The dangers of sharing wildlife photos on social media have been known since at least 2014: the geotags in your shared snapshots can lead poachers to their prey. Even in our national parks, sharing photos of wildlife sightings in real time can create mobs of people that stress wildlife.
Now, that social media danger has spread from fauna to flora. Not only are your social media pics putting animals in peril but some of the world’s most iconic trees.
Is there a way to reconcile our smartphone addictions with a cause-no-harm outdoor ethic?
Originally, the ancient, 2.2-million-acre coastal redwood forest stretched across 450 miles, from California’s Big Sur Coast to just over the Oregon border. But in the wake of the 1849 Gold Rush and California’s demand for lumber, redwood forests that had flourished undisturbed for more than 100 million years suddenly began to disappear. In just a few generations, they were reduced to only 5 percent of their original range.
Luckily, about a hundred years ago, environmental organizations, such as Save the Redwoods League, rallied to protect these incomparable trees from loggers’ saws. Today, however, there’s a much smaller, human tool the trees have to fear: our smartphones.
According to an article published by CBS News on December 18, 2017, an influx of tourists to a once-secret grove of redwoods is causing immense damage to the trees.
Located in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, near the border of Oregon and California, the Grove of Titans is said to be the largest community of redwood trees ever discovered. The researchers who came upon the grove in 1998 kept its exact location a secret, leaving it off of park maps. A few years ago, however, someone posted a photo of the grove on social media with its GPS coordinates. Thousands of tourists then poured into the area, searching for the perfect Instagram photo backdrop.
Unfortunately, most of the roots of a redwood tree reside in the first three feet of soil. The increased foot traffic in this once secret and hidden grove has caused damage to the trees’ roots and destroyed nearby plants.
Death by divulgence
Once a place has been geotagged on Instagram, it’s no longer secret. For large attractions that are widely known, that’s not a problem. The Grand Canyon, for example, is highly visited and has already been lavishly photographed. On the positive side, the “selfie generation” has spurred renewed interest in national parks; last year, there were 330.88 million visits, a close second to 2016’s record 330.97 million. Parks can certainly use the tourism dollars, and the free exposure helps. Sometimes, increased popularity can even help parks expand; in one recent case involving Yosemite National Park, by 400 acres.
Trouble arises when visitors are inspired to go to the places that can’t handle them. National parks were designed for high volumes. But a lot of the areas getting hit now weren’t and were never properly prepared for lots of people. Mechanisms for doing anything about rising numbers of visitors tend to be slow, involving government paperwork. As more and more secluded spots become attainable and “collectible” as social media photo opportunities, places that aren’t ready —or, really, meant— to host hundreds or thousands of yearly visitors are bombarded with them. And that’s a recipe for destruction.
Sometimes, the only solution is to not share environmentally sensitive locations with the masses. And that not only goes against our grain as humans—we’re genetically predisposed to seek out new places and tell others about them—but against the social media world we live in. Today, there’s no currency in secrets, only in outright sharing and popularity on social media. “Look at me, standing here,” your Instagram photos cry out.
But Instagram posts don’t document all the hard work required to get such photos; you only see the spectacular, color-enhanced result. So while more people are going outdoors and grabbing stunning shots of beautiful areas to up their social ante, it doesn’t mean they know how to treat those lands.
Be your own gatekeeper
It can be argued that no one has the edge on being a gatekeeper for everyone else when it comes to our public lands. They belong to all of us. Just because you may have found an out-of-the-way refuge doesn’t mean that someone else won’t find it, too. And that person may not want to be as quiet about it as you are.
Some outdoor enthusiasts have dealt with this very modern problem by not posting photos of their singular finds, or posting them only with cryptic captions that reveal no location information that could allow another person to get there.
Save the Redwoods League turns 100 this year. I’m sure the celebrations in honor of that fact will draw many more visitors to see these mighty trees on our nation’s West Coast. Many of those people will turn into redwood guardians and conservationists, and that’s what we want.
I just hope that those redwoods that have managed to survive only by hiding from us won’t be discovered. I hope I won’t find their photos on my Instagram feed.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,