Social Media and the State of Public Land

As an Idahoan, I’m all too familiar with the “we’re full” attitude our state’s become famous for. It seems like most folks these days encourage visitors to come for a good time, but not a long time.

To some extent the people who think we’re bursting at the seams are right. The word’s gotten out. Towns arounds Idaho have made dozens of “best place to…” lists, drawing people from across the country to a little oasis that allows them go at a slower pace with easier access to the great outdoors.

The influx of newcomers has an impact on traffic, home prices and the ability to get a seat at the bar, but publicizing our favorite places also impacts the ability to maintain the upkeep of public land. You only have to go so far as the Boise Foothills to see that paths are widening, mountain bikers have multiplied and a hefty amount of hikers leave unwanted gifts from their dogs along the trails.

Pics or it didn’t happen.

While news stories and top 10 rankings have some pull when it comes to a person’s decision to visit a new place, many decisions are influenced by the little squares we scroll through on Instagram or Pinterest. If you’re like me, you probably seek out profiles featuring evergreens and gurgling streams and maybe even bookmark one or two photos thinking, “I’d like to go there someday.”

And then, because those photos are tagged with a location, you go. And so do a few others. Maybe even hundreds of other people visit that beautiful mountainside or that backcountry track known for its wandering elk. And then those people take pictures and more people come. It’s a never-ending cycle.

What impact does social media have on public land?

There are a few obvious side effects to growth in the number of explorers, with site overcrowding being a primary concern. The more people there are, the harder it is to find a head to hunt and the trickier it is to snag a camp spot or cast a line without hitting another boat. But the fact of the matter is, overcrowding is tolerable as long as people treat one another with respect and take time to understand and follow the guidelines that state and federal governments have put in place to preserve public land.

However, problems arise when people don’t take the time to learn those regulations or have the decency to follow them. That’s when forest service garbage cans start overflowing. That’s when ATVs peel off the road into areas they aren’t allowed to be and spook a bull in the sights of a hunter who’s been waiting for hours in the brush. That’s when people wear felt-soled boots and transfer noxious weeds from state to state. That’s when illegal fires light up.

Every person visiting a national forest, national park or BLM land gets to do so for free, but who’s paying to keep those places clean, safe and usable? When will the demand to do so be too much?

It’s plain as day that social media has increased the rate of outdoor discovery. Some parks have even had acreage added because their popularity has increased so much. But the bottom line is, some places are loved to literal death, reducing them to nothing more than a memory for future generations.

Sure, maybe we don’t want more people discovering our favorite places for adventure. But stomping our feet won’t stop anyone from coming, and badmouthing newcomers will only plant seeds of resentment throughout the outdoor community.

So here’s what we can do: if you share a favorite spot on social media, take a few extra minutes to include information that will help visitors make smart decisions about what to pack and how to act. Be a resource to your followers and encourage them to show respect to the land and the process of preservation. Maybe even invite people up with you to set an example firsthand.

Or, you know, just keep the secret places a secret.


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