When Wild Places Go Viral

In the age of the internet and social media it's easy to stumble across awe-inspiring natural wonders while scrolling through our feeds. Cameras and WiFi let us readily share our epic adventures with our friends, family, and followers. Although we don't have ill-intentions, we can unknowingly affect natural wonders when we geotag the wild places we visit.

Before the age of social media, Horseshoe Bend was a pleasant pit stop off a Northern Arizona highway, only known by word-of-mouth or found while traveling through the area. It was a picturesque getaway for the locals and nearby townspeople. In 2017, social media references (geotags and hashtags) to the location made it to go viral. Horseshoe Bend quickly became one of the country’s most shared destinations on Instagram with over 1 million visitors in 2017 and 2 million in 2018.

With concerns of overcrowding and environmental degradation, the City of Page started charging parking fees, which would fund projects that would protect and conserve the land as the number of visitors rapidly increased.

Its popularity continues to grow but with the help of the National Park Service, the City of Page has been able to undergo changes that are helping to sustain the well-being of the land - for now.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts nature is not always is safe from the "Instagram effect." Last year the city of Lake Elsinore, CA experienced what mayor Steve Manos described as the "poppy apocalypse."

When the poppy super bloom filled the hills of Lake Elsinore, Instagram "influencers" like Jaci Marie Smith (@jacimariesmith) wandered off trail and into the fields to take photos. The photos circulated in the Instagram community and like a wildfire, the fields quickly filled with photo opportunists with little to no regard for the welfare of the flowers beneath them.

A single innocent photo rippled through the online community and became a thousand innocent photos. A thousand innocent photos brought on the environmental concerns that the City of Page had to face.

Jaci's photo alone exposed the poppies to over 60,000 Instagram users and as more people posted photos of themselves, more people started to wander off trail to pose with or pick the poppies.

In a matter of weeks the fields became overrun with people stepping off trail to take photos and "souvenirs." Lake Elsinore city officials eventually had to close Walker Canyon from the public to save the fragile flower fields from devastation.

When wild places go viral they become stomping grounds for the masses, and the masses don't always have the well-being of the ecosystem in mind.

It's not to say that everyone is out to destroy the world. In fact, it's likely that very few people have ill-intentions, but there are a lot of people who are unaware of how their actions affect the natural world. The more people who are unaware or who don't understand their impact, the more the environment suffers.

It's easy to stand up and say something when we see someone littering because their actions are universally understood to be harmful to the environment. But when we see an Instagram post with a geotag and over 50,000 likes, we don't necessarily see the harm that it could cause, like the poppy fields. Jaci wasn't out to destroy the fields, she probably just wanted to enjoy them and share the experience with her followers, but she might not have been aware of how her actions would influence others to also wander off trail as well.

So, what can we do to minimize the negative environmental impacts of social media? (Leave No Trace) addressed the concerns of the affects of social media on the outdoors. In regards to protection and sustainability, they advised:

When posting to social media, consider the following:

Tag thoughtfully – avoid tagging (or geotagging) specific locations. Instead, tag a general location such as a state or region, if any at all. While tagging can seem innocent, it can also lead to significant impacts to particular places.

Be mindful of what your images portray – give some thought to what your images may encourage others to do. Images that demonstrate good Leave No Trace practices and stewardship are always in style.

Give back to places you love – invest your own sweat equity into the outdoor spaces and places you care about. Learn about volunteer stewardship opportunities and get involved in the protection of our shared lands.

Encourage and inspire Leave No Trace in social media posts – given the millions of social media users in the world, think of the incredible potential that social media has to educate outdoor enthusiasts – first timers to seasoned adventurers – about enjoying our wild lands responsibly

"Social media, if used the right way, is a powerful tool that can motivate a nation of outdoor advocates to enthusiastically and collectively take care of the places we share and cherish."

- Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics

As outdoor enthusiasts it's our responsibility to take care of the land that nourishes our experience. Most of us are well-informed about Leave No Trace outdoor ethics, but some of us have not yet learned these principles - that's where you come in:

Practice Leave No Trace etiquette, advocate for Leave No Trace, educate those who are unaware of Leave No Trace, and remember: shaming is not the answer! :)

What will you do to encourage Leave No Trace in your community?

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Seattle, Washington