 

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