The story of our use of wild places is becoming as complex as navigating Cascade Pass on a nice weekend, with cars parked on the shoulder, cyclists zipping down the hill, hikers playing “Frogger” with oncoming traffic, and motorists distracted by the jaw-dropping beauty of the roadside lakes. A wild experience, for sure, but maybe not the flavor of wildness we look for in the Adirondacks. Once parked, we might find crowded trailheads and toilet paper flowers blooming in the forest. This hardly seems like the experience promised in advertisements.
When we talk about issues such as high visitor use and environmental degradation, it’s easy to focus on the negative. Instead of complaining and placing blame though, it’s time to do something proactive. Our awareness of environmental and social transgressions is undeniably intensified by an onslaught of social media warriors, with prose preloaded in their fingertips, ready to pounce on the first notification of “criminal” behavior. How many instances are there where someone, likely with good intentions, ends up sending a message that reads as a frontal assault? Ultimately, these comments just end up alienating people and subconsciously promoting the idea that only the most experienced deserve to be in the backcountry. There is a fine line between condemning someone and encouraging responsible actions. Changing behavior takes a little more finesse.
But just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean the goal is unattainable.
Let’s look at geotagging (the digital place tag assigned to a geographic location for a post, image, or video).
In the environmental world, social media — specifically geotagging — has largely been tagged as Public Enemy No. 1. We don’t need to dig deeper into the idea that online sharing platforms are causing waves of uninformed adventurers to wash over certain wild areas across the country. That’s old news and certainly doesn’t need rehashing. Instead of making another argument against geotagging, it’s time to recognize its potential role in a working solution. Take Jackson Hole, Wyo., for example. Jackson Hole is similar to the Adirondacks, with millions of visitors descending on the grand landscape each year. Part of their strategy is to capitalize on the education potential hidden inconspicuously within geotags.
Rather than posting exact locations in and around Jackson Hole, we’re asked to use the geotag “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild.” It’s still a welcomed practice to acknowledge local eateries, establishments, and facilities, but in an effort to keep the backcountry wild, choosing a generalized tag still pays homage to a place without directing traffic to specific locations in the backcountry.
Could a more generalized geotag — maybe “Tag Responsibly, Keep the Adirondack Park Wild” — be successful in the Adirondacks? Use of this or a similar geotag checks off a lot of boxes: it allows social media users to let their followers know their general place; it doesn’t funnel users to certain locations; it teaches the importance of understanding our part in the community; and it pushes us to practice what we preach. Geotags are going to be used — why not embrace them?
It’s not fair to blame increased visitor usage solely on social media. There is no denying how influential online communities are, but it doesn’t all have to be negative. Social media serves as an outlet for everyone to share their experiences, which helps create an inclusive environment where all are welcomed. It can enrich and enhance understanding, and connect people and places. If our goal is to promote the Adirondacks as a whole, a regional Adirondack geotag promotes all 6-million acres, not just a few iconic locations.
By no means is this an anti-geotagging article. After all, we use social media to tell our stories and share things we love and care about. For me, place is an important character in the stories I tell. By using a regional geotag for the entire park that encourages responsible behavior and doesn’t pinpoint exact vistas, we can prompt adventurers to carry on a legacy of discovery and instill a sense of proprietary stewardship in a new generation of explorers. Instagram Influencers are a growing demographic. Imagine the impact they could have if tagging responsibly was trendy. Why not post with purpose and spread a positive message to the far reaches of the web?
Let’s tag along on each other’s adventures and work together to keep it wild.
Janelle Hoh is project manager at Adirondack Research and a candidate for a master’s degree in environmental studies. Annotated screenshot of a geotagged Instagram post by Mike Lynch.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.