Last fall, TrailGroove contributor Mark Wetherington and a group of other concerned hikers created a website to address the concern that social media exposure can potentially have on our wild places, and over the course of the past few months the proposed 8th Leave No Trace principle has generated some excellent discussion in the outdoor community and recently over at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics as well. Mark has taken an admirable initiative on the subject, and be sure the check out the 8th LNT website. Additionally, for further reading and a great perspective on these issues, be sure to give Paul Magnanti’s article Keeping Wild Spaces Wild: The Ethics of Social Media, recently published in Issue 36, a thorough read.
The proposed 8th Leave No Trace Principle was created as conversation starter, but a couple examples of a possible principle are provided on the 8thLNT site:
“Be mindful when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts that rapidly increased use can have on wild places”
As well as:
“Use discretion when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts of creating a ‘buzz’ about specific destinations”
Having seen firsthand the effects that media and social media can have when excessive attention to a specific spot or specific route can have on our limited wilderness areas over the years, as well as the detrimental effect that wild places can suffer without any publicity, exposure, and advocacy on different occasions as well – this is an issue I’ve thought about frequently and is an issue that colleagues and I have discussed on many occasions. The answer, for better or worse, doesn’t seem to be black and white, and it seems that it may all come down to a delicate balancing act.
One immediate and initial concern here is of course, the very short term, limited benefits, and long term hazards that keeping a general place secret, so to speak, can have. The proposed principle however, is not about keeping secrets; in fact the very core of the principle itself is about spreading the word. It’s also about inspiring current and future generations to recreate and protect our wild places, while instilling a sense of stewardship for these very places and for the outdoors. Without knowledge of these places comes the lack of support that these wild places need. And while greater regulation and enforcement is appropriate in some scenarios, and education always appropriate, do we really want all of our backpacking trips to begin with a lottery? And sadly, no matter how much effort we put into educating (and this is by no means an excuse to limit those efforts), unfortunately there will never be a time or place where all visitors will follow all of our leave no trace principles, and some places can only support so much use while maintaining their existing wilderness character. A wilderness area, or wild location, that’s at an equilibrium between its wilderness character and its usage, is in my mind a worthy goal.
There are impacts to be aware of for all wild places; those close and far, those easily accessible, and those that are remote. What it comes down to is the character of each place, and the preservation of that wilderness character; each destination is unique. The character of a remote wilderness location that only sees a dozen visitors a year would be significantly changed by a dozen visitors per summer day; and likewise with hundreds of visitors seeking out an easily accessible waterfall or hot spring that’s just a mile in from the parking lot. Not only do thoughts surrounding this discussion seek to physically protect these wild places, but I think we can all agree that there’s much more to wilderness than at first meets the eye. It’s these qualities as a whole, some starkly apparent and others just a subtle whisper, that we should work to preserve. That character may be in the eye of the beholder and admittedly is a bit different for us all, but it’s up to us to preserve every aspect, for everyone and for the place itself, in these public spaces.
If the newly proposed principle has any concerns to be addressed, I can only say that I feel it might be too specific in its current state of existence. There are many other forms of media that can have an equal, if not more significant impact than even the most popular Instagram account. Anything from movies, books, and websites can all be looped into this discussion and whether you’re a website owner or run an Instagram account, we all share in the responsibility of both 1) protecting our wild spaces through advocacy and 2) performing point 1 without bringing harm to those places we’re advocating for. A principle addressing
social media, inclusive of social media, would cover and consolidate all bases from my standpoint. Either way however, it’s great to see the awareness and any aspect of these issues being discussed and potentially implemented.
In the end, it’s all about finding a balance. Paul Magnanti of PMags.com has dubbed this “Obscurity, not secrecy”. Mark Wetherington of 8thLNT terms it “Be mindful when posting”. I like to think of it as a focus to: “Name the place, not the spot” – for example perhaps name the land management unit or area, but consider saving those coordinates, the exact location of that amazing campsite, or maybe the name of that lake or exact canyon for yourself. Back to it being relative, each place and situation is unique. And while naming names is one thing, providing the step by step directions along with it takes things to another level – there is definitely a way to go about promoting wilderness, and specific wild areas, without specifically impacting exact locations. As a typical fisherman who often brings along a fly rod on backpacking trips for example, I’ll surely tell you that there’s big trout to be caught in that mountain range, but I’ll probably be a little more general when it comes to which lake. And there’s nothing like finding your own lake, your own favorite trail or campsite, and grabbing the map and hiking your own route to experience our wilderness areas all in our own unique way…those have been my most successful, satisfying, and memorable wilderness experiences.
As something that’s almost intangible, the difficulty of summing up a complex issue in a sentence or two on a list of principles has inherit complexity, and while I'd like to think we should all individually hold ourselves responsible for leaving no trace without a checklist, a set of guidelines accepted by the outdoor community as a whole is certainly very beneficial and a very teachable tool – and I hope these concerns will continue to generate discussion in the outdoor community.
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has recently addressed this movement and concern by opening up the issue for public input. If these issues are important to you, you can get in touch with them here.