How Social Media is Harming our Public Lands

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I, like many others, am extremely active on social media. I check it first thing when I wake up and right before I fall asleep. I follow many people whose work I find inspiring and I constantly check hashtags in an effort to discover new people, new locations, and new perspectives. However, lately I have begun noticing a trend that extremely distressing to me as a conservationist and park ranger: People hurting the protected (and to me, the absolutely most sacred) land of our national parks, in order to get the shot. I don’t want to point fingers, name names, or even be a spoil-sport, but somebody has got to say something, and it might as well be me. But before we go farther, I want to make one thing clear. I do not in any way, shape or form, believe that social media is the root of the problem that is apathy, or that it is a new problem. People have been disrespecting parks for years. But I do strongly believe that the influences social media has is now a huge issue and is quietly destroying the parks faster than ever before.

When I think of myself as a photographer, I think of myself as someone who tries to capture the beauty of a landscape how it naturally is –without alterations- to share with others. I believe that nature provides us with enough goodness regularly, that we have no reason to try and change it to be better. The whole reason I picked up photography in the first place was to show my friends and family back home the natural beauty of the place I live in, in an effort to get them to visit me (it worked by the way). I think of myself as caring about the environment first, thinking about the wildlife first, thinking about plants that cover the ground first, before I think about my shot. I still want things to be just as beautiful when I come back in 20 years with better equipment and more honed skills.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks this way. To them, the only purpose nature serves is to provide them with the shot that they can pump up in photoshop to gain more followers and impress their friends and family. They think about outdoing the shot the last person who visited got. They think about the now, and not about how their actions might affect these parks in the future. These actions continue to snowball as people do increasingly ridiculous things to outshine others.

Over the summer I helped run the social media for Grand Teton National Park. As part of that task, I constantly checked any and every teton-related hashtag for images for our accounts to feature. What I saw astounded me.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am pretty much obsessed with Schwabacher Landing. It is my favorite place in Grand Teton, and Grand Teton is my favorite place in the world. So it goes without saying that Schwabacher Landing is my favorite spot on earth.  That’s why it broke my heart when I saw a photo with over 10,000 likes on instagram of a person camping, with a fire, right there at water’s edge of my favorite place. It broke my heart even more when I went back to the specific spot I recognized from the photo and saw the telling black scar on the ground. A scar that will be there for months, if not years, to come. The beautiful landscape that is supposed to be protected, marred.  Ruined for anyone else who comes to enjoy it. For what? For a photo? For likes?  It hardly makes sense.

Again, my heart was broken when I saw someone advertising a knife company who sponsors them with a photo of a carving they had done on a tree in the park with the knife in the foreground and the Tetons in the background. I visited said knife company’s Instagram page and sure enough they had shared the photo to their thousands of followers, which only continued to promote the idea that not only is such behavior acceptable, its encouraged.

However, both of these are extreme examples. It is the smaller, subtler actions that are quietly destroying the resources of our country’s best idea.  It’s hopping fences, going into closed areas, feeding wildlife, picking flowers, camping illegally, using drones, using sparklers for light painting, swimming in protected waters, bringing our pets into protected backcountry.

It can be hard for some to understand how just one person doing these things could possibly be a big deal. The problem is, its not just one person- its hundreds of people influencing thousands of people influencing millions of people.

After living in a national park I have personally seen the influences of many of these actions on the land and the wildlife. So much so that I could probably write a lengthy blog on how each these damages the environment. People holding food out to an animal to get that shot so many of the big accounts love. So many people hopping fences to get that shot they saw on Instagram, that there is a well-worn trail where there should be natural vegetation. Hot springs that have been so altered by the oils from human skin that the natural plants and bacteria are dying.  And of course, who could forget the drone crashing into the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring in Yellowstone.

I understand the frustration of some people that the National Parks just have too many rules and it’s impossible to follow them all. Trust me, I understand. I would love to camp at Schwabacher Landing and get that POV tent shot. I would love to be able to take dogs on a hike with me and photograph them at a backcountry lake and I would love to fly my drone and get aerial shots of the Tetons. But, I understand that the rules are there for a reason. They are there to make sure these gorgeous lands and the wildlife they hold are protected for our future. Personally I think some of these, like hopping fences and feeding wildlife, have no place anywhere. But others like flying drones, hiking with pets, and sparklers are awesome and should be encouraged. But not in our protected lands.

It would be great if rangers could crack down on this and really enforce the rules. But the fact is, the parks are underfunded and there is simply no way rangers can be everywhere at once. It is up to us to have enough respect for these places that we follow the rules.

So how do we combat this growing trend? As photographers and as influencers, we can make the choice to respect the environment we capture, and to never take or post photos that encourage behavior otherwise. As followers, we can choose not to like photos and even comment on such posts letting them know we are not okay with that action. On top of that companies and hubs can make the choice not to feature these photos. With the National Park Service Centennial approaching in 2016, we need to act as a community and send the message that the National Parks are NOT the place for this behavior. It’s up to us to make the change.