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Loving Our Lands: Social Media Is A Double-Edged Sword For Park Managers

My family hosted Japanese exchange students when I was in high school. As a result, I have a bunch of Japanese sisters, one of which is a mountaineer, gear-tester, and all-around outdoorswoman. She loves hot springs and wanted to know which natural hot springs in Utah were good to visit. So I set off to find out. 

One particular hot spring looked like a dream, with pale blue water cascading over falls into soaking pools. So I loaded up my Nissan with backpacks and a few friends to go check it out.

Ultimately I had to report back to my sister disappointed: what looked perfect on Instagram was crowded and scattered with trash and broken bottles. I was left wondering how many of our other natural resources suffer from social media-related overuse?

I talked to Chris Wonderly, the social media manager at Canyonlands National Park. He described social media as a great tool to get people excited about Canyonlands.

“Our big thing is to allow for people to connect with the park, both people who have come here before and or people who have never been before to see photos, read articles and learn about Canyonlands and Arches,” Wonderly said. “Really great scenic photos, big landscape photos, blooming flowers, what’s going on in the park right now, that usually gets the most interactions from our visitors.”

I also sat down with Ashley D’Antonio, a researcher at Oregon State University, who specializes in the impact of media on recreation. She described social media as a double-edged sword.

“National parks and other public lands across the US (not just in Utah) have been dealing with this phenomenon of social media,” D'Antonio said. “It’s been manifest, one way has been a change in use levels. Someone might post a great photo on Instagram of their favorite spot. In the past, it might have been a location kind of tucked away, that not a lot of folks had visited. Once it goes viral everyone starts liking it on social media and everyone ends up there.”

My hot spring experience wasn’t the only one. There are many other cases of overuse and some are specifically tied to social media.

“I’m sure you and others have seen Grand Prismatic Spring," D'Antonio said. "It’s the big beautiful hot spring in Yellowstone that kind of has rainbow colors with red in the center and coming out from there. Someone had taken an overhead shot of it and posted it to social media ... Folks were seeking out that same angle and causing social trailing up to this hillside around Grand Prismatic Spring.”

Managers must choose to either allow the problem to continue or spend money to mitigate the pattern of misuse. In the case of Grand Prismatic Spring, the managers went the mitigation route.

“It got to the point where the ecological impacts of folks seeking out this particular photo that they had seen online resulted in the park actually developing and building a new established trail,” D’Antonio said. “There’s a whole new trail opened last summer that a lot of the impetus for building the trail was to reduce ecological impact from people seeking a specific photo.”

But not every management agency has the funding to build new facilities.

“It really just depends on the situation and the resources the agency has to do additional management actions at the place that’s become popular from social media,” D’Antonio said.

Social media is an equalizer that can be used to effect change. D’Antonio and Wonderly both suggested that we can use social media to share our love of the outdoors while educating about responsible outdoor practices.

“Think before you post,” D'Antonio recommended. “What might the consequences be of you posting this particular location? People have a responsibility to act in ways to minimize their own impact when out on their public lands regardless of whether it’s posted on social media. You shouldn’t be posting things that are illegal or damaging resources in our parks and protected areas because not everyone who sees that photo will understand or know what the best practices area.

"So I think there is a little bit of responsibility to at least think of the consequences are of your social media are before posting. And again, trying to be a good example, and to emphasize responsible behavior. These folks are obviously posting photos of these locations and writing about these locations because they’re passionate about them and love them. So they should try to be an ambassador for the place as well and try and treat it respectfully and protect it as best as they can.”

For example, Wonderly uses social media to educate about how to best protect the fragile desert ecosystem.

“One of our big topics is staying on trails, helping to protect biological soil crust, which is a really important feature of the area, so that’s one of our big topics that we talk about,” Wonderly said.

Some social media accounts, such as Trail Trash Utah, exist to shame users posting images that violate parks rules or leave no trace principles. These accounts can have big effects.

“If people tag Canyonlands or post it to our Facebook account, if it’s an actual violation of some park policy we would pass it on to our law enforcement to investigate," Wonderly said. "We certainly do find people who are passionate about protecting public lands, so we do appreciate those.”

One prominent case concluded in 2016.

“A woman actually pleaded guilty to painting graffiti in both Zion and Canyonlands,” D’Antonio said. “She was caught via social media. She posted the paintings to social media and then the public actually caught her. It was made well-known on a blog called Modern Hiker, and that’s when the park service actually figured out this was happening and were able to charge her with this graffiti. In this case social media perpetuated the painting but was also was a tool that folks used to enforce and bring this person to trial for breaking the rules.”

So is social media a tool to share Utah’s natural beauty with others? The origin for patterns of misuse on our public lands? Or a potential mechanism to enforce park policies? Maybe the beauty and the danger of social media is that the decision is up to us.

Support for Loving Our Lands To Death is made possible in part by the USU Quinney College of Natural Resources, where students and faculty promote the sustainability of ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. Information can be found here