Much like millennials and avocado toast, "influencers ruining the outdoors" is a tired and lazy take that belies a lack of research, nuance, and a mean streak of NIMBYism in the outdoor community.
It's a narrative that repeats itself over and over again. Beautiful, accessible, "unknown" places become known, and more popular. There's nothing inherently bad about this -- it's the way of the world to always long for "how things used to be." But much of the time, the hot-takes and instagram-activism isn't focused on people doing anything wrong, but simply that they're there. There are too many people. They're taking too many pictures. They're there "just for the gram". They're taking selfies. They're too excited about doing something you perceive as pedestrian. So what? As long as they're not doing anything illegal/damaging/dangerous (the vast majority of people aren't), there's not a rulebook for how to enjoy the outdoors.
Instead of creating an all-encompassing scapegoat in "influencers," let's start talking about solutions. Over-tourism is a real issue. Over-taxed infrastructure and under-funded parks are real issues. Lack of respect for local places is a real issue. But we can't fix these things with knee-jerk reactions and shaming people social media for minor (or nonexistent) outdoor infractions. There are people that might not know any better, and are likely willing to learn if approached with a positive mindset.
With increased popularity comes lots of real, serious, issues that need to be addressed. But there’s a difference between complaining about crowds on social media and having a real, nuanced discussion around public lands management and policy. Our parks are severely underfunded, which makes it hard to hire personnel or do additional development to handle increased traffic. There are also important conversations to be had around permits to manage visitation, preparedness of visitors, and more. It’s a process, and I don’t think that the solution isn’t that new or less experienced people shouldn’t be welcome.
So, what are some potential tangible things we can do ourselves?
Our national parks have a $12 billion maintenance backlog. That’s not a problem that is solved by less people visiting, not geotagging, or using re-usable straws. It’s something that has to be solved in DC, and only happens by supporting candidates that are committed to preserving public lands, not selling it off to oil and gas companies. Keep up to date by following organizations like the Outdoor Alliance.
You're not suffering the crowds at [Insert Spot Here], you are the crowds.
I see a lot of feedback that it's becoming too easy to find places in the outdoors, and that we should go back to the times when we had to "discover" or "stumble across" these spots. I think there's a nasty strain of elitism and gatekeeping in that argument, but let's take it a bit further. If that's really what you want, then why not spend your time doing that extra research and exploration to find new spots without all the people? Instead of pushing "new" people out of the more accessible spots, take the time to do a bit of exploring and research to find new places.
There are 640 million acres of public lands in the USA, and there aren't people on most of it. As someone more experienced in the outdoors, take the responsibility upon yourself to do more intensive research, rather than putting that responsibility on the newbies.
Ranting about things or shaming someone isn't going to change the way a random person on instagram lives their life. Too often I see angry, knee-jerk reactions to anything perceived as a slight against the sanctity of the outdoors. Those types of responses aren't conducive to change or growth, and are more likely to put someone on the defensive. Take a deep breath. Consider reaching out directly before putting someone on blast to the world. There are real people with lives and feelings who occasionally make mistakes behind every Instagram account, and it's pretty likely they don't have a nefarious agenda to destroy the outdoors.
I think that approaching these types of conversations from the perspective of education rather than NIMBY-ism or public shaming is more productive. Bring people in, teach them, be a mentor and an educator -- don't force them out. The LNT principles aren't posted at every trailhead. Being a better outdoorist is a process, not something learned overnight.
A quick Google search will probably locate a group in your area that helps maintain local trails. Larger organizations often host trail cleanup days or post when they need the most help. This is a great way to get involved locally, and put some tangible time towards keeping your local trails in shape.
This is probably the most controversial "solution", but one I think deserves discussion. If current trends are any indication, outdoor recreation might be leveling out a bit after a significant rise the last few years, but there are still a lot of people looking for adventure. If we assume these folks aren't going anywhere, campaigns like #keepjacksonholewild or generically "not geotagging" will only serve to funnel people to the most popular, accessible spots. It's a worth discussing whether a better approach is actually to share more, not less.
For example, the infrastructure of places like Zion simply can't support the level of visitation currently being driven there. But there are millions of acres of public lands in Utah that are waiting to be explored. Not only would increasing visibility of these places spread out visitors, but potentially have a beneficial economic affect on small towns nearby.
Much of the funneling of visitors can be partially be attributed to destination marketing organizations (both local and state level) focusing on their star attractions. Tourism drives the economies of many small towns in the West, and everyone wants more visitors...until they don't. However, it's great to see some DMO's beginning to recognize these issues and creating campaigns designed to drive visitors off the well-trodden paths and places. Visit Utah's primary campaign over the last few years has been focused on the "Mighty Five" national parks, but now they're also encouraging people to see the "in between" places.
At the end of the day, remember that progress doesn't happen overnight, nor is it easy. These aren't problems with simple solutions. While "not geotagging' might fit better into your schedule, consider that it might not be the most productive path towards effective management of our public lands.
If you're interested in learning more, I'd highly recommend this recent article in Mountain Journal, where author Todd Wilkinson puts into words the extremely complicated relationship between outdoor recreation and conservation -- and the question of whether we should be promoting recreation in these places at all. It's definitely one that you'll need to stew on for a bit.
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