While navigating the spellbinding terrain along the Pacific Crest Trail, I found it difficult to resist the temptation to take photos.
Each endless vista around each corner was more jaw-dropping than the last! As I hiked onward, smartphone in hand, impermanence was weighed against the magnitude of the moment. “After all, you may never see these places again,” reminded my sage hiking partner. I had to contemplate whether looking at the staggering scenery through an electronic screen was detaching me from the present experience.
Pictures, they say, are worth a thousand words. As technologically savvy outdoor users continue to capture the backcountry, thousands of images quickly escalates to millions of views. Fascinating photographs, online trip reports, and guidebooks alike showcase the Great Outdoors. These artistic depictions of the natural world can stimulate us to explore; each is a conduit into a greater adventure, encouraging a connection to a place. From the beginning, they have inspired protection and enjoyment of New York’s wild places. Today, however, social media posts are spurring outdoor recreation at an unprecedented rate that some see as threatening that protection and enjoyment.
What’s the problem?
So what’s the problem with the increased sharing of our natural world? A surge of visitors enters the Forest Preserve with limited exposure to proper wild land ethics. The lack of planning, preparation, and trail etiquette can affect our natural resources in a multitude of ways: fragile ecosystems can become degraded, trails erode, lakeside campsites become denuded, and the quality of one’s overall outdoor experience is altered. By constantly advertising how we experience the natural world via technological gadgets and applications, might we be jeopardizing the intangible wilderness characteristics that are innate in the resource?
A significant uptick in outdoor recreation has been widely reported across the Adirondacks. Parking lots are filling, crowds are forming, and the improper disposal of human waste is a pressing issue. Over 73,000 people registered at the trailheads surrounding ADK’s Heart Lake Program Center alone in 2016. Nationwide, tens of millions entered our public lands and engaged in human-powered recreation, according to the Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report. As wilderness recreation continues to gain momentum, and as human population continues to expand, we must be cognizant that the cumulative effect of people using public lands will continue to increase.
As we pursue dramatic scenes for great social media posts, our campsites inch closer to water, and fragile soils atop precipitous slides are trampled. Intrepid thrill-seekers find increasingly perilous perches to achieve “like-worthy” photographs. Our zeal for photographic perfection might be causing some of us to stray further from the Leave No Trace ethics that help preserve the natural places we all love.
In the fall of 2016, one Instagram account eagerly posted photos of illegal campsites atop Mt. Marcy’s fragile alpine vegetation, on the Gothics’ exposed summit ridge, and adjacent to the soft shores of Avalanche Lake. This user even photographed a campfire on top of Phelps Mountain in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, where fires are not permitted. Aren’t our natural resources more valuable than “likes” and social media comments? After a group of wilderness advocates messaged the individual and articulated the importance of abiding by the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s rules and regulations, all pictures were removed.
Before we lament the “good old days” that preceded Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and their possible over-popularizing of our favorite outdoor haunts, we should be reminded that the Adirondacks have endured multiple iterations of intensifying discovery. The year 1869 saw the publication of William H. H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness, resulting in rushes of weekend outdoor enthusiasts, who became known as “Murray’s Fools,” into the backcountry. Sound familiar? How about when Bob Marshall’s The High Peaks of the Adirondacks and Russell M. L. Carson’s Peaks and People of the Adirondacks inspired a new generation of recreationists? More recently, online forums have been notifying hikers about current trail conditions, anglers about popular fishing holes, and paddlers about pristine campsites. The next phase of promotion is here, dominated by the seemingly ubiquitous smartphone. Thanks to their relative ease and massive dissemination potential, social media are encouraging outdoor recreation on a scale never seen before.
What to do about it?
To the chagrin of some, social media isn’t going away anytime soon. So why not capitalize on the phenomenon? Somewhere along the Pacific Crest Trail I began to believe in the positive power of utilizing social media to inspire outdoor stewardship. Embedding the seven Leave No Trace principles into all disseminated posts modeled good etiquette, causing these messages to be well-received and promoted. One picture I posted to a popular hiking page highlighted an ADK backpacking trip’s efforts to remove multiple bags of trash from a remote lean-to.
Other photos ranged from wearing appropriate traction while traveling on durable surfaces in the wintertime to empowering others to take ownership of protecting New York’s wild lands and waters through implementing the Authority of the Resource communication technique. In lieu of carrying out that deer shed, artifact, or colorful feather, the very act of snapping a photo is a fantastic way to leave what you find so that others can experience nature’s “Wow!” moments. Even the mystery of the wilderness can be preserved by leaving the location of a quiet pond, campsite, or viewpoint out of the social media post. All of these actions preserve the magical essence of the backcountry.
The great paradox of conservation is that it’s a double-edged sword. In order for people to be passionate about our wild places, they need to have a positive experience in one. However, once people are introduced to a sacred space, it can become overused. Aldo Leopold argued in A Sand County Almanac that “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” Social media can actually be the ultimate low-impact vector for conservation. A well-crafted social media post, whether a picture or a message, can inspire others to feel compelled to protect natural resources that they may never venture into. The potential of posting for preservation and educational purposes encourages my outlook on the coming use of our beautiful Adirondack Park.
So let’s all make a valiant effort to share only Leave No Trace photos and thoughts on social media. Let’s spark a collective process that inspires stewardship and the preservation of wildness. Let’s ensure that we all remain vigilant in our efforts to keep the Adirondack Forest Preserve forever wild. Beyond that, though, as you’re circled by kingly mountains and breathed upon by their healing balm, try to remember that the scenery is best experienced through your senses. Sometimes it’s best to forego the social media, and to be content in that one-on-one mystical moment with nature.
After all, you may never see these places again.
You can take the pledge to Leave No Trace with ADK this summer and use the #LeaveNoTraceWithADK hashtag to share your photos of stewardship and responsible recreation.
A version of this story was first published by The Adirondack Mountain Club.