In one of the first Instagram posts by the popular account @publiclandshateyou, spray-painted graffiti is scrawled across a cliff face at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a protected landscape in Arizona.
“People need to earn the right to visit the world's beautiful places,” the post declares, admonishing the perpetrators as "numbskulls."
The vigilante Instagram account sprung up last year, and has quickly been joined by many others like it, all of which shame people for bad behavior outside. Influencers, geotagging, selfies—these are the enemies of our public lands, they say. The thinking is that, by posting some beautiful wilderness on Instagram, influencers are inspiring people to take trips to the same Insta-worthy spots, which inevitably become overrun by the masses. A slew of articles have hit the internet in recent years, all making the same argument: Instagram is ruining the great outdoors.
The New Republic put it bluntly:
"Instagram users who love the outdoors have a habit of ruining the wild places they touch—a perverse irony that seems lost on them. It is now axiomatic that a locale of stunning natural beauty will quickly degrade into a morass of crowding once it is posted on the platform as a pristine image. The herd instinct kicks in, and other users who also want to be photographed in those same lovely landscapes converge with their own cameras and Instagram accounts and followers—ad infinitum, ad nauseam."
It's tempting to blame social media for the degradation of public lands. And it may play a part: Instagram and other platforms are likely contributing to the increase in visitation at many of America’s (and the world's) most beautiful, formerly secluded spots. Even if every hiker is well-behaved, the increase in visitation is taking a toll on some of these areas.
But popularity-via-social media is only one of the many challenges facing public lands in an age when humans have explored nearly every corner of the planet. Instead of blaming lakeside selfie takers, we should confront the real problems facing public lands: adjacent land use, extractive activities like mining and oil and natural gas drilling, an air of exclusivity, a hostile presidential administration, lack of funding for conservation and protection, climate change, and a lack of education about the aforementioned challenges.
Social Media Makes The Outdoors Less Exclusive
Many of the public faces of the environmental movement are white and wealthy. Many of these people grew up taking weekend trips to natural areas. It's easy to believe that it's cheap and easy to just go outside, but there are many barriers to entry for outdoor activities like hiking, rock climbing, skiing, kayaking, etc.: gear is expensive, many natural areas are inaccessible via public transit, and it can be hard to know where to go. Instagram has made the last challenge a bit easier to overcome. It's easy to scroll an Instagram hashtag or geotag for inspiration about where to visit, which is of course core to the Instagram-is-ruining-the-outdoors argument.
But Instagram has also allowed people who have traditionally been excluded from the outdoor community to find others who look like them enjoying public lands. Users such as @pattiegonia, a backpacking drag queen focusing on inclusivity outdoors, have thousands of followers. Pattie uses her platform to teach her followers how to treat public lands, but does so in a way rooted in positivity rather than shaming.
Organizations have also sprung up to spread inclusivity and stewardship on social media. One prominent Instagram account is @latinooutdoors, which uses social media to encourage Latino families to go outside and get involved in conservation.
Last year, the Forest Service released a paper outlining how Latino Outdoors is increasing diversity on public lands using social media.
“Latino Outdoors promotes a shared diverse narrative in the conversation about the nation’s changing meaning of outdoor experiences within an increasingly diverse society,” the Forest Service report said.
Christian La Mont, the social media coordinator for Latino Outdoors, said Instagram is a powerful tool for conservation. Even if people overcome financial barriers to going outside, many traditionally marginalized people often don’t feel welcome. A passion for conservation starts with a passion for the beauty of the outdoors, and a photo on social media can spark that passion.
“You start with the connection and then you work on the stewardship aspect,” La Mont said. “Did you feel it? Did you connect? Now, what can you do to protect it?”
Dana Watts, the executive director of the Leave No Trace Center for Environmental Ethics, agreed that social media can be used to teach stewardship. To meet the challenges of a social media era, Leave No Trace released social media guidelines last year, helping people share their experiences outside in a responsible way.
Danielle Williams, founder of the blog and Instagram @melaninbasecamp, said that we should focus on “calling people in, not calling them out” on Instagram, using the platform to invite rather than shame new hikers.
“Conservation needs conservationists” Williams said. “We need the next generation, and they happen to take selfies. Please don’t try to shut them out.”
Social Media Isn't To Blame—Lack of Support for Public Lands Is
Steve, the pseudonymous creator of @publiclandshateyou, said that what he and some other long-time outdoor enthusiasts worry about is that their favorite spots will be “ruined” by hordes of oblivious people. Places that used to be secret local spots are now being overloaded without the ability to properly manage the influx.
Steve said that he spends most of his time online calling people out privately on Instagram. Most of those interactions, he said, are amicable.
“It’s okay for people to go out and make mistakes, I’ve made plenty of those,” Steve told me. “I don’t have a problem if someone admits that they’re wrong and tries to self-correct.”
For those with a lot of followers who don’t “self-correct,” Steve feels comfortable calling out their actions on his account. Though Steve said he wants his account to focus on accountability, some accuse him of facilitating bullying, as some of his followers have threatened or harassed the influencers he’s called out. As his account has grown, Steve set guidelines for proper use online, blocking people he sees engaged in such bad behavior.
The tricky balance between encouraging visitation and prioritizing conservation isn't a new concern—it's always been central to the mission of public lands. That mission is being jeopardized now more by understaffing and a lack of funding than by Instagram posts.
According to Sheila Faalasli, social media manager at the National Parks Conservation Association, many park services are in disrepair due to budget constraints, and it would cost almost $12 billion to fix them all. These necessary repairs have been deferred for years because of lack of funding. On top of that, the Parks are working with an estimated 14 percent fewer staff and accommodating approximately 14 percent higher visitation from 2011 to 2018, Faalasli said.
“The Park Service is being stretched thin,” Faalasli said in an email.
Faalasli said that social media, rather than causing bad behaviour on public lands, is making it easier to see the waste and degradation already plaguing our parks.
When posts on platforms such as Instagram highlighted that trash had piled up in some national parks during the last government shutdown, Faalasli said that many volunteers showed up with trash bags.
How Land Managers Are Responding To Instagram
Faced by an unprecedented array of challenges, these parks require creative solutions from land managers. Some particularly Instagrammable locations are already finding ways to deal with the influx of influencers. One controversial solution is encouraging people not to geotag their Instagram posts, meaning their exact location isn't posted to Instagram.
The "Keep Jackson Hole Wild" campaign encourages visitors not to geotag specific locations. Instead, the park created a generic geotag that reads “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild.”
The campaign was a response to a surge in visitation to Delta Lake, which is found at the end of a steep, unmarked trail that includes trudging through a boulder field. It’s a hard, dangerous hike, and land managers were worried that inexperienced people would get injured or otherwise have a negative experience if they tried to get there.
“We want people to have an intentional, meaningful experience,” said Kate Sollitt, executive director of the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board. “We find that positive experience more common when people seek local knowledge rather than following a pin.”
She emphasized that the campaign isn’t designed to be exclusive, and they want as many stewards of public lands as possible.
Others, though, see these anti-geotagging efforts as an extension of the kind of gatekeeping that kept people of color out of parks for so long.
Williams wrote a piece arguing that everyone should keep geotagging specific locations. If people are concerned about a fragile ecosystem, she said, they should include conservation information in their posts. Or they could not share it on Instagram at all, instead of “playing keepaway” by advertising its beauty but not its location.
Jennifer Lindenauer, who works on social media and inclusion at the major outdoor retailer REI, falls somewhere in the middle of the geotagging debate. She says that the organization generally tags the park rather than the specific trail in social media posts, but freely shares additional information if anyone asks.
“It’s not our job to be the gatekeepers and decide who gets to go outside and where,” Lindenauer said. “We don’t want to presume to know who is and isn’t taking care of that land.”
Others advocate for expanding the permit system, controlling how many can visit a given destination any day. Hanging Lake, a picturesque destination in White River National Forest in Colorado, is trying this tactic. It, too, has exploded in popularity in the last few years, a boom that rangers partially attribute to social media.
What used to be a local favorite was seeing upwards of 1,200 visitors a day, according to ranger Aaron Mayville. There is just one tiny parking lot, and it got so crowded that people were getting in fistfights over spots, Mayville said.
This year, the park rolled out a quota and permit system, requiring people to pay and reserve their trip in advance. Now, only 615 people are allowed each day.
“The future of visitation is only growing. It’s forcing land managers like myself to really look at our tools,” Mayville said. “Rather than trying to push people to other places or trying to discourage use, we’re trying to educate people.”
For much of American history, we’ve been happy to pave our cities and dump ash into the air, so long as we could escape to a pristine mountain pass on the weekends. This lifestyle is antithetical to the ideal of stewardship-focused societies, in which all land is respected and used sustainably.
America’s long-standing experiment with public lands has been among our most well-intentioned, but most mainstream environmentalism ignored that those parks were built on stolen land.
“Conservation did not start with the Antiquities Act,” Williams said, referring to the first legal protection of natural resources in the United States. “You need to have indigenous people involved in these conversations too.”
That’s another reason she supports geotagging: it can help determine whose land you’re standing on. An app called Native Land uses your geolocation to tell you what tribe owned that land before the U.S. government did.
You don’t need to "earn" the right to visit public lands—that’s the entire reason for their existence. Public lands belong to everyone. Now that social media is inviting more people into the outdoors, we need to grapple with how to make a parks system that really works for everyone. That starts with funding and a focus on stewardship, not with shaming.
“When I was explaining the problems to my mom, she said ‘es tu parque, cuídalo,’” La Mont said. “It’s your park, take care of it.”