While it’s great to connect with friends and keep in touch with distant family members, there are definitely some negative effects of social media. One of those is how social media affects our interactions with nature. Ranger Mac will take a look at the impact social media has had on our parks and other natural environments, and how serious it is to follow the golden rule of “leave no trace behind” when out in nature.
Getting the Picture
Instagram hosts a wide array of users these days, with people posting shots of everything from their morning coffee to a new hiking trail. While it is a joy to see so many people out in the state and national parks enjoying the beauty this country offers, it’s shocking to see first-hand what some people are doing to get that money shot for their Instagram feed. There’s a reason why these areas are preserved as parks, and that is to keep the integrity of the land and the ecosystem that lives there intact for future generations. So what exactly are some ways that visitors to these parks are killing that integrity one picture at a time? Let’s take a closer look.
To Snap or Not to Snap
State and national parks are beautiful, and they are more than picture worthy, but are the pictures worth lessening the integrity of the area? There are correct places to snap pictures, and those are along the dedicated trails and other areas open to the public. On the same note, there are often souvenirs you can buy at the visitor’s center to commemorate your visit, but you shouldn’t pick up and remove items from any park (excluding litter). While this may sound harsh, rules are there for a reason. Venturing into restricted and/or dangerous areas is hazardous to not only the hiker, but also potentially to the environment. Below are some more specific ways that visitors who don’t follow instructions from park rangers are harming our parks, all in the name of social media status.
These are those amazing stacks of rock that you may see along hiking trails. The stone piles have been around for centuries, as it’s always been an easy way for our ancestors around the world to indicate an upcoming feature. They're still widely used on hiking trails today to mark the correct path on a not-so-well-defined trail. It’s great that people can use what nature has to offer to help each other hike through the beautiful countryside. They have a simple beauty about them, but as you can see, this is not their main purpose.
So what's the problem? Rock cairns are starting to pop up everywhere, like in the middle of the desert, along the beach, and beside hiking trails where they don’t belong. For the people who actually use these cairns as markers while they hike, it’s a huge problem when amateur hikers build them for fun at random locations. Getting lost in the woods is no small issue, and can get people hurt or even killed. The rocks lying around national parks don’t need to be made into rock sculptures for an Instagram feed. Leave the rocks where you found them, and simply take a picture of the beautiful natural landscape or the cairns that can be found already along the trail.
Wildflowers and the Wild Child
Picking flowers is a delightful pastime, but should be restricted to our own gardens or other areas that allow such behavior. It’s important to leave wildflowers be in public parks. The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is attracting a lot of visitors these days, which is great! However, many of these visitors aren’t adhering to the rules that the park rangers give them as they enter the area. Visitors are told, rather sternly, to stay on the paved trails and marked areas for visitors. Unfortunately, the area gets crowded, and your picture might end up with more people than flowers in it. But this doesn’t mean that you should just pull you car over on the side of the road and run out into the field of poppies to get that money shot. Those poppies need to be left alone and not trampled. There may be endangered species within that field, whether it be an animal, insect, or even wildflower. In fact, many wildflowers are in trouble across the country as people spread residential developments and farmlands into the hills and fields and the climate gets warmer.
Again, it might sound harsh to restrict a person from walking through a field of flowers. It doesn’t seem very destructive on the surface. These areas are set up as reserves for a reason, and the race for likes on Instagram accounts can have a deadly effect. One person stomping through the field probably won’t do a lot of damage, but hundreds or even thousands of like-minded visitors will start to cause big problems. If you really want to preserve that moment and place, leave it alone so that it can be experienced by the next generation of visitors that come along as well.
One of the most dismaying results of people pushing boundaries of the natural environment is when monuments are destroyed. A notable example of this happened in Oregon in 2016, when a group of vandals pushed over the ancient Duckbill rock formation. The worst part of this example is that the culprits pushed it over on purpose, going so far as to ignore the safety barriers that had been set up around the monument. Countless other natural formations and ecosystems have been altered or destroyed by accident, on purpose, or without anyone noticing at the time. We must do our best to protect the natural environment around us, because it is often irreplaceable.
The negative effects that social media has on natural places is staggering and seems to be growing rapidly. Rock cairns that confuse travelers and people stomping around off the trails are just two examples of how people are disrespecting these areas, but there are far more problems for those who work so hard to keep the parks’ integrity intact.
Nature has so much beauty to offer and it looks great in photos, but viewers may not realize as they scroll through Instagram that some of those people had to go to dangerous lengths to get those shots. And what was the effect on the land they traversed to get there? For example, Horseshoe Bend is a secluded spot on the Colorado River, just north of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, that has recently become Instagram famous. The area is truly a marvel and very picture worthy, but it’s also at the end of a dangerous, difficult trek. There are no rails or paved trails to help a visitor get up there and keep them safe, so people who don’t know what they’re getting into are venturing into a hike that’s beyond their abilities.
New Jobs for Park Rangers
While the National Park Service is excited that so many new visitors are flooding into the parks, there are also new concerns and issues to tackle. The problem of the newly-famous Horseshoe Bend has the NPS scrambling to put up barricades and trails so visitors can safely view the marvel. While this is great news for hikers, it’s intruding more upon the nature of the local ecosystem, and the extra foot traffic will make matters worse. It is a give and take - we want everyone to enjoy the beauty of the parks, but we also want to keep the integrity and beauty in place. Also, the handful of rangers who monitor the national parks are no match for thousands of visitors a day, many of whom are running around off the relative safety of the trails.
The positive spin is that these pictures of gorgeous places are introducing a whole new generation of people to the national parks. But everyone still needs to be taught the values of the lands they are visiting and what it means to leave no trace behind. While people are out there enjoying the parks in a reckless manner, they are destroying it for the next group that comes along.
Hopefully most of us can agree that our National Parks bring a sense of pride and adventure to our country. Doesn’t looking at those photos of beautiful places on Instagram and other social media sites make you want to get in your car and go? This is a wonderful idea, and you should go out and enjoy such places. Just be mindful of the land, mindful of the ecosystem, and mindful of what makes the area worthy of National Park status. Next time you visit a National Park, whether it’s the Grand Canyon or a Presidential home, take your picture, then put that phone down and enjoy what's around you. The fact that you’re physically at such a beautiful place is worth more than 10,000 pictures combined!