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Stay Wild: How Parks Departments Are Keeping Up With Instagram Chasers

The great outdoors are beginning to be overrun by glory hunters on social media. Rather than try to beat technology, conservationists are learning how to better use it.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jackson Hole is known for a few things: its extravagance, its famous seasonal residents, and, above all, its wilderness. The Wyoming ski-resort town is home to two national parks and the largest protected land in the continental United States.

Conservationism is in Jackson Hole’s DNA, so much so that last year the city’s tourism board sought a way to curb the effects of the deluge of visitors brought on by social media. Colle McVoy, a marketing agency out of Minnesota, pitched the town on a tech-savvy campaign to stem the hordes and won the job. “The focus was just how special Jackson Hole was in terms of it being kind of this last real mountain town,” says Dustin Black, a creative director with the agency. “Jackson Hole is 97 percent protected federal land, which is truly unique and that has given it a special feel that some other ski resort towns have lost.”

What’s being lost are the places that are “loved to death,” a now overused phrase that aptly describes what’s happening to the outdoors. Parks, reserves, and wilderness areas were ill-prepared for a newfound fascination with the natural world, in part spurred by Instagram. The photo-sharing app quickly became a place to collect and broadcast locations as if they were medals; social currency can be won by proving you climbed a mountain or bathed in a hot spring. This pursuit has negative byproducts: crowding, trail damage, littering, and vandalism, among others. For some, the consequences can be fatal. This past October, a couple taking a selfie fell to their deaths at Yosemite National Park, and three YouTube stars died after falling into a waterfall in Vancouver in July. In June, an Instagrammer well-known for posting photos of her explorations died in a flash flood while investigating a storm drain.

Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, Oregon’s director of outdoor recreation, says that those in charge of public landmarks often find themselves playing catch-up to technology as it applies to tourism interest. O’Brien-Feeney is the first to fill this newly created role in Oregon, and he’s aware of the challenges he’s up against. Oregon parks are breaking visitation records every year, and various destinations have suffered because of Instagram virality. “There’s more people going outside, and that’s mostly a great thing,” he says. “But there’s also crowding in certain hot spots.”

Part of the issue is federal funding. The of secretary of the interior position is empty, as President Donald Trump’s previous pick, Ryan Zinke, was recently forced to resign amid an ethics investigation. He was no friend to conservationists, and there’s been a general feeling of angst within parks departments in regard to funding. Meanwhile, the current government shutdown is wreaking havoc on national parks. From overflowing toilets at Joshua Tree to closures over unsafe conditions in Kings and Sequoia, parks across the country are suffering from nonstop crowds and lack of staffing.

Even before the shutdown, state and national parks were facing similar issues. But support varies by state. Oregon approved more funding, which resulted in increased hiring—an effort O’Brien-Feeney believes is the strongest antidote to many of today’s problems. He points to Cape Kiwanda, a location on Oregon’s coast that’s been a source of many Instagram-fueled acts of vandalism. “More than two dozen ranger positions were added across the system and certainly at Cape Kiwanda in particular we’ve seen a positive response, just having more of our staff out there talking with folks, doing outreach to help people understand why certain safety measures are in place,” O’Brien-Feeney says. “That’s not a silver bullet, but to me it’s absolutely an appropriate response.”

Utah has also felt the strain of understaffing: When it became home to new national monument Bears Ears in 2016, the massive amount of social media attention sent herds of visitors to the area. “When we rolled into the beginning of 2018, there were like two BLM [Bureau of Land Management] law enforcement officers for the whole 1.5 million-acre monument,” says Utah director of outdoor recreation Tom Adams. “We’re joyed and thrilled to have the monument, but creating one through the National Antiquities Act doesn’t include financial appropriation, so it’s taking some time to get funding and get boots on the ground.”

Adams says his department is trying to spread visitors out among the state’s various recreation areas. A few years ago, Utah launched the Mighty Five campaign to promote its five national parks—and it worked, perhaps too well. Now, Utah is trying to encourage people to venture to lesser-known spots. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, the Mighty Five are amazing places, but what you don’t know about are the other hidden gems in the 43 state parks that we have, that many people say could be national parks,’” Adams says.

Above all, what parks, wilderness agencies, and travel boards don’t want to do is discourage people from coming. Limiting or even shutting down visitor access is not a desirable solution, given many states’ economic reliance on tourism. “That’s sort of a last resort,” O’Brien-Feeney says. “What we should be focusing on really is a physical presence and public outreach education—trying to instill in visitors who own these places a sense of personal responsibility to some extent.” In some cases, however, restrictions might be the only viable answer. For example, Utah is looking at tightening access by incorporating reservation systems at Arches National Park and Zion National Park.

Colle McVoy and Jackson Hole adopted a lighter touch. Their goal is to educate and encourage more respectful practices without scaring anyone away. The campaign focuses on keeping Jackson Hole “wild”—or, as Black puts it, “to try to get people to change their behavior just slightly.” Beginning last November, messaging went up at visitor centers and Jackson Hole Airport about how tourism could negatively affect the environment. Jackson Hole gets around 3.2 million visitors each summer and 200,000 each winter, so the agency wanted to start advertising in the low season.

The second phase of the campaign focuses on social media use. “You know, we can’t fight Instagram or ask people to stop using it,” Black says. “But what if we can get them to be more generic or a little more vague?” Colle McVoy created a new geotag for Jackson Hole so that users who try to tag a specific trail or lake are presented with the suggested option “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild.” Instagram’s algorithm means that the most-used tags proliferate quickly, so messaging around the city encourages people to take a moment to find the new tag and apply it. “It still gives people the social credit on their Instagram feed of being in Jackson Hole,” Black says. So Instagram chasers get the satisfaction of adding a location to their portfolios, but instead of potentially causing a place to go viral, they deliver a message of protection.

While Black doesn’t have exact analytics on the new geotag’s prevalence, a quick scan on Instagram shows it’s actively being used. Within the tag are pictures touting the same Instagram wilderness porn we’ve grown familiar with, only without the exact map to get there. Black mentions that press in The New York Times discussing the campaign and supportive posts from well-known Instagram users like Hadley Hammer are the best measure of its influence. “‘Staying wild’ means going to a place, meeting the locals, getting to know a place as opposed to just relying on the digital world and going just to chase this place they saw on Instagram,” he says.

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This fall, I was asked by the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board to be apart of the Stay Wild campaign. The goal is to encourage locals and tourists alike to avoid geo-tags in order to keep Jackson "wild". In complete honesty, I was really hesitant to take part. The two times I've been in arguments in public (one in actual public and one in the social media sphere), have been over people being protective over ski runs. I've always felt strongly that the mountains are for everyone. The hashtag "somewhere in the Tetons", used by some of my closest friends whom I admire greatly, has always given me a funny gut feeling. I asked a lot of people their opinions. I read a lot of different articles. A few weeks of contemplation, and I realized that I wanted to take part. Because the reality is, social media in itself isn't negative or positive. How we use it is a reflection of ourselves as humans-the good and the bad. This initiative is a reminder to me to be a bit more mindful about what and how I post. I think the mountains should be shared. I think people should be encouraged to go outside. I think we should be conscious of our footprints. I think we should celebrate exploration. I think we should celebrate productive, curious discourse. So I'm curious what everyone thinks- open to all comments, as long as you remember that behind these posts is a person, and behind these photos is nature. #staywild @tagresponsiblykeepjhwild #jacksonhole

A post shared by Hadley Hammer (@hadhammer) on

Beyond new geotags, there are other creative solutions for land managers to work with technology rather than against it. Many popular outdoor Instagram shops sell merch that benefit national parks, and, in some cases, the very places that are in danger of being “loved to death” are using social media to advocate for their existence and recruit support. Tilly Jane, a beloved A-frame cabin in Oregon’s Mount Hood Wilderness, uses its Instagram account to advertise volunteer days and sell merch to fundraise for renovations. “Connecting folks with volunteer opportunities allows people to give back and be stewards of the places they love and enjoy,” says O’Brien-Feeney, who mentions his department is experimenting with programs where volunteer hours could earn discounted wilderness or parks passes. “That pivot toward partnership, I think, will be critical for the long term going forward but it’s also a great opportunity to connect with people who want to be stewards of the places that they enjoy.”

O’Brien-Feeney also says Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism department, is working on a project for areas of the state that have become particularly popular thanks to Instagram, which sounds similar in nature to Colle McVoy’s campaign for Jackson Hole. He couldn’t give specifics, but said that the department will provide tools for these areas to communicate best practices for geotagging and social media behavior to visitors.

For all of these creative solutions, O’Brien-Feeney also knows that better support is the bottom line. “We need both stronger funding at the state level and the federal level,” the recreation director says. Black also acknowledges that marketing-driven solutions are only “a drop in the bucket.” “I think that all we can do is try to do a little bit at a time to make a bigger change,” he says. “There is no silver bullet here, and tourism is a really important part of the economy.” But he adds: “Let’s keep some of these places from being overrun with Instagram chasers.”