Article

Left: A recent poppy bloom in California attracted tens of thousands of people.
Right: Instagram posts with geotags are driving up interest in many natural wonders.

via Instagram/hayleymariemcbride (left);  via Instagram/travel_teller_ (right)

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.8, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.5, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.8, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.5, SL.6-8.6

NCSS: People, Places, and Environments • Production, Distribution, and Consumption • Science, Technology, and Society

SPOTLIGHT

Is Social Media Ruining Nature?

Scenic spots around the country are being overrun—and damaged—by record numbers of visitors. Experts say social media is to blame.

As You Read, Think About: How can social media posts help and hurt local environments?

Last spring, the residents of Lake Elsinore, California, were facing a crisis: an explosion of picture-perfect poppies in the Temescal Mountains, just northwest of town. But the problem wasn’t the flame-orange flowers—it was the hordes of smartphone-carrying visitors coming to take photos of them.

During one weekend alone, as many as 100,000 poppy seekers crowded into the town of 50,000. The sightseers brought with them bumper-to-bumper traffic. Some even damaged the poppies by picking them or wandering off designated trails, which can crush the flowers’ roots and prevent future blooms from growing.

What led to the visitor boom? A few weeks earlier, some Instagram influencers had taken pictures with the first poppy blooms. (An influencer is someone with a huge social media following who sometimes makes money by posting about places and products.) Many of their posts included geotags, GPS locations that show precisely where photos are taken.

As the poppy images spread across social media, hundreds of thousands of people were inspired to visit the same spots outside Lake Elsinore to snap stunning selfies of their own.

This California town isn’t the only place concerned about social media’s impact on the local environment. Geotagged posts are driving up tourism in public lands across the United States. Although visitors can help boost an area’s economy or even raise awareness about sites that need protection, many lesser-known nature spots aren’t equipped to handle large crowds. And that’s putting everything from plants to wild animals at risk. 

Last spring, the residents of Lake Elsinore, California, faced a crisis. There was an explosion of picture-perfect poppies in the Temescal Mountains, just northwest of town. But the problem was not the flame-orange flowers. It was the crowds of visitors with smartphones, coming to take photos of the flowers.

During one weekend alone, as many as 100,000 poppy seekers crowded into the town of 50,000. The sightseers caused heavy traffic on the roads. Some visitors even damaged the poppies by picking them or wandering off marked trails. This can crush the flowers’ roots and keep future blooms from growing.

What led to the visitor boom? A few weeks earlier, some Instagram influencers had taken pictures with the first poppy blooms. (An influencer is someone with a huge social media following who sometimes makes money by posting about places and products.) Many of the influencers’ posts included geotags. Geotags are GPS locations that show exactly where photos are taken.

The poppy images spread across social media. That inspired hundreds of thousands of people to visit the same spots outside Lake Elsinore. They wanted to snap stunning selfies of their own.

This California town is not the only place concerned about social media’s impact on the local environment. Geotagged posts are driving up tourism in public lands across the United States. Visitors can help boost an area’s economy or even raise awareness about sites that need protection. But many lesser-known nature spots are not equipped to handle large crowds. And that is putting everything from plants to wild animals at risk.

Geotagging Pros and Cons

In Arizona, for example, the Horseshoe Bend overlook (above) has gone from something of a local secret to #instafamous, thanks to geotags. Roughly 2 million people now visit the site each year for breathtaking views of Glen Canyon, compared with just a few thousand five years ago.

For many natural wonders, bigger crowds tend to bring people who are less experienced with—and less respectful of—the outdoors. Such visitors often leave trash behind and damage the environment when they wander off trails. And while the number of visitors has gone up, budgets and staff for national parks and other sites have generally stayed the same, making it difficult for officials to handle larger groups. 

That’s why the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board in Wyoming recently asked area visitors to stop geotagging photos on social media. The goal: to protect the area’s forests and lakes from overcrowding.

For their part, many social media influencers say they’re helping areas that depend on tourists by bringing in business. Emily Breeze Ross Watson from Charlotte, North Carolina, visited Jackson Hole in 2018 and posted photos of herself near the Grand Tetons mountain range. A local resort paid her to tag her location for her 63,000 followers to see.

“I definitely think it is cool to bring awareness to the area,” she says.

In Arizona, for example, the Horseshoe Bend overlook (above) has gone from something of a local secret to #instafamous, thanks to geotags. Roughly 2 million people now visit the site each year for breathtaking views of Glen Canyon. Compare that with just a few thousand visitors five years ago.

For many natural wonders, bigger crowds tend to bring people who are less experienced with, and less respectful of, the outdoors. Such visitors often leave trash behind. They damage the environment when they wander off trails. And while the number of visitors has gone up, budgets and staff for national parks and other sites have generally stayed the same. That makes it hard for officials to handle larger groups.

That is why the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board in Wyoming recently asked area visitors to stop geotagging photos on social media. The goal is to protect the area’s forests and lakes from overcrowding.

For their part, many social media influencers say they are helping areas that depend on tourists by bringing in business. Emily Breeze Ross Watson from Charlotte, North Carolina, visited Jackson Hole in 2018. She posted photos of herself near the Grand Tetons mountain range. A local resort paid her to tag her location for her 63,000 followers to see.

“I definitely think it is cool to bring awareness to the area,” she says.

“Tag Responsibly”

Environmental experts say they still welcome respectful visitors to nature sites. And no one is asking people to stop posting photographs altogether.

“We just want people to stop and think before they share a location,” says Dana Watts of Leave No Trace, an organization that promotes the ethical use of public lands. “While tagging can seem innocent, it can lead to significant impact.”

Jackson Hole officials suggest that rather than using a geotag, visitors try this generic one for the location: “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild.” 

Some social media users have even adopted the hashtag #nogeotag. Other influencers have made a point of declaring their good intentions.

Jacob Fu, a travel blogger who took photos of the recent poppy bloom outside Lake Elsinore, says he’s always shown respect for the local environment by staying on the trails.

In an Instagram post that showed his wife surrounded by the poppies, Fu offered a tip to aspiring nature photographers: “There are plenty of dirt trails to walk around in. If you shoot from a low vantage point or from farther away, you can still look like you’re in the flowers.”

Environmental experts say they still welcome respectful visitors to nature sites. And no one is asking people to stop posting photographs altogether.

“We just want people to stop and think before they share a location,” says Dana Watts of Leave No Trace. That organization promotes the ethical use of public lands. “While tagging can seem innocent, it can lead to significant impact.”

Jackson Hole officials suggest that instead of using a geotag, visitors try this more general one for the location: “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild.”

Some social media users have even adopted the hashtag #nogeotag. Other influencers have made a point of letting followers know about their good intentions.

Jacob Fu is a travel blogger who took photos of the recent poppy bloom outside Lake Elsinore. He says he has always shown respect for the local environment by staying on the trails.

One of Fu’s Instagram posts showed his wife surrounded by the poppies. In that post, he offered a tip to people who want to be nature photographers: “There are plenty of dirt trails to walk around in. If you shoot from a low vantage point or from farther away, you can still look like you’re in the flowers.”

With reporting by The New York Times

With reporting by The New York Times

Write About It! Are social media posts mostly good or mostly bad for public lands? Write an argument essay that includes evidence from the article to support your claim.

What You Can Do

1. THINK BEFORE YOU TAG. Consider a general tag for social media posts—or don’t include the location at all.

2. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR IMAGES. Ask yourself: Do my pictures encourage others to be considerate of the environment?

3. GIVE BACK TO PLACES YOU LOVE. Ask how you can volunteer or otherwise get involved with the protection of public lands.

1. THINK BEFORE YOU TAG. Consider a general tag for social media posts—or don’t include the location at all.

2. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR IMAGES. Ask yourself: Do my pictures encourage others to be considerate of the environment?

3. GIVE BACK TO PLACES YOU LOVE. Ask how you can volunteer or otherwise get involved with the protection of public lands.

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