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Is Geotagging Putting A Bullseye On The Last Best Places?

Photographs and videos being shared on social media are causing hideaways to get overrun. So what can be done?

As part of the 21st-century "sharing culture," we love to let others know where we are—and where we've been. Sharing on social media represents the new postcards but public land managers are dealing with a new kind of inundation caused by the digital wonders of cell phone cameras.  Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
As part of the 21st-century "sharing culture," we love to let others know where we are—and where we've been. Sharing on social media represents the new postcards but public land managers are dealing with a new kind of inundation caused by the digital wonders of cell phone cameras. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
You see a photograph of a place on social media and you share it without thinking. You and your friends and their friends immediately want to go there and experience it for yourselves. Technology enables you to mark an "x" on your 21st-century treasure map and set out to find it.

In the past, before the advent of forums like Instagram and Facebook, a picture might appear in a newspaper or magazine yet without a caption, and without having exact logistical coordinates embedded, you might muse over the place, dream about it, even, without ever being able to trek, mountain bike, ride horseback, fish or hunt there.

Ironically, a lack of precise information spared places from being overrun by people who didn't know where there were. 

Are cell phones, which have revolutionized modern way-finding and picture-taking, good or bad for the environment?
A hiker finds solitude in Yellowstone and park photographer Jacob W. Frank was there to capture the moment.  Yellowstone officials are well aware of how geotagging and social media is contributing throngs showing up at places that previously attracted little traffic. It's yet another challenge of growing visitation. (We could tell you where this spot is but we'd rather refrain).
A hiker finds solitude in Yellowstone and park photographer Jacob W. Frank was there to capture the moment. Yellowstone officials are well aware of how geotagging and social media is contributing throngs showing up at places that previously attracted little traffic. It's yet another challenge of growing visitation. (We could tell you where this spot is but we'd rather refrain).
As the popularity of social media has exploded over the past decade, front-page articles about the damage caused by Instagram-drawn tourists have become all too common. This spring, the wildflower superbloom attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the desert hills of Southern California. Instagram celebrities and users scrounging for “likes” trod through the incredible botanic display of flowers, leaving towns overrun and hillsides of flowers flattened. 

In Colorado, Horseshoe Bend, a gorgeous overlook with little infrastructure in place to deal with tourism, has seen its visitor levels explode to two- million annually, leaving the riverside damaged and constantly thronged with visitors. People called “influencers” are able to support themselves by traveling and posting photos of some of the most gorgeous places around the world.

What exactly is geotagging? Devices like iPhones, enabled with Global Positioning System technology, document the geographical location coordinates of digital photographs and videos you take and the information is available when you post stuff on social media—that is unless you choose to disable the function. Here's a discussion of how at Apple.com.

Along with the phenomenon of geotagging, a relatively new term, “Instagram destinations,” are places people go in order to take a photo, and usually coincide with places becoming increasingly packed with tourists carrying selfie sticks and not enough water. This new form of tourism isn’t different in its effect from outdoor magazines telling people how to find “the last remaining, undiscovered places you’ve never heard of,” but it is rapidly shaping outdoor recreation use patterns and understanding it, experts say, is the only way to protect our public lands.

It is especially true for me and members of my younger generation who often think about using our hand-held devices without any afterthought. I’m thinking about it this summer as an intern with Mountain Journal, assigned to ponder the future of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Rangers and volunteers at Arches National Park in Utah remove human graffiti scrawled into the faces of some of the natural archways. Geotagging has led to a lot more people visiting more remote sites without much of a law enforcement presence and with increased people has come vandalism. Photo courtesy Arches National Park.
Rangers and volunteers at Arches National Park in Utah remove human graffiti scrawled into the faces of some of the natural archways. Geotagging has led to a lot more people visiting more remote sites without much of a law enforcement presence and with increased people has come vandalism. Photo courtesy Arches National Park.
There are thousands upon thousands of accounts that compile the most beautiful shots of the natural world. You no longer have to actually go to destinations like Old Faithful in Yellowstone, Half Dome in Yosemite, and Angels Landing in Zion to get a taste of their popularity. That’s in some ways, the good news. Old Faithful has a dedicated webcam on the National Park Service site, Half Dome has 364,000 hits on Instagram, and Angels Landing has been tagged 200 times in just the past day between Instagram and Twitter.  

Growing numbers of people paying physical visits is not an issue for destinations that are built and managed to handle large crowds—areas like Old Faithful where the footprint of pavement put down to accommodate thousands of visitors every day is actually much larger than the famous geyser itself.

But digital media is putting a target bullseye on sensitive and once harder to reach locales unlike ever before. The hordes are having unintended consequences that can range from resource destruction caused by overuse, to loss of character, displacement of wildlife, serious acts of vandalism, including graffiti, and serve as reminders that the wonders of the natural world are finite and fragile. I'm reluctant to mention some locations, or feature them in photographs here, so I don't contribute.

As the outdoors are thrust under the spotlight of social media, the standards for environmental stewardship have been extended to the web. The Center for Outdoor Ethics, the organization responsible for the Leave No Trace campaign, has an entire subpage dedicated to social media ethics. I encourage you to check it out. 

Here’s one: “Think Before You Geotag– consider before tagging (or geotagging) specific locations. Depending on the specifics of the area, you may choose to tag a general location if any at all. Learning the location’s history can also inform your choice. By doing so, people viewing your photo may do some research about the area, and hopefully encounter Leave No Trace information."

One of the central tenets of Leave No Trace is take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints. But when your pictures lead to footprints upon footprints or wildlife fleeing areas, can you really claim that sharing them is responsible even though you walk away with the impacts out of sight and mind?
One of the central tenets of Leave No Trace is take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints. But when your pictures lead to footprints upon footprints or wildlife fleeing areas, can you really claim that sharing them is responsible even though you walk away with the impacts out of sight and mind?
This issue is one of the front and center discussions in outdoor recreation and I can say that my own generation probably seldom reflects on it much. Voxrecently published a video showing what nature going viral can look like. And there are many examples happening in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where use levels have soared and public land managers in the national parks and federal forests have little understanding of the cumulative effects.

The Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board has created the “Tag Responsibly” campaign, an attempt to encourage responsible tourism. According to board member Kate Sollitt, “geotags and hashtags were causing exponential traffic to remote and sensitive areas that was not only detrimental to the environment, but to the visitor experience.”

Influencers and other people that make a living travelling and going on outdoor recreation trips are what Pat Clayton, renowned fish photographer based in Bozeman, Montana believes the goal of the outdoor industry has been. Nature is now marketable and profitable like never before, and individuals and companies alike are making an easy buck off of our public lands. But the monetization is hardly benign. Geotagging and its impacts are beginning to take hold now because of the emergence of the influencer class. With large follower bases, the actions of these few can have big consequences. 
The Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board has created the “Tag Responsibly” campaign, an attempt to encourage responsible tourism. According to board member Kate Sollitt, “geotags and hashtags were causing exponential traffic to remote and sensitive areas that was not only detrimental to the environment, but to the visitor experience.”
As an outdoor photographer—Mountain Journal wrote a story asking if he just might be the best wild freshwater fish photographer in America—Clayton understands the situation he is in. He sees all too clearly the effects of industrial strength recreation. But, he himself benefits from the marketability of nature, making a living off of selling photos of fish. 

Struggling with where to draw the line, Clayton generously supports conservation organizations devoted to protected wilderness and he has all but stopped fishing— trying to spare subpopulations of native species that are pressured and overwhelmed by the increase in tourism. Clayton believes that the people who come from outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to recreate have larger impacts, as they are more unaware of the consequences of their actions. This is where geotagging, he says, can exacerbate the problem. 

Many people see a geotag that appeals to them and then head out without any preparation or idea of what they were getting into, observers note. According to Sollitt, “growing incidents of people getting lost, getting injured and being ill-prepared for hikes to areas that they were only familiar with via a pin on their phone” led to concern, and the creation of the campaign. These unprepared visitors also leave impacts on the land and the wildlife." 

In a study conducted by researchers at Aberdeen University, social media activity is considered an incredibly good indicator of visitor usage levels in parks, allowing parks to more accurately and cheaply understand where visitors are going and when. 

This finding has led some to suggest that this alone is enough to balance any effects of increased social media driven traffic. Sollitt contested this viewpoint and argued that there are economic and safety repercussions to continued geotagging: “The cost savings from using this technology to monitor visitation and impact may soon be outweighed by the cost incurred to rescue people who find themselves in over their heads on a hike that they embarked on from a geotag on their phone.” 
“What we want is for people to have an intentional, meaningful experience with the places they visit, and we find that is better achieved when they can seek local knowledge about a place rather than just following a pin.”
Most of the opposition facing responsible geotagging initiatives claims the movement is elitist and exclusionary, only allowing specific people the privilege to experience some of the most beautiful places.

However, as Sollitt explains, the movement is not about keeping people out of nature but encouraging responsible and safe use. When Jackson Hole introduced their “Tag Responsibly” campaign, there was lots of back and forth, but according to Sollitt “as people more fully understand the idea and objective, more have gotten onboard.” Instead of specific geotags, the campaign suggests the tag “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild” which has over 2,900 hits as from locals and visitors alike. 


As the campaign has progressed, other conservation groups both local and afar have reached out to the board in efforts to incorporate or adopt “Tag Responsibly” into their own efforts. Bend, Oregon has created a similar campaign, as has an area in Florida. Hashtags like Keep Hawaii Wild, Keep Alaska Wild, and other destinations have exploded over the past year. 

There is a certain level of ego that comes alongside sharing a photo of nature. As an amateur photographer myself, I follow Clayton in calling myself a hypocrite. Posting a vista or a lake is, to a certain extent, to show how well travelled you are or how fulfilling your life is. Rather than chasing likes or a hike based on a geotag, seek out local knowledge. Cities and regions often have online forums and Facebook groups focused on hiking or backpacking in those areas. Most often, the users will know about trail conditions and what to bring, allowing you to enjoy the experience and do so safely. As we finished our conversation, Clayton left me with this: it is so easy to point the finger at someone else for causing harm to the lands we all love, but it is truly up to us to each think about the impact that we have. 

So, before you go out and follow a geotag or share one yourself, think about how your digital footprint might turn into a stream of very real footprints.
Jordan Payne
About Jordan Payne

Columnist Jordan Payne, who pens "Generation E," was a Mountain Journal intern in the summer of 2019.  A native of the West Coast, he is a senior at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, contemplating a possible career in environmental journalism. 
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