Geo-Tagging & Location Sharing Online: A Dilemma!
Updated: Feb 24, 2022
Any time you share a nice picture of somewhere beautiful on the internet, people want to know, "where is that?"
In the last several years of seeking beautiful, inspiring landscapes and sharing my photographs of them, I've noticed something. Places that used to show few signs of travel have rapidly become iconic after going "viral" on social media, and they are showing more signs of human traffic than ever: boot paths where there didn't used to be paths; bare rocks where there used to be dense moss growing; an increase in litter; fire pits in inappropriate places; vandalism on trees, and so on.
With the internet's abundance of information--and mankind's innate curiosity--it's no real surprise why many places that were previously hidden gems have suddenly become popular destinations for both photographers and sightseers alike. After all, we're living in a time when it's easier than ever to take high quality pictures and share them online with millions of people, in addition to geo-tagging or divulging the exact location of your photos for all to see, and the ability to travel far and wide. Anyone who sees a picture of somewhere beautiful can't help but wonder, "where is that?" and some of them might be inspired to go to that place someday.
One could reason that the damage from increased foot traffic won't happen as much if people simply don't know about these ecologically fragile places--but another really important thing might not happen if people don't know or care about places needing protection: conservation. Swaths of public land are threatened all the time, but conservation efforts won't happen if there aren't people behind those efforts who have grown to care about a place from their own experiences there.
Besides, who am I to practice "gatekeeping" of public hiking destinations, when the excessive online resources that I sometimes resent for overexposing the yet-to-become-popular gems, could be the same sources of info that I, too, might use to discover new destinations myself? It's a bit hypocritical, wouldn't you say?
This is something I waffle over frequently: the location sharing dilemma. At the same time that I want to explore and share the beauty of the mountains through photo and video, hopefully evoking a sense of adventure and/or an appreciation for nature's beauty, I also tend to wish my favorite spots would remain a secret so they won't become overrun or littered. Some will see it as selfish or self-serving, but I'm pretty sure it's born of an awareness for the impact that even one single person can have by promoting a sensitive location with enticing photos and geotags on the internet.
Anyway, people aren't going to stop exploring, and they aren't going to stop sharing their experiences--and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I sure as heck don't want to stop.
So, what's the solution then? Here are two things I've come to feel strongly about:
EDUCATION About Responsible Land Use (e.g. "Leave No Trace" Principles)
Responsible land use is something that we can't assume to be common sense anymore. Many folks have never been educated about what's acceptable or what leaves a lasting negative impact on the land. One thing we can do--especially us photographers and bloggers sharing images/destinations that inspire the masses to travel and hike--is to talk about "Leave No Trace (LNT)" principles more often.
Leave No Trace principles are designed to minimize our impact on the land when we participate in outdoors recreation. It addresses things like proper disposal of human waste in the backcountry, minimizing damage from campfires, and more. To learn more about LNT, check out https://lnt.org/why/7-principles/. If you can, take it a step further by practicing "Leave a Better Trace!" and pack out other people's litter when you see it!
I also feel strongly that the National Forests need to include more public education as part of their land management strategies. In Central Oregon, you have to buy a permit from Recreation.gov to hike many of the Wilderness trails because they've become overused by people (more about this and what land management actually is, in a moment), but there's a huge missed opportunity on the Forest Service's behalf to educate people about Leave No Trace principles alongside the permit system. Dare I say, those limited entry permit systems might not even be so necessary if everyone understood why LNT and responsible land use matters.
Mindful sharing based on the level of LAND MANAGEMENT
"Land management" means managing the use of land resources. Essentially, it serves to moderate development and damage caused by humans. The amount of land management (i.e. rangers enforcing rules, limiting traffic and mitigating over-use, etc.) is going to increase, as places in nature become more popular. This is something every single one of us should consider when divulging the exact whereabouts of a place in nature to the masses.
For example: consider a National Park that requires a visitor fee for entry, employs rangers to regularly patrol/inspect the land for misuse, and so forth. A place like this obviously has a lot more land management in place than some obscure, off-trail, un-trodden waterfall in the wilderness that is usually visited by few.
In my humble opinion, people simply shouldn't be geo-tagging places online that have little to no land management in place. Those are the places that seem to suffer the most damage without receiving an (often necessary) intervention by rangers--or they may eventually become regulated with limited entry permits.
Also consider that any existing land management efforts will eventually need to become even more rigorously enforced, too, if there's a huge increase in the amount of people showing up... so, perhaps it's still not the best idea to geo-tag and blast specific locations at all.
Another example of land management: In Central Oregon, a lot of popular hiking destinations are now under a "limited entry permit system" as mentioned earlier. This means, where it used to be that an unlimited number of people could show up at a trail and go hiking whenever and wherever they wanted, you now have to purchase a permit from Recreation.gov for both day hikes and overnight trips in advance at a lot of trailheads... and the most popular, most scenic places sell out quick!
This was a land management strategy by the Deschutes National Forest to mitigate ecological damage from people basically loving the Wilderness to death. Many of our hiking destinations were becoming extremely iconic on social media, and too many people weren't practicing the Leave No Trace principles!
In summary, if there are two things I want to drive home in this article, it's that we need more education about responsible land use, AND that people (especially photographers and bloggers, but really everyone) should be mindful about geo-tagging/naming specific locations, or avoid it completely if they can. That's it! ☻
Thoughts? Questions? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to share your input!