In March, the mountains of Lake Elsinore, California experienced its annual bloom of fiery-orange poppies—and Instagram users flocked there, cameras and smartphones in hand, and fucked it all up.
As the small town swelled with visitors, people took pictures amid the fields of flowers, trampling and picking them in the process. “This natural phenomenon is unlike anything any of us has seen before,” one Instagram user wrote, photographed standing among the poppies. (As the New York Times reported, the town eventually intervened after a Lake Elsinore official was hit by a car and a visitor was attacked by a rattlesnake.)
It’s this behavior—“influencers” flooding once-pristine surroundings to capture the perfect selfie—that motivated an anti-influencer to create his own Instagram account: Public Lands Hate You, which has just under 50,000 followers. The account owner—who chose to remain anonymous but shared that he is an engineer with an environmental background—created the Instagram account after his own experience with social media and the outdoors.
“In the last five years, I have noticed a marked increase in the amount of abuse and disrespect toward our public lands, which coincides with the rise of Instagram,” he said in an email. “The final straw was when I was hiking with some friends last summer and in one weekend I saw people carving initials into fragile alpine trees, having campfires where they weren’t allowed, and not fully extinguishing them.”
The account itself is a collage of photos showing these damaging acts, from super bloom photos to selfies with animals (another harmful practice); he tags the photographers, too. For him, it’s an attempt to educate them.
“I would say that of the pictures I comment on, perhaps 75% get some kind of response from the person who posted the content,” he said. “In [some] cases, the owner digs in their heels and insists that they’ve done nothing wrong, despite the fact that their pictures clearly show them breaking the law.”
In the age of Instagram and selfie sticks, there are a few reasons why you shouldn’t tag your location or go off trail when visiting any public land or national park.
Always share photos responsibly
According to PLHU, when you visit a lesser-known public park, you shouldn’t be so quick to tag its location; many conservationists argue that sharing exact locations on platforms like Instagram will lead to tourists disrupting ecosystems and animal habitats for a photo, as in the case of the super bloom craze. Back in November, the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board in Wyoming asked its visitors to stop tagging its forests and lakes after an influx of Instagram users hawking health supplements and taking engagement photos there, the New York Times wrote.
Instead, keep geotags general. “States, counties, and parks, not specific locations like a waterfall or mountain summit,” PLHU said. “Share photos that show people being responsible and respectful to the land.”
Stay on paths
If you’re ever tempted to veer off official paths in a public park to avoid crowds or take a photo, you should reconsider it. As the U.S. National Park Service notes on its website, you can damage or kill plant and animal species, affecting the ecosystem of the area. During the government shutdown earlier this year, several national parks were severely affected by illegal camping and off-road vehicle use, causing irreparable damage.
Not to mention: It’s dangerous. At Yellowstone National Park, visitors who go off-path are vulnerable to injury and death caused by wandering or falling near hot springs or geysers. People taking selfies seem to be even more oblivious of their surroundings: As of October of 2018, 259 people have died while taking selfies.
Don’t approach wildlife
According to PLHU, you should never feed or approach wildlife to take a better photo. “The problem with approaching and feeding animals is that they eventually start to lose their natural fear of humans,” he said. “On [the] surface, this might not appear to be a problem, but dig a little deeper and many issues become apparent. When we give human food to a wild animal, that animal begins to associate humans as [a] source of food. Instead of having a healthy fear of humans, wild animals begin to approach humans in the hope of getting an easy meal.”
At Yosemite National Park in California, for example, black bears that rely on human food often tend to lose their fear of humans and become aggressive when they lose access to food, putting both us and them in danger.
“That means they spend more time than usual around [roads] and many end up injured or killed every year by cars. Others wander beyond the boundaries of our national parks where they are protected and become easy targets for hunters, as they no longer see humans as a threat.”
At Yellowstone National Park, it’s recommended to stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves and 25 yards from all other animals, including bison and elk. If you find yourself getting too close to an animal, you should also use the rule of thumb, according to PLHU: If an animal is far away enough, you should be able to cover it using your thumb. If you’re unable to cover it, it’s too close.
Respect other visitors
Public lands are a communal space; as such, you should be aware of the impact you make after visiting a national park or other lands vulnerable to Instagram tourism. The Center for Outdoor Ethics provides a few rules you should consider on its website:
- Before passing others, make your presence known to them and proceed with caution.
- Consider how excessive noise caused by things like smartphones or earbuds may affect others in your proximity.
- Reconsider bright clothing and tents to lessen your visual impact (disrupting the experience of others). Instead, bring items in earth-toned colors.
- Research policies on dogs before bringing yours; some parks prohibit them or require that they be on a leash. (And pick up their poop.)
And leave any site in the same or better condition than you found it, which includes properly disposing of trash and human feces and minimizing campfire impacts and wastewater.
If you want to learn more about how to lessen your environmental impact, read the Center for Outdoor Ethics’s “Leave No Trace” principles on its website or Public Lands Hate You’s blog. And maybe reconsider that selfie.
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