Public Lands and the Social Media Effect

Photo: Ryan Stoa

Photo: Ryan Stoa

I have to admit, I'm a sucker for nature photography.  I love taking landscape shots, and I love seeing them.  A couple months ago I visited the Boise Art Festival to check out the multitude of drool-worthy nature portraits being hawked by the pros.  And although I don't really follow celebrities on social media, I do follow many federal public lands agencies on instagram (more interesting than it sounds).  The Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, and local Idaho photographers keep my Instagram feed populated with photos of our country's most iconic natural landscapes, and some that are off the beaten path.  When I get the opportunity, I like to contribute my own amateur photography as well.  The above shot was taken in Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness on a beautiful Sunday in late September.

The rise of nature photography on social media may be motivating people to get outside, but it is also taking its toll on wild places.  The Ringer's Molly McHugh explains the conundrum:

Manifest Destiny is defined by the nation’s westward territorial expansion, but it’s also a philosophy about the need to conquer, to discover. What happens when social media increases the rate of outdoor discovery? How long until every corner of the planet has been Instagrammed and geotagged?
These may seem like ridiculous questions, but they’re more legitimate than you might think. It’s become so easy to tell the world what you’ve discovered, and technology can so accurately plot it, that we have arrived at a curious moment in a kind of digital manifest destiny: keep cataloguing, or keep things secret? As every place becomes attainable and collectible, tourist attractions that aren’t prepared — or, really, meant — to host hundreds or thousands of yearly visitors are bombarded with them; national parks visitor numbers have increased 26 percent over the last decade, according to the Associated Press [...]
While the National Park Service and bigger recreation agencies in general have courted the social media ticket, smaller staffs don’t have the same ability to do that, and instead find themselves struggling to deal with the onslaught. National Parks can find this a challenge, too, but the degree of impact is lessened by their resources. “Oregon only has one national park, Crater Lake, and even it’s struggled with crowds,” the Statesman’s Urness told me when I asked about the disparity between larger and smaller departments. “But national parks were already designed for high volumes. A lot of the areas getting hit now weren’t designed for it, and the management in place was never prepared for this. The mechanisms to do anything about it are slow — it’s government paperwork.”

The effect is emblematic of a broader tension between wanting the public to care about wild places and public lands on the one hand, while preferring not to run into other people when visiting those places on the other hand.  Leave No Trace principles can help, and the LNT Center publishes an annual list of Hot Spots designed to raise awareness of places where public use has intensified and threatens the ecological integrity of an area.  Several hot spots are popular rock climbing destinations I'm fond of (North Carolina's Linville Gorge; Kentucky's Red River Gorge; Nevada's Red Rock Canyon).  In general, many share the same characteristics: natural beauty and reasonable access.  Surely there are many other places stressed by increased traffic that didn't make the list.  

While the public can take measures to reduce impacts, appropriations should reflect the increase in demand for park administration and services.  When I was conducting research on Biscayne National Park, a large marine preserve off the coast of Miami, it was evident that both the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the National Park Service were not receiving sufficient funding necessary to enforce public use and fishing regulations.  Many state and federal public lands agencies are under similar constraints.  With an election next week and new governments in place in January, it's a good time to revisit the impacts of recreation on public lands, and the resources agencies need to maintain access sustainably.