November 6th, 2019
I made a recent visit to Horseshoe Bend in northern Arizona, along with my wife, mother, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law. We hit the road early after staying the night in Page, and found the parking lot for Horseshoe Bend a little after nine in the morning. To my surprise, the parking lot was packed already, and so was the short 0.75 mile hike to the rim. When we reached the viewing area, it was so crowded that we had to wait our turn until space opened up by the railing overlooking the canyon. I have very few pictures that aren’t photo-bombed by the leg or back of a stranger, and as I struggled to find the perfect location to capture the stunning view, I began to wonder about the futility of this exercise.
Horseshoe Bend is one of the most photographed natural sites in the American Southwest. In 2018, USA Today estimates Horseshoe Bend receives nearly 2 million visitors a year. If you think about it, that means more than 2 million pictures are snapped of Horseshoe Bend a year, and many of the pictures have to be better quality than what I can capture from my iPhone. But what’s worrisome is not that I’m in competition for the best picture, but that 2 million people visit this site a year--and that number is growing! With that many visitors, Horseshoe Bend (like Old Faithful or Yosemite Valley), is not really a wilderness space anymore, it’s a tourist attraction. Right?
There are several reasons places like this receive so much visibility, but most of these reasons can be traced back to technology. According to Vox, Horseshoe Bend’s popularity is relatively recent, and can be attributed to geotagging. Even lesser known parks, trails, and wilderness areas can experience a jump in visibility due to the pervasiveness of technology in our world.
But is this increase in visibility all bad? Can technology also foster an appreciation of the outdoors, or does technology only lead to destruction?
The Damage That’s Done
In Terry Tempest William’s 2001 book Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, she says “National Parks are ecological islands. They are natural refuges surrounded by a sea of human disturbance.” For the most part I think that’s true, but is that always the case? In some instances, the most popular attractions within the most popular national parks are hardly refuges, and even lesser known areas of parks are becoming more popular because of Instagram and geotagging, but also because of Google maps and apps that encourage sharing information on remote and wild locations.
I can understand the desire to share and tag beautiful pictures gathered on a hike, and I can also understand the argument for caution. Leave No Trace advocates that outdoor enthusiasts think about their impact before geotagging, just as they advocate other LNT practices. On Instagram, I’m often eager to geotag the location of my pictures as a way of gaining visibility, but it’s important to understand how that increased visibility on Instagram may equate to increased traffic on the quiet, serene trail. And more traffic on the trail may result in consequences resulting in a quicker destruction of the wilderness area.
This is a valuable argument, and an argument that is frequently made nowadays. While I do believe it’s important to consider the impact of tagging specific locations, I think there’s another argument to be made...and I think both arguments can co-exist.
Increased Interest, Increased Protections
Wilderness areas can be remote or not-so-remote places, but either way the government-protected parks, monuments, areas, and forests can still act as refuges from most human disturbance. It seems to me a bit selfish to say one hiker may visit and enjoy the beauty of a certain naturescape, but that information should not be shared with others. Though, on the other hand, sharing for the sake of increased Instagram visibility is a different kind of selfishness.
Isn’t there an argument for greater accessibility promoting a greater diversity of visitors? In that sense, arguing against tagging may be somehow elitist. Plus, encouraging visibility can’t be all bad.
To push further, what if sharing increases interest in an otherwise unfathomable remote refuge? And what if that interest helps protect that remote refuge? In other words, are there cases where more attention is a good thing?
Let’s face it, our protected parks and wilderness areas are often under attack. Yes, that attack often comes from increases in tourism, but it can also come from government seeking to open protected areas to business ventures. The current administration plans to sell leases to oil and gas companies to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this year. It also intends to allow logging in the Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rain forest on Earth, by removing the current protections in place by the U.S. Forest Service.
I’ve never visited the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the Tongass National Forest. As an outdoor enthusiast, I advocate protecting these areas even though I’ve never seen or experienced them. But that may not be the case for some. For some, I speculate that protecting the Tongass National Forest not as vital as protecting Yosemite, for example, because it’s not a vital part of our collective imagination in the same way that Half Dome and El Capitan are.
Responsibility May Be the Key
Maybe the key is responsibility. Maybe the solution is not to swear off posting and tagging pictures, or to stop using Google Maps’ satellite view to zoom in on remote areas to plan a camping trip. Honestly, what’s the chance that most will do so anyway?
Instead of arguing for or against technology in the wilderness, perhaps we should be arguing for more responsible posting. When advertising a favorite remote location, add more detail. Include information regarding the vulnerabilities of the area, and best practices for protecting natural habitats. Display best practices in pictures and advocate awareness in posts.
After all, as Terry Tempest Williams says, wilderness “swings the doors of our imagination wide open.” Imagination and appreciation is important. Responsibility is vital.