America’s great outdoors are more popular than ever, and it’s a problem.
While chronic underfunding contributes to a national parks maintenance backlog nearing $12 billion, unprecedented visitor numbers of 330 million in 2018 – up 40 million from 2014 and double those 40 years ago – wear on the parks’ outdated infrastructure, resulting in restrictions and environmental harm. But it’s not just the number of visitors; it’s how they’re visiting, particularly once a place has become Instafamous.
Just as the digital age spawned a micro-epidemic of selfie-related deaths – 259 from 2011 to 2017 – it’s also led many inexperienced tourists to overcrowd and misuse some of our most beloved and ecologically sensitive wildlands in pursuit of that perfectly shareable shot. Many examples illustrate how a site’s online fame can threaten the natural beauty that made it worth visiting in the first place – here are two.
The official end of California’s seven-year drought this year begat a rare spring “#superbloom” across the state’s typically dry hillsides and a stampede of people seeking to document the occasion. The impacts were felt most in the Inland Empire town of Lake Elsinore, where “Disneyland-size crowds” of between 50,000 and 100,000 per day on some weekends overwhelmed local infrastructure and clogged roadways in a situation city officials called “unbearable.”
The county ran shuttles and posted signs encouraging visitors to enjoy the display responsibly, but those precautions didn’t prevent rattlesnake bites, twisted ankles, heat exhaustion, Insta-celebs and other selfie-takers lying in or otherwise trampling the delicate blooms they’d come to see. In one case, a couple landed a helicopter within the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, inflicting considerable damage before flying away to avoid confrontation with law enforcement.
“We never thought it would be explicitly necessary to state that it is illegal to land a helicopter in the middle of the fields and begin hiking off trail in the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve,” officials said in a Facebook post since removed. “We were wrong.”
A segment of the Colorado River in Arizona known as Horseshoe Bend makes a 180-degree turn through a red rock canyon more than 1,000 feet deep. Hashtags and geotagged photos of the bend are usually ten times more common on Instagram than posts mentioning the Glen Canyon Natural Recreation Area or any of its other sites, including numerous dinosaur fossils or the world’s tallest natural bridge.
This self-reinforcing online popularity is reflected in the growing crowds of people who stop primarily to take selfies with their legs dangling over the cliffside, averaging more than 4,000 per day in 2017. That year, construction began on an expanded parking lot and guardrail-protected platform at the rim to accommodate them all, complete with water fountains and shade. It’s a slippery slope to bigger and more advanced manmade amenities, like the cell towers already popping up in Yosemite and Mount Rainier, which can both disturb the surrounding ecosystems and detract from our enjoyment of them.
It is possible that in the future human development will dilute or close off the most pristine natural wonders. In that future, seeing the Grand Canyon would be akin to glimpsing the Mona Lisa over crowds of photo-takers at the Louvre. Though social media may determine which sites get the most publicity and overuse – just as magazine ads, Lonely Planet guidebooks, and Hollywood movies like “The Beach” have in the past – the core of the problem is an excess of people wanting to experience nature with insufficient access and without the knowledge to do so responsibly.
Some of the measures being taken to alleviate this phenomenon online include media influencers setting a better example by not geotagging or posting reckless photos, as well as Instagram accounts like @PublicLandsHateYou and @YouDidNotSleepThere shaming them into doing so. But according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national non-profit alliance upholding environmental laws and values, a larger share of the blame lies with inattentive federal agencies than with visitors.
“The National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 requires each national park to adopt visitor carrying capacities for ‘all areas,’” explains Kirsten Stade, PEER’s Advocacy Director, in an email. “Despite this nearly 40-year mandate, few national parks have established [them]. Recent NPS leadership has taken the position that there is no such thing as too much visitation, measuring success by spiking visitor levels.”
PEER advocates for parks engaging in more comprehensive planning to ensure they have needed protections in place while setting aside more area to conserve wildlife and meet the rising demand for outdoor recreation and natural solitude. Ordinary travelers can help by channeling their frustrations over backcountry congestion into public activism for more parks, and visiting natural areas outside the most Instagrammable overlooks, remembering that experiencing nature can be its own reward, not just a means to get more likes.