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To Geotag or Not to Geotag, That Is the Question

Anti-geotagging champions believe their campaign protects fragile ecosystems; however, critics say they’re playing a game of keep-away with our public lands. Who’s right?

The first sign it’s going to be crowded is the trailhead parking lot. Or, rather, it’s the overflow of Subarus, Jeeps, and roof-rack-sporting minivans lining the access road to the parking lot. Still, you think, maybe there’s a chance for solitude. After all, your friend’s geotagged Instagram posts, which inspired this particular outing, showed an empty trail snaking through ponderosa pines and a panoramic high-alpine vista without a soul in sight.

After a handful of miles and several hundred feet of elevation gain, however, you’ve exchanged more polite hellos with strangers than you would with your office mates on a pre-pandemic Monday morning. As you leave the treeline behind for the final push to the summit, your hope for a quiet communion with the outdoors fades for good: There’s a queue to take carefully cropped summit selfies. It’s only when you’re back in cell service, scrolling through potential photos for your own feed, that you realize the old adage is true: Even in the wilderness, you’re not in traffic. You are traffic.

It’s an increasingly common scene across the Mountain West. Since at least 2015, people have been pointing to social media and geotagged photos, which include the name or geographic coordinates of where an image was taken, as a major driver behind the exploding popularity of our public lands. You may not recognize the name Horseshoe Bend, for example, but chances are you’ve seen pictures of this rose-hued switchback of the Colorado River just upstream of Grand Canyon National Park posted by #vanlife influencers or your road-tripping friends. These days, the Arizona landmark sees some two million tourists each year, but not long ago it was a locals’ spot with annual visitors numbering in the low thousands. During an interview with ABC’s Nightline, Michelle Kerns, deputy superintendent for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which oversees the site, attributed the increase in large part to Horseshoe Bend’s trendiness on Instagram.

Simply managing crowds like that would be enough to cause land managers headaches, but some also harbored concerns about the type of visitors social media was attracting—many of whom, the theory went, might not be aware of Leave No Trace guidelines or wouldn’t be prepared for the conditions they’d face on the trail, leading to the degradation of fragile ecosystems and more search and rescue calls.

In the Roaring Fork Valley, the Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA), which, among other obligations, operates four visitor information centers, was determined to do something about the issue after five people died attempting to summit 14,131-foot Capitol Peak in 2017. The following year, the ACRA created the Aspen Pledge, which asks visitors to recreate safely and responsibly by staying on known trails, being prepared for inclement weather, and, half-jokingly, not skiing in jeans.

Then, in 2019, to address overcrowding, the organization came up with a seemingly straightforward solution: If social media users didn’t include the name or location of where their photos were taken, other users wouldn’t know where to go and how to find the obscure spots. Instead, it encouraged visitors to use a generic geotag that simply read #TagResponsiblyTakeTheAspenPledge and asked locals to help get the word out.

“The idea is not to hide something like the Maroon Bells,” says Eliza Voss, the ACRA’s vice president of destination marketing. “It’s to not tag a place that might be lesser-known because you don’t want to expose somewhere that doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle large groups.” As an added benefit, those who were determined to visit the backcountry locales populating their Instagram feeds would have to seek out more information first, and in the process hopefully learn a little more about how to get there safely and sustainably.

The ACRA’s campaigns were just one part of a national movement. In June 2018, the Boulder-based Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics posted social media guidelines to augment the minimum-impact practices it champions for adventuring in the outdoors. Chief among them was asking users to “think about their actions and the potential consequences of posting pictures, GPS data, detailed maps, etc. to social media.” In the months that followed, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Bend, Oregon, launched their own campaigns.

Reactions were published everywhere from Outside magazine to the New York Times, but one piece stood out from the rest with an eye-catching headline: “5 Reasons Why You Should Keep Geotagging.” Reason number one? “Gatekeeping Is Racist.”

“Most of the articles begin with a white writer reminiscing over a much-beloved hot spring, a treasured swimming hole, or a rustic hiking trail from childhood that has now been ‘ruined’ by a sudden influx of selfie-taking hikers,” Danielle Williams wrote in the post, which was published in May 2019 on Melanin Basecamp, a blog and digital community she founded in 2016 to increase the visibility of people of color and LGBTQ folks in the outdoors. “They never stop to consider that their childhood was privileged with outdoor experiences not available to the majority of working-class families in the United States.”

In Williams’ view, the anti-geotagging movement is blame-shifting. “Most people are starting from a good place, which is wanting to protect the outdoors,” she says, “but it should be protected from what instead of from whom. More often than not, it’s the latter. It’s people thinking in terms of which communities are inherently bad for the outdoors.” In other words, it is a dog whistle for excluding urban, often people of color and LGBTQ, visitors.

So instead of addressing issues like the underfunding of the Department of the Interior, which has led to $12 billion worth of delayed repairs at National Park Service sites across the country, Williams says people are focusing their energy on excluding groups that don’t embody their definition of outdoorsmanship. All of which is particularly ironic to Williams because conservation is Indigenous in origin, and the idea that the wilderness is pristine and untouched erases thousands of years of Native American land use and stewardship.

“There was no appreciation for the fact that people need outdoor experiences to fall in love with the outdoors, and then to be brought into the fold of the conservation community,” she says. “You can’t just get on your soapbox and…tell them they should care about this thing they don’t have access to.” Because while many public lands are free, accessing them is not without cost in terms of transportation, time, equipment, and, especially, knowledge. On top of that, there is evidence that the stereotype that those who use social media to find out about wild spaces are harmful to the outdoors is just that: a stereotype.

Tag Responsibly

In summer 2018, Theodora Doyon was a visitor-use assistant at Grand Teton National Park where she mostly collected fees at the Moose Entrance station just north of Jackson Hole. “I started to realize there were these narratives around social media visitors,” she says. “That they didn’t have the same level of understanding or appreciation of the outdoors as other groups.” That fall, she enrolled at Humboldt State University, on the rugged California coast about five hours north of San Francisco, to pursue a master’s degree in social science focused on the intersection of the environment and human communities. Curious to find out whether any of those characterizations were true, she wrote her thesis on the topic.

Doyon surveyed visitors at California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, home to some of the largest and oldest redwood trees in the state, about their social media habits and how they recreate and engage with wild spaces. She found, among other things, that social media was drawing new visitors to the park, indicating that it contributes to the crowding of our outdoor spaces.

But many of the stereotypes about those visitors—that they are inexperienced in operating safely in the outdoors, don’t care about protecting the environment, or aren’t as engaged with their surroundings—didn’t square with her findings. For example, those who used social media for outdoor recreation purposes reported being just as comfortable in the outdoors as their social-media-shy peers, and all visitors claimed to follow Leave No Trace principles at similar rates, regardless of their social media engagement. And far from being disengaged, visitors with high rates of social media use planned to participate in more activities in the park than low-use groups.

“I think there’s kind of this false narrative that people just see something online and say, ‘Oh, I’m going there,’ and then don’t Google the place,” says Doyon, now a partnership coordinator at the U.S. Forest Service in Golden. “Not having a geotag is not going to stop people from wanting to go there, and it’s not giving them the information they need [to do so responsibly].”

The ACRA and others who’ve implemented tag-responsibly campaigns, however, all say that education is one of their main goals. “I have seen [the criticism], and I think it goes to the fact that no good deed goes unpunished,” says the ACRA’s Voss. “Our stance was, we were not trying to be exclusionary, but that we were trying to create an atmosphere of sustainable tourism.” A key part of that is encouraging tourists to seek out more information, whether online or in person from a ranger or local.

That notion highlights a fundamental disconnect: How can someone ask about a place when they don’t know where it is or what it’s called? While a visitor center or a ranger might be willing to help track down a locale from an Instagram image, Doyon says that when she lived in Jackson Hole there was an unwritten rule among the locals that if a tourist asked about a secret spot, you should just say you’d never heard of it. That’s the power of geotagging, she says. It democratizes the spread of information.

Doyon’s study was small, with just one location and a little more than 500 respondents, and more research needs to be done. But there is anecdotal evidence that anti-geotagging campaigns are reducing backcountry accidents.

Grand Teton National Park’s Delta Lake, a high alpine body of water located below a shark-tooth-shaped mountain, is not accessible by an official trail, but that hasn’t stopped visitors from attempting the 4.1 miles and 2,349 feet of elevation gain it takes to get there. It’s a grueling hike, and search and rescue operations are common. “They don’t have exact numbers,” says Kate Sollitt, executive director of the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board, “but I’ve had conversations with the park, and the following summer [after the board’s tag-responsibly campaign launched], they told me they had fewer incidents in that area.”

It’s all but impossible to establish cause and effect between the number of search and rescue calls and the number of people geotagging Delta Lake on their social media feeds, but the decrease in incidents is compelling, especially as the pandemic continues to cause an unprecedented surge in outdoor recreation. According to the Boulder-based Outdoor Foundation, 8.1 million more Americans went hiking in 2020 than in 2019, and while White River National Forest’s designated campgrounds were already at capacity, the forest, which surrounds Aspen and contains the Maroon Bells and Capitol Peak, is seeing more dispersed camping, more cars at trailheads, more stand-up paddleboarders, more mountain bikers, more everything, according to Roger Poirier, a U.S. Forest Service recreation, heritage, and lands staff officer. Trails that aren’t designed for that kind of traffic can quickly experience negative impacts such as erosion, trail widening, and braiding. So although forest officials recognize the power social media has to connect people to nature, Poirier says they also encourage efforts like anti-geotagging to reduce environmental degradation.

Williams is all for protecting fragile spaces, but two years after her blog post called out anti-geotagging campaigns, she still believes there are better ways to do it, such as increasing funding, building the trails and infrastructure needed to handle the ever-growing crowds, and implementing reservation systems. “Do reservations disadvantage certain communities? I know they do,” she says. “But if the alternative is that only people who have the secret, special knowledge can come, let’s go for that option rather than the worst option.”

Another place to start is simply to have these difficult conversations and center them on marginalized communities, something the Leave No Trace Center is trying to do. In September 2020, a little more than two years after it released its first social media ethics guide, the organization published an update on its blog that started with these words: “Leave No Trace is not anti-geotagging.” Gone were any mentions of thinking before including location information with your photos. Instead, the new post re-emphasizes how to use your digital soapbox to educate your followers and promote sustainable recreation.

Dana Watts, the center’s executive director, doesn’t hesitate to say criticism played a role in the change. “We never work in a vacuum,” she says. “We always try to craft our messaging in a collaborative way, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. We’ll get a lot of comments and feedback. It’s not 100 percent positive, but it allows us to adjust and look at how we’ve said something or if we’ve missed something.”

For her part, Williams hasn’t really kept up with the debate, but she’s glad the conversation is still happening. “It’s not my job to win the internet for geotagging, so I’ve kind of said my piece,” she says. “But it’s great that people are talking about it, because we can do better.

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