How To Instagram Natural Wonders Without Being A Jerk

Photo: George Rose, Getty Images

In March, the mountains of Lake Elsinore, California experienced its annual bloom of fiery-orange poppies. Then Instagram users flocked there, cameras and smartphones in hand, and screwed 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 behaviour — “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.

Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images

“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 per cent 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

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Naked in nature.  What's not to love?  There's something to be said for prancing around acting like you're the first person to walk the face of the planet, with not a stitch of clothing to hide your skin from the blazing sunshine and refreshing breeze. . Except you're not alone. You share this planet with 7 billion other people and countless other living creatures and plants. If we all did whatever we wanted without regard for anyone or anything else, where would we be?  What would this planet look like? . Going a few inches further off trail than the person before you might not seem like a big deal on an individual scale. And I suppose its not. But if everyone had that attitude, if every single person decided to go just a litttttttle bit further than the last person for that "untouched" background, it becomes a big problem. The behavior and damage we've seen at Walker Canyon (and other poppy fields) is a direct manifestation of that "just a little bit more" attitude. . Walker Canyon is a prime example of huge masses of people making bad choices that, on an individual scale, appear to have no impact. But added up, those hundreds of thousands of poor choices DO have an impact. We've all seen the pictures. And it's not pretty. . . Sure, there are bigger issues than people crushing a couple wildflowers to get pictures to share with people they don't even know on the internet. Pollution, over consumption, micro-plastics in drinking water, oil spills, deforestation, and extinction of entire species are some issues that immediately come to mind. But is it too much to believe that if people turned their small negative impacts into small positive ones that we could make a difference for the better? Good behavior spreads just as bad behavior does. It just takes a few people who are willing to speak up and thoughtfully educate those who might not know any better. Some might not be open to being told their actions are destructive.  That just means the rest of us need to step up our game to compensate. . #walkercanyon #knowledgeispower #ignoranceisnotbliss #lakeelsinore #publiclands #saveourpubliclands #saveourplanet #education #planetearth #selfish #publiclandshateyou

A post shared by OUR PUBLIC LANDS HATE YOU (@publiclandshateyou) on

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 such as 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 US National Park Service notes on its website, you can damage or kill plant and animal species, affecting the ecosystem of the area. The same applies for Australian parks.

During the US government shutdown earlier this year, several national parks were severely affected by illegal camping and off-road vehicle use, causing irreparable damage.

Straying from the path is also 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 91m away from bears and wolves and 23m from all other animals, including bison and elk. Though bears and wolves aren't problems in Australia, keeping your distance from the wildlife is good advice.

If you find yourself getting too close to an animal, you should 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 such as 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 colours.
  • 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 rubbish and human faeces and minimising 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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