NOTE: I have intentionally omitted photos from this post due to the nature of my argument.
If you are someone who regularly reads my posts or are in my immediate community of friends and family, you likely value the earth. You probably recycle, maybe even compost, and make daily choices that are sustainable. If you came to my blog by way of my Instagram, then you are a participant in that platform and can contribute to saving the planet in one more way: STOP GEOTAGGING.
Geotagging is arguably ruining many special natural places. The rise of outdoor influencers and how popular it is to #optoutside have perhaps created a monster. A quick Google search of “Instagram ruining places” makes it clear that I’m no visionary, many people are thinking about the way social media is changing the way we interact with the outdoors.
I think about Horseshoe Bend, a fairly easy to get to spot on a main Southwest tourist corridor. Not long ago, this spot was well-known and popular but on any given day you’d probably share the view with upwards of 50 people. According to an article on The Outline, five years ago Horseshoe Bend saw just 1,000 people in a year. Now, it sees over 4,000 visitors just in ONE DAY. Today, even on the off-season in the middle of the weekday, cars line the side of the highway up to a mile in either direction. The mile-long hike from the parking lot is so busy it feels like walking through lines at Disney World. When you get to the viewpoint itself, you find the spot you want to get your ‘shot’ and wait in line until it opens up. Horseshoe Bend is an incredible natural wonder, well worth the visit. But not like this.
We live in Southwest Utah, just down the road from Zion National Park. Zion has long been one of the most visited National Parks in the country, but in the last ten years, visitorship has increased by 30%. Most National Parks are feeling the burden of visitor increase. Our generation is popularizing outdoor adventure and time in nature, and this shows in visitor numbers increasing nationwide. For Zion, it’s a unique problem. The nature of the canyon limits ‘normal’ visitors to a very small area. Being a desert ecosystem and a major waterway for the area, it is uniquely fragile as well. I can speak firsthand in seeing the way human impact has swiftly destroyed this special place. Social trails litter the banks of the Virgin River, trash and waste along every major trail.
The impact stretches beyond the park, as well. Designated camping in the park fills up months in advance, and visitors look to local BLM areas to set up shop. Spots that were once secret to locals are now full of giant RVs with multiple ATVs. I’m not judging people who choose to enjoy the outdoors in these ways, even if it isn’t in alignment with my values. But large trucks/RVs and ATVs impact the environment in fairly drastic ways, and when there are hundreds of these types of visitors, it impacts not only the physical natural space but also the feeling of the place as well.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a post with upwards of 10,000 likes that clearly violates Leave No Trace Standards, with hundreds of comments like “so beautiful, let’s go!” or “I need to do this!” Climbing areas in St. George are in threat of being shut down and areas where locals could camp openly are no longer available due to these two factors. Increase in popularity of these places by way of Instagram, and poor education on ethical and appropriate participation in outdoor activities.
If you love the planet as much as I do, then one easy way you can protect it is to stop geotagging. There is nothing wrong with sharing these beautiful places in images, but I firmly believe people should work hard to earn them. Go into local gear and guide shops, buy guidebooks and ask the local experts. Pick a dirt road on public land and drive to the end to see what you find. Educate yourself on Leave No Trace principles and pass that knowledge on to those around you. Take time to stop and share LNT knowledge with strangers on the trail who you see are violating those principles and in turn damaging the environment. Take a NOLS course or similar outdoor education course from a local organization.
We are lucky to enjoy these natural places because they have been preserved to a certain extent by past generations. We ought to do our duty to be more active in preserving them further for the future visitors. At this rate, they’ll all be trampled from all the selfie-stick travelers far too soon.