Why ‘Instagram Hikers’ Are National Parks’ Saviors — and Scourges

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When you talk to National Parks devotees about Instagram, you usually come away with a story. Here’s one from Kathy Kupper, of the National Parks Service’s office of communications:

In Yellowstone, about a month ago, there was a grizzly bear feeding on an elk carcass. And a guy went almost right up to this grizzly bear to take a picture. And so literally they had to station a park ranger 100 yards away from this grizzly bear as long as it was there, which was for several days, to keep people [away], because otherwise people would keep going up to a GRIZZLY BEAR that’s in the wild eating an animal, to take a picture. I mean, they’re going with kids and things like that!”

Instagram has been a huge boon for the National Parks. The filter-heavy photo-sharing social network seems tailor-made to capture perfect vistas, crashing waterfalls, and beautiful wildlife. Many of the parks have extremely successful feeds of their own. Yosemite has over 260,000 followers. Yellowstone has over 90,000. And the Department of the Interior has over 845,000, orders of magnitude more than any other government bureau. (The Department of Labor, its Instagram strategy in disarray, has a little more than 2,000.)

Yosemite alone has been tagged in over 900,000 Instagram posts, and that’s not including the many more that forgot to use the hashtag. Many comments feature users tagging their friends and leaving a comment with some variation of “we should go here.” (Tagging someone in an Instagram comment is a sort of workaround that alerts the person you tag to the post in which you tag them.) At the same time, National Parks have experienced a huge surge in attendance over the past few years — many of them spurred, no doubt, by Instagram.

But there’s a growing dissatisfaction brewing among longtime parks enthusiasts and employees. The flood of “Instagram hikers” — the sorts of people who see a pretty photo on Instagram and want to go take their own picture in that spot — isn’t just inconvenient, it’s potentially damaging. And, as people who regard bears as a lot more than funny opportunities for selfies will tell you, dangerous, too.

Kupper told me about a particular waterfall in the Delaware Water Gap that suddenly took off in popularity among, she says, “teens, or young people” last year. “It was extremely popular so it brought all these other problems — there was trash, and overuse, and vegetation being trampled,” she says. The park had to station rangers nearby to try to lessen the flood, while, you know, not actually trying to discourage people from enjoying the parks. “Some of the rangers,” says Kupper, “had to say, yes, this is beautiful, but there are 20 other beautiful spots like this! Find your own beautiful spot!”

In October 2014, Modern Hiker broke the story of Casey Nocket, a.k.a. “Creepytings,” an artist who was discovered leaving paintings on rocks in a series of national parks. A few months later would come Mr. Andre, a French artist who posted images of his tags on rocks in Joshua Tree. Far from being appreciated for their artistry, the paintings were legally considered vandalism. The outdoors and national parks community reacted strongly to these scandals and the considerably more minor ones that followed; Slate placed the Casey Nocket story in its “year of outrage” roundup.

A photo posted by Modern Hiker (@modernhiker) on

Outrage” is a pretty good encapsulation of the feelings of hikers, campers, and outdoors enthusiasts who see themselves as the true fans and protectors of the parks. Nocket, Mr. Andre, and anyone who takes a selfie with a bear is an enemy of this first group; they are the Instagram Hikers, the largely younger group of people who stream into the parks to hit the most famous spots and post pictures of their trip on social media.

To the Original Parks People, the national parks aren’t just nice bits of the outdoors. They’re sacred, and private. “These are really special places for people,” says Casey Schreiner, the editor-in-chief of Modern Hiker. “You’ve formed an intense personal bond with these places, and when you see someone coming in and trampling it, you obviously get really upset about that.”

A lot of the people who are sharing these photos on Instagram, or inspired by these photos on Instagram, aren’t the traditional park visitors,” says Schreiner. “So they may not even go to the visitor center; they may just drive right through, pay their entry fee, and try to find the place with the photo.” This does not earn the respect of the Original Parks People; this is lazy fandom, inauthentic appreciation of a place the Original Parks People feel a partial ownership of.

There’s a quintessential “I knew about this first” issue going on here; the position of the Original Hikers is not all that different from a fan of some small musician whose single gets featured in a movie. All of a sudden, there are people in your special place, a place you thought was only yours, and look — they don’t even know the full depth and breadth of the special place! All they know is that one thing!

This dissatisfaction tends to come out in the form of scolding, often in Instagram comments or on Yelp. The biggest instances are legitimately famous outside this world: Casey Nocket became a sort of meme scandal after leaving her paintings on rocks in National Parks, and Grayson Schaffer at Outside has been documenting the law-breaking of Instagram photographers for a while now, focusing on vandalism and the legal hinterlands regarding whether taking Instagrams for a sponsored account counts as “commercial photography.”

But more often, you’ll see scolding for little things. Taking a dog where you’re not supposed to, say. Or camping too close to water, or forging your own trail, or getting too close to wildlife to take that perfect selfie. These are legitimate problems, all; each has serious implications for the health of the environment. But they’re also an easy way for an Original Hiker to assert his or her superiority over an Instagram Hiker. If you follow or browse through enough outdoor Instagrams, you’ll find some gems. Here’s one, from a selfie one user took with a black bear: WTF! Not a smart thing to do at all. This isn’t the cute teddy bear from the cartoons. This beast will kill you. I am amazed at the ignorance of some people.”

#hellomrbear

A photo posted by @jentwen on

But the Original Parks People are conflicted, because the ethos of the parks demands that they be welcoming and open to all who want to visit the parks. They are public, after all, which is a major part of what makes them special in the first place. Everyone that I spoke to was clear that, overall, Instagram is a good thing for the parks, that getting people out there in the wild, even if they’re kind of ignorant dicks, is a good thing.

Schreiner told me that he thinks the primary problem is a lack of education. “There’s a big percentage of people who go to the parks who genuinely just don’t know the rules,” he says. For people who just want to see the geyser, the waterfall, the oddly shaped rock, or the perfect view they saw on Instagram, they may not bother stopping at a visitor’s center, the way an Original Parks Person would prefer. The NPS is working on ways to educate people; they will sometimes promote good behavior in their own very popular Instagram feeds, and, very rarely, point out egregiously bad behavior (as in the case of Casey Nocket).”

From my perspective, getting people outside is always a good thing,” says Schreiner. “But then there’s that challenge of, okay, how do you capture someone who’s just there to take a selfie for Instagram? How do you show them what else is special about the parks?” And that appears to be something nobody has really figured out yet, if it even is something that can be figured out. People become fans in different ways; some people only care enough about a particular thing to hear the single, or as Schreiner calls it, “the highlight reel of a place.”

And, as Kupper notes, while the volume may be higher, the parks have always had a history of people coming just for that perfect picture. Today, it just tends to be seen by a few million more people.