In 2011, anticipating that plugged-in Millennials and Generation Z would exhibit a generational apathy toward the outdoors, Jonathan Jarvis, the then-director of the United States National Parks Service said, “There are times when it seems as if the national parks have never been more passé than in the age of the iPhone.”
Jarvisʼs prediction now seems comically off-base. Most North American park visitation has only increased over the past decade, and contemporary outdoorspeople have proven that using smartphones and exploring the wilderness are not mutually exclusive.
Today, social media platforms, particularly Instagram, function as guidebooks for users keen to replicate the adventures of outdoor influencers. The challenge facing public lands in the digital age is not staying relevant, but ensuring parks feel welcoming to their increasing number of visitors without becoming ecologically compromised.
In 2019, parks in British Columbia were visited five million more times than in 2014. Some of this uptick can be attributed to both government publicity campaigns and the promotion—paid and organic—parks receive when visitors post epic snaps of glacial lakes and mountain vistas. Social media has made it easier than ever to discover beautiful places in the outdoors, particularly when posts are “geotagged”—their geographic coordinates made viewable.
While geotagging has enabled more people to explore by spreading intel about scenic locations, it has also contributed to rising tensions on the trail. Some nature devotees scoff at selfie-stick wielding crowds, and fret that inexperienced hikers may wander dangerously off-trail, cause damage or litter. The concern that more visitors equal more problems in parks is not entirely unfounded.
According to a 2017 article from the US National Park Conservation Association, social media factors into overcrowding, which is in turn responsible for “an increase in emergency calls and visitor complaints, damage to natural and cultural resources and the decline of enjoyable experiences for visitors” in particularly busy locations. In 2018, apprehensions about the impact of geotagging led the environmental ethics nonprofit Leave No Trace to release social media guidelines urging users to “think before you geotag.”
Parks are experimenting with varied measures in an effort to ensure visitors enjoy the outdoors safely and ethically—from capping visitation on high-traffic trails like North Vancouverʼs Quarry Rock, to spreading risk awareness through educational initiatives, such as Pacific Rim National Parkʼs recently-launched CoastSmart program or Yellowstone National Parkʼs Yellowstone Pledge—a “promise” visitors are encouraged to make about treating the park with care.
Yet some outdoor enthusiasts, like “Steve,” the anonymous 31-year-old Idaho man behind the year-old Instagram account @PublicLandsHateYou, have taken matters into their own hands, using social media to enact a sort of digital vigilante justice. On his account, Steve critiques other Instagram users for geotagging and posting pictures of themselves committing infractions like venturing off-trail or approaching wildlife.
“I decided to fight fire with fire, and start a social media account highlighting the fact that a lot of influencers are sharing pictures that donʼt reflect treating public lands with respect,” says Steve. After messaging the offending party and giving them a chance to respond privately, Steve calls them out on his account. Typically, some of his 78,000 followers then hound the individual until they delete the post in question.
Yet self-appointed environmental defenders like Steve have been criticized by those who feel “conservation” is too often used as a euphemism for “exclusion.” According to Danielle Williams, founder of outdoor diversity blog Melanin Basecamp, finger-wagging, however well-intentioned, is not far removed from the practice of gatekeeping—the desire to keep public lands the purview of the usually white, wealthy enthusiasts who have historically been most able to access the outdoorsy life. Perspectives like that of @PublicLandsHateYou, Williams wrote in a 2019 blog post, “focus on creating degrees of separation between good outdoor people (us) and bad outdoor people (them).”
The act of monitoring each otherʼs behaviour in the outdoors is inherently “overlaid on a backdrop of systemic discrimination,” Williams tells me. She believes Internet vigilantes are “participating in a system whereby Black, Brown and Indigenous bodies get over-policed in the outdoors, even though we suffer the most from environmental racism.” Unless something truly dangerous is being depicted in an image, Williams says, thereʼs never a good reason to make an example of someoneʼs actions online.
It can be tempting to blame social media for “ruining” the outdoors by turning serene spots into selfie backdrops with queues and crowds. Yet it would be remiss to peg social media as the root of all problems facing public land, or to overlook its positive impact—especially in encouraging diversity among adventurers.
Instagram geotags reduce educational barriers to information about where to go and how to get there, helping more people develop relationships with nature. “The dissemination of knowledge is a way to combat gatekeeping,” says Anaheed Saatchi, founder of inclusive BC-based climbing community BelayAll. “Itʼs not inherently bad that people know where these places are—in fact, itʼs joyful, itʼs amazing.”
Social media also provides platforms to historically underrepresented outdoorspeople, like the members of Instagramʼs @UnlikelyHikers, a community of hikers who are “people of size, people of colour, queer, trans and gender nonconforming.” In 2014, only 22 per cent of US park visitors were minorities. If parks are to remain cherished institutions well into the future, they will need a diverse constituency to support them.
Still, one can format social media posts to ensure they maximize benefit while minimizing harm to the outdoors. Itʼs helpful to accompany geotagged photos with context and pertinent information about the tagged location—if the ecosystem is sensitive, whose Indigenous land the trail is on, the length and difficulty of the route. Sharing posts about lesser-known trails also encourages the dispersal of crowds, as opposed to overconcentration on any one site.
Of course, there are myriad ways of supporting conservation efforts that do not involve social media call outs, such as donating to conservancies, volunteering for clean-ups and petitioning the government to reduce reliance on resource extraction and increase park funding.
“The answer to environmental infractions… lies with increased education, outreach and staffing,” says Williams. “Set an example for others to follow, without constructing ‘us vs. themʼ binaries in your mind.”