As is the state of our outdoors due to a massive increase in popularity, this is an important topic to discuss. Through the influence of social media and its various personalities and brands, we have seen a spike in the number of visitors to our wildnesses, parks, and iconic spots. Unfortunately, the level of education, awareness, and negligence/disrespect that the newcomers bring is having a disparate impact on our public lands.
This all began with the rise of social media. Something I believed could be a good thing for public lands which had been decreasing in popularity for a while. People didn’t care as much for the outdoors and adventures in the time right before social media really came on the scene.
The number of visitors to national parks actually peaked in the mid-’90s before decreasing by a few million per year during the early ’00s. I believe that more people spending more time at our national parks, state parks, and other natural areas can be a good thing. With the right education and approach, it instills a respect for the planet and a desire to protect what we have inherited.
However, there has been a sharp increase in the amount of pollution, damage, and total destruction of our public lands. It has many in the landscape photography community as well as various other groups that love our public lands at a very deep level thinking we should stop encouraging others to go to these places. I just so happens that while the popularity of some parks has skyrocketed there are many others that haven’t seen the same increase in attention.
The idea that if we stop advertising natural locations, we might be able to save them from destruction. Perhaps this alone can help, but it does make me wonder if it may parallel the similar discussion we are having about immunization. What percentage of the community do we need to have stopped sharing these locations before we stop the spread of damage? Approaching this from a different angle, how many influencers sharing locations does it take before those locations shared are damaged beyond recognition?
I don’t have an answer to this question, but if we are able to directly correlate the act of sharing photo locations to the idea of herd immunity the percentage immunized would have to be 95% or higher. We all know how this is going with diseases like the measles right now, so who honestly believes that we are going to be able to prevent location sharing completely? Given that location, sharing is baked so deeply into our social media today this is an uphill battle to take on the whole issue alone.
There are other options that may prove helpful in avoiding the total destruction of all these beautiful landscape locations. Keeping in mind that America’s most iconic locations are designed to handle larger volumes of visitors, we might be able to encourage people to visit these spots that have the infrastructure in place to handle the traffic. Also, there are some lesser-known locations that can handle a significant amount more traffic than they currently receive, and getting more people to visit these spots might alleviate the traffic in more fragile ecosystems.
I have saved the most critical component for last. It also happens to be the most simple. We must be teachers of how to tread lightly on public lands. Educating others the practices of Leave No Trace and showing why it is important will help grow our society of people who love nature. Showing those who are taking the time to visit our public lands why it is so important to take care of the links back to why I think this increase in the volume of visitors is so important as an opportunity.
The national parks were founded so that the younger generations might be influenced to take care of the planet better than the generation before them. We should be encouraging people to take a hike, camp out, and fully immerse themselves into the experience vs just showing up to take a quick selfie or that sunrise/sunset shot. These youth that are visiting these parks will grow up to be policymakers and voters on what happens in the future. It would not be good for the national parks to become what amounts to a theme park without rides! Creating a culture through and around including everyone in taking care of nature and showing our passion for it in various ways is what makes this age so great!
There is a case study currently going on in the Faroe Islands that I believe we can learn from as well. They recently closed the island to tourism for 2 full days. During this time they had 1000 volunteers fly in to clean up and do projects to take care of the areas that are affected by the increased tourism. The first event was such a massive success that they plan to do it every year from now on! This is exactly the right attitude and approach to take going forward, and a great example for locations like this to take on going forward.
So, when I think about how we should be going about protecting our public lands from the dangers of Instagram influencers I like to think of it as a great opportunity. There has been no other time in our history where going outdoors has been more popular or destructive. However, there may be a way to swing this destruction into a countermovement by showing how things are going awry.
What if we could use this as an opportunity to create a shift in our culture towards embracing taking care of the land and visiting these places respectfully and responsibly? Let’s make ecotourism a positive by making more of our society embrace the beauty of protecting and preserving parks and wilderness. Mindfulness and passion for both embracing nature as well as protecting it.