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Loved to Death: How Instagram Is Destroying Our Natural Wonders

Geotagging technology shows us where we are, no matter the destination. But the more we discover (and the more photos we take), the more we ruin.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The Little North Fork and Three Pools area is some 40 miles from the house in Keizer, Oregon, where I grew up. In high school, my friends and I would pile far too many bodies into a car and speed past slow-going tractors on state Route 22 to get there. We’d drive up the gravel and dirt road, park as far to one side as we could, and then start the hike down to the water.

There was no path, really. You sort of just let your body fall down the hill — sometimes there were ropes tied to trees so that you could maneuver downward more easily. We’d arrive at large, smooth rocks, half submerged in the clearest, bluest, coldest water. We’d sun and swim and jump into the deeper areas. Our parents warned us not to get drunk there, because they’d remembered that when they were kids people had injured themselves after jumping from the rocks and the bridge. It was as small-town as it gets. It was perfect.

About two years ago, I was home for an extended stay for the first time in years. All I wanted to do was revisit the places I’d become nostalgic for, so my sister and I packed beers and towels into our parents’ car and headed for Little North Fork and Three Pools.

But things were different when we arrived. The dirt road had been paved over. The cars that had dotted the side of the road were now parked in a concrete lot, complete with painted yellow lines. Most shockingly, there was a restroom on site. The lot was full — there must have been 100 cars. A ranger walked up to our window.

"Sorry, lot’s full. So are the pools."

He told us there were nearly 300 people down by the water, in a space I remember calling "too crowded" when there were just 40 people present.

"Some magazine or site or something wrote a story about it," he told us. "And then it just … blew up. It’s always full. You should see it on weekends." He told us if we drove down the road another mile and a half, passed a short bridge, and parked in a small clearing off to the side, there was another swimming hole that had yet to be discovered.

"Please don’t tell anyone about it, though," he said with an anxious smile. "I like to go there on my lunch breaks."

If you, like me, obsessively follow and consume outdoorsy Northwest Instagram content, then you’ve seen Three Pools and the surrounding swimming holes on the Santiam River. I know that these photos are carefully chosen, filtered, and presented with the purpose of shaming people for bingeing The Great British Bake Off on a Saturday instead of getting off the couch in search of refreshing, jewel-toned waters. And it’s working.

Three Pools is a great place to show that you’re low-key adventurous, and to flaunt your latest swimsuit. I am no better. Despite the ranger’s pleas, I took a photo and put it on Instagram.

Actually, I took two. I even revealed the location to a friend.

Social media and Instagram did not invent discovery of beautiful outdoor spaces — but they have become a curator-friendly guide to collecting them. It’s like bingo: You’ve got your picture at Yosemite with Half Dome in the background, but wait — Crater Lake has popped up in the Explore tab five times in the past few weeks. You must go, and you must document it. America’s most gorgeous natural wonders: Collect them all!

Maybe that desire has something to do with finding and touching a place that hasn’t been found and touched. Manifest Destiny is defined by the nation’s westward territorial expansion, but it’s also a philosophy about the need to conquer, to discover. What happens when social media increases the rate of outdoor discovery? How long until every corner of the planet has been Instagrammed and geotagged?

These may seem like ridiculous questions, but they’re more legitimate than you might think. It’s become so easy to tell the world what you’ve discovered, and technology can so accurately plot it, that we have arrived at a curious moment in a kind of digital manifest destiny: keep cataloguing, or keep things secret? As every place becomes attainable and collectible, tourist attractions that aren’t prepared — or, really, meant — to host hundreds or thousands of yearly visitors are bombarded with them; national parks visitor numbers have increased 26 percent over the last decade, according to the Associated Press. The report says that just in July, the 10 most visited parks suffered more than 11,000 vandalism incidents. In 2015, ranger warnings to visitors increased nearly 20 percent from the previous year — resulting in more than 52,000 being issued.

Many of these visitors, lured in by inspiring, jealousy-inducing Instagram posts, aren’t prepared for what a location requires of them. And that threatens the very thing their social media presence prizes: beauty.

On the internet, secrets are not safe. We can — and will — be hacked, and the information we’ve accumulated in our profiles means our digital selves are entirely discoverable. But what about all the things that were in no part created because of the internet, that existed before it? There is no such thing as a secret life if it’s lived online, and no such thing as a secret place once it’s been geotagged on Instagram.

The trouble is, Instagram is a great way to find outdoor inspiration. Yelp is helpful in finding places to eat, Facebook manages events, and Airbnb can put you in a yurt for the weekend. There are a handful of apps that are designed to help users discover hiking, camping, and backpacking retreats — but these apps err toward the informational. Miles, elevation, routes, and topographical maps are all included, along with a handful of accurate, unfiltered, semi-boring photos. What they don’t include are sun-splashed, falsely faded photos, angled just so the mountain looks a little steeper or the water reflects the forest in a shimmering, seemingly impossible image. But Instagram has plenty of those.

When I moved to California, I used EveryTrail and AllTrails to find new camping and hiking destinations, and wasn’t all that excited about the options. Almost nothing grabbed me. So I started browsing Instagram via hashtags like #californiahiking, #lahikes, #bayareahikes, #socalhikes, #californiahikes, and so on. This is what I was looking for: too-filtered-to-be-true shots. Then I would plot the details of the trip using the aforementioned apps, so that I knew what was actually in my future, instead of just the view at the end. I used someone else’s vista as inspiration to go find my own.

This last part — the planning and "choose your own adventure" mentality — is what many people fail to do.

"The downside is people might disrespect places they visit, and we really do our best to promote Leave No Trace principles," says Brian Heifferon, CEO of the Outbound Collective, a social platform that helps people discover and share outdoor adventures. "We think Instagram is exceptional at inspiring people, but we don’t just want to post pretty photos; every Instagram post has questions like, ‘Where is this? How do I get there?,’ and we try and include more information so that people don’t show up in skinny jeans and loafers to try and hike seven miles."

I’m not guilty of this, but I am guilty of documenting and geotagging my trips, potentially ruining someone else’s sacred space. In a 2015 Select All story, Modern Hiker editor-in-chief Casey Schreiner (who broke the story of Creepytings, an artist who vandalized parks with artwork that she shared on Instagram) spoke about this exact problem. "You’ve formed an intense personal bond with these places, and when you see someone coming in and trampling it, you obviously get really upset about that."

Sometimes, the only solution is to not share something with the masses — which defies the mantra of National Parks and most outdoors organizations. "It’s a tricky situation," says Heifferon. "But we ask people not to share places that are really sensitive environmentally, places that can’t handle larger crowds."

This is all part of a larger problem that isn’t specific to the outdoors and Instagram. Secret spots have been ruined for food lovers, too. Some restaurants have risked losing publicity by banning the posting of photos on social media. Waze is an enemy to anyone who lives on a formerly quiet sidestreet. (A particular problem for those in Los Angeles, where Uber and Lyft drivers heavily rely on the app and its cut-through routes to avoid the freeways.) The internet and apps can help you find secret bars and secret concerts — and then, in turn, allow you to document them. There’s no currency in secrets, only in teasing, or even outright sharing. "Look what I found, look what I did," these photos scream.

Ben Lawhon, the education director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, agrees that some people resent new visitors toting smartphones, and that more groups that value secrecy don’t appreciate onetime picture-seekers geotagging a spot they spent time finding. "Some people will say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I found this place and now you’re sharing it out to the whole internet,’" says Lawhon.

Some Instagram outdoor enthusiasts have taken to using hashtags like #nogeotags and #secretplaces, urging followers in their captions to keep some places sacred and secret.

Miranda Leconte is caught in the middle of these secretive and share-happy sects. Leconte was a ranger in Desolation Wilderness from 2013 until recently, documenting the area via Instagram. "I wanted the public to know that the Forest Service isn’t full of ‘mean feds,’ but actual nice people," she told me. "I wanted others to have a resource to contact easily when they had questions about our federal lands."

Her popular account, which has more than 18,000 followers, is unadulterated wilderness porn — scenic mountains, views from inside her tent, selfies of her cozily wrapped in blankets or summiting a mountain. Her posts, though, come with information on treating the outdoors responsibly — they educate as well as inspire her followers (provided they keep reading). In a recent post, Leconte explained that she recently had to quit her job because of a health issue. Shortly thereafter, a former coworker called to tell her that this was a good thing, because her social media exposure was "ruining wilderness values" and "increasing the flow of visitors to Desolation Wilderness — which he thinks is bad."

Leconte says she’s unbothered by the animosity from her former coworker. "I don’t have a whole lot to say about it because there will always be people waiting to tear you down no matter what you do," she says. "It comes with the territory. If you’re making a difference, you will have people saying negative things about you."

Since the confrontation, she’s been showered with support from other former Desolation Wilderness coworkers. And this isn’t the first time she’s experienced resistance to her posts. "I’ve been called all sorts of names," she says. "I think the most recent was ‘twig pig,’ a derogatory term for a Forest Service employee." Leconte’s Instagram account calls out campers who perform illegal acts on park grounds, but not everyone appreciates the effort. "Someone has to speak for the trees!" she says.

This caption-size education is what sets Leconte’s account apart from other outdoor Instagrams. In lieu of simple hashtags and quotes about adventuring, she takes time to instruct her followers about proper outdoor etiquette; she wishes more would do the same. "I do get pretty upset when I see large outdoor companies on Instagram promote disrespect for our environment," she says — things like camping and starting fires too close to water, or feeding wildlife. She’s begun working as a social media consultant for brands so they can more intelligently use Instagram to talk about the environment and parks. "I think they should know better."

Getty Images
Getty Images

What are the rules of geotagging? A popular location — say, the Grand Canyon — has been discovered and categorized. No controversy there. The Instagram generation (or the "selfie generation" as a recent National Geographic article put it) has spurred renewed interest in national parks, which are celebrating their centennial; last year, there were a record 307 million visits, according to the story. The upside: Parks need to make more money, and the free exposure certainly helps. Sometimes increased popularity can even help lead to park expansion, in one recent case by 400 acres. The downside: Uneducated visitors do things like put baby bison in their cars, fall from dangerous ledges, or even vandalize the precious property.

I recently visited Yosemite, Zion, and the Grand Canyon national parks on a hiking trip, spending about a day and half in each. These are not unknown places, and I knew that even though summer travel season was over and my trip was primarily during a workweek, the parks would be crowded. Even still, I was surprised when I would ask rangers about backcountry options and advice on more secluded hikes. Two of them laughed when I said I was looking for a less invaded space (they don’t exist); another advised on one of the most popular hikes for Instagramming (Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park). I took a shuttle into Zion, and watched as some visitors never left the van, content to document the trip for Instagram from inside the vehicle.

<em>Zion National Park (Molly McHugh)</em>
Zion National Park (Molly McHugh)

In the Grand Canyon, I felt an anxiety attack setting in as I came shoulder to shoulder with other eager onlookers desperate to catch a photo of the oncoming sunset. But I had little right to any aggravation — I’m just as guilty as the next person.

On a recent trip home, I visited Oneonta Gorge, a narrow trail leading to ankle-to-shoulder-deep waters down a waterfall and into its pool. Visitors must surmount a sizable dam of giant logs and rocks, a tricky feat. It becomes trickier yet when there are some 100 people trying to do it at the same time, with children, dogs, and floaties in tow. The scene was chaotic: We assisted ill-prepared hikers clutching at logs, realizing their folly in assuming they’d be able to cross the dam in flip flops. Others were carrying small infants. There was yelling, screaming, splashing, slipping. It was madness.

Of course I took pictures …

… and added a geotag.

A week later, the Statesman Journal wrote a story about how the gorge — an incredibly popular Instagram spot — was being "loved to death" (a phrase that is becoming widely used when speaking and writing about threatened places like this). Recreation staff called the crowds "concerning," and said they were likely causing damage to the local ecosystem. The same newspaper wrote last summer about the Three Pools swimming hole, and how recreation staff would limit public access to the space moving forward. "When the parking lot is full, we will not allow folks to park elsewhere and walk in," a staffer said. Instead, now, cars can line up and wait for a space to open up. Three Pools’ sudden overcrowding is part of a larger problem for the Opal Creek wilderness.

The story of Opal Creek’s congestion is particularly sad. Many years ago, the area was likely to be logged by the U.S. Forest Service. A local man named George Atiyeh, who’s been called the Guardian of Opal Creek, fought to preserve the area. He was even arrested for his efforts. Eventually he was able to save the land by founding a mining company and securing claims over it. This prevented the Forest Service from touching Opal Creek. (Atiyeh ran a logging company for a short time in a nearby area as well. Of this, he’s said, "At some time in life, everybody has lapses in their principles." He’s been called a "reformed logger.")

Atiyeh continued to use the legal system, the media, and political maneuvering to keep Opal Creek safe, as logging threats persisted. Eventually, it became a national wilderness area, meaning it would be protected forever.

At least, protected from logging. Now, it’s another place that’s being "loved to death." Booze, trespassing, garbage, illegal fires, and dangerous behavior have turned a formerly serene creekside into what can sometimes look like a Lake Havasu frat party. Some want the area to become accessible by permit only. The place Atiyeh fought to save for the public could possibly soon be a restricted area.

The Statesman’s Zach Urness has extensively and expertly covered the changes happening at Opal Creek. He’s also cowritten a book about hiking in Southern Oregon, and has observed how social media has changed all of this, and how people who are documenting the outdoors online are missing what’s right in front of them. "The places that really get hammered are the ones that are really photogenic — that show up well on Instagram — but are fairly easy to reach," he told me. "The funny thing is that places more than 6 miles from a trailhead are getting less use than in the 1990s … everyone wants to get that easy photo that’s good for Instagram, so they are targeting these areas, but just down the road there might be a waterfall that’s just as scenic."

Of reporting on Opal Creek — a sprawling, wild area that Instagram would suggest is composed of just the pools — specifically, Urness mentions "the irony of inviting the public in to see what was at risk … and 20 years later that public has become the problem."

Urness talked to me about one very notable case in which a place was literally loved to death. There was a famous sandstone formation in Oregon’s Cape Kiwanda called the Duckbill (also referred to as Thor’s Fist). You may have seen photos of it; it’s a popular spot for professional photographers (and nonprofessional Instagram photographers). This summer, a group snuck past the sign and the fence barring them from the dangerous, cliffside location, and toppled the Duckbill, destroying it. Outrage ensued, and Instagram users mourned and chastised, posting pictures taken from atop the formation (a wonderfully hypocritical move, since no one was supposed to be near the rock).

Everyone was furious, except the park rangers. "People have literally been dying there forever. It’s a really unstable place," says Urness. "Six people died there in the last two years.

"[Oregon] State Parks will never say this, but those people knocking that thing over was a blessing in disguise. It was this gigantic hassle, because people would see this thing on Instagram and try and go take pictures of it, and it was a huge disaster almost totally created by Instagram." And now, to the park’s relief, it’s gone.

More people than ever are moving to and living in urban areas. Urban sprawl is also making those areas larger. Cities are gobbling up the green, spreading further into territories where concrete used to have no place.

"Fifty percent of the population lives in an urban area, and that’s going to increase to something like 70 percent in the next few years," says the Outbound Collective’s Heifferon. "As we become more disconnected from nature, we also have more mental health issues, like anxiety and depression."

This leads to more questing for the experience of being outdoors without the pains of discovery.

"I think the outdoors is having a mainstream moment," says Heifferon. "People are feeling more detached from nature and you’re constantly reminded of it on Instagram and across other channels. People have a natural tendency to experience wanderlust, and when you’re behind a computer at a desk all day, you think, ‘Oh my god, I wish I were there and not here.’"

Lawhon of Leave No Trace agrees. "We know, fairly definitively, that people are not as connected to the natural world as they once were," he says. "Kids go to the grocery store and see milk and don’t even know there’s a cow involved. We’ve lost our connection to the natural world. The benefit is that [this increased interest in the outdoors and parks] is good for psychological health, physical health, and it’s good to have more people aware of their public lands and become supporters of public lands."

But being aware of public lands doesn’t necessarily mean someone knows how to treat them. "Some of these folks, they do their homework. They went to REI, did the research, found the place, got educated, got their gear — and maybe some people share all that," says Lawhon. But many don’t. Instead of an Instagram post that documents all the work required to get the photo, you just see the pretty result — and that piece of the story is what drives inexperienced people to try to accomplish the same. Lawhon says he’s "seen lots of places get hammered" when a well-taken photo gets posted, especially if the poster has a healthy social media following. This is what happened with the Devil’s Bathtub in Southwest Virginia.

"There’s this creek, this obscure little creek called the Devil’s Bathtub. It’s a little pool, and it blew up on social media. All of a sudden, it’s totally overrun. That’s what happens when a place gets hot spotted."

That’s a term Lawhon uses to describe when a location gets geotagged, is posted on social media, and then goes viral. Leave No Trace has a hot spot program, a tool that helps the organization identify when a place is about to become popular. That way, rangers and other recreation staff can at least try to predict what resources they can use to mitigate the consequences of notoriety. (You can read the report here; I have to admit, when I see the list of places, I think, "Do not go.")

"The ecological impact and the social impact are cumulative over time," Lawhon explains, telling me about what he calls a "snapshot." If you go to a popular Instagram location and there’s some trash, and it’s crowded, and it’s noisy, then that’s your snapshot — it’s just another popular, overrun space. But if you knew it before it was like that, then your frame of reference changes, and a holy place has been desecrated. "It’s a real psychological thing," he says. This is why the change in Oregon’s local spots has been so notable, fascinating, strange, and honestly, sort of heartbreaking for me — I know what these places used to be like.

Part of what happened with the sudden popularity of the Devil’s Bathtub had more to do with internet-bred hype (and misinformation) than just an appreciation for natural beauty. For one, people were incorrectly geotagging it, tagging pictures of a Devil’s Bathtub in Ohio as the one in Virginia. Also, a wide swath of manipulated, color-boosted images popped up on Pinterest and Instagram, leading people to believe the area was … well, maybe a little more breathtaking than it truly is. Then, the Weather Channel wrote a story about it being the state’s "hidden gem," and that settled it: The Devil’s Bathtub went viral, and traffic increased hugely. Some people prepared, many did not, all came with cameras. The trail became crowded.

A key concern about these increases is whether trails will be ruined, and if people will fail to use Leave No Trace principles. "There’s no consistent trend of people practicing Leave No Trace," Lawhon says. "All of our data sets show that people support the idea of Leave No Trace, strongly support actually. But I think where it breaks down is they don’t have the skills." He doesn’t think the surge of new, internet-bred visitors will cause a dip in LNT principles being practiced outdoors, but does believe that educating — and making some compromises — is necessary. "It’s not about perfection. Doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Some folks who are into Leave No Trace are hardcore and they get dogmatic about it — but it’s not like those people have a lock on the outdoors. We try to soften that approach. It’s just a matter of thinking; just give some thought to how you can do something in a responsible way. We’re not the fun police."

The U.S. National Park Service and state tourism departments don’t want to be the fun police, either. Travel Oregon has a social media guide for the Columbia River Gorge area (where Oneonta is located), which includes the advice to use hashtags like (the particularly clever) #readysetgorge, #lovethegorge, #findyourwild, and (the one I find most appropriate) #gorgebingo. Part of the manual features a sample Facebook post. ("Always include a hero shot," it says.) But the content of these suggested posts does encourage people to do things like go early to avoid crowds and consider a midweek adventure instead of one on the heavily trafficked weekends.

The benefits are obvious: More exposure means more need, which means more jobs. Travel-generated employment increased 4.1 percent from 2014 to 2015 in Oregon. (Oregon — Portland in particular — is not known for its employment opportunities.) The consequences are also obvious: Linea Gagliano, director of global communications with Travel Oregon, tells me that while a 2014 marketing campaign highlighting the "7 Wonders of Oregon" was its most successful, it had its drawbacks.

"We began to realize that driving people to specific places drove stress that our natural resources potentially couldn’t keep up with unless it worked together with partners across Oregon to educate consumers," Gagliano wrote me. "That was part of the reasoning why, after two years of the most successful marketing campaign to date, we decided to launch a completely different campaign that spoke to the true tone of an Oregonian — encouraging people to come, but not all at once, so that we can get to know them better." (This jibes with Oregon’s infamous former greeting sign: "Welcome to Oregon; we hope you will enjoy your visit." We’d like you to come here, but then please go home.)

Gagliano also says Travel Oregon works with other agencies to encourage people to "go early, east, or late." Basically, choose the less popular hours, and explore Eastern Oregon, a less "in demand" space.

While the National Park Service and bigger recreation agencies in general have courted the social media ticket, smaller staffs don’t have the same ability to do that, and instead find themselves struggling to deal with the onslaught. National Parks can find this a challenge, too, but the degree of impact is lessened by their resources. "Oregon only has one national park, Crater Lake, and even it’s struggled with crowds," the Statesman’s Urness told me when I asked about the disparity between larger and smaller departments. "But national parks were already designed for high volumes. A lot of the areas getting hit now weren’t designed for it, and the management in place was never prepared for this. The mechanisms to do anything about it are slow — it’s government paperwork."

Still, you likely won’t find a recreation staffer or a small wilderness area ranger who’s offended about crowds. That usually falls to locals. "It’s really hard for the old-timers in the Little North Fork area. This place was a little gem in the ’70s," Urness says. "But it’s a product of Oregon growing up, too. Oregon markets the living crap out of its natural assets." And that’s true all over the country, with park attendance increasing nationwide.

"Who’s to say who’s the gatekeeper?" Lawhon asks. "Just because you found it and someone else found it and isn’t going to be as quiet about it as you — who’s to say who [should] have ownership of these places?"

Lawhon understands the less generous groups of outdoors lovers, the ones who post no photos, or post them with cryptic captions revealing no location information. He says there are forums where people will post beautiful photos and reviews of their trips and purposefully fail to share anything that could allow another person to get there. "If they find a cool place," he says, "they don’t tell anyone, they don’t talk about it. Loose lips sink ships." Or in my case, swimming holes.

Leconte says that after three years in the Forest Service, she came to understand "our public lands don’t belong to a handful of people."

But even she wants to keep some spots secret. "There’s one place in Desolation Wilderness that I won’t geotag. I think I’ve only posted one or two photos from the spot, and I stopped when someone recognized the area."

She ultimately deleted the photo.

"It’s too special to me."

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