Social Media is Bruising the Wilderness

Glenwood Springs Post Independent, October 3rd, 2016

We are leveraging the secret, beautiful places of the world for brand enhancement, and this is leaving permanent scars on both the land and our society.

Let me start by saying that I am a part of the problem, too. For example, last weekend, my husband and I took a soul-gasmic drive over Independence Pass during the height of one of the most beautiful falls in living memory. With the Jeep doors off, we were immersed in the sensory beauty of smoldering gold aspen groves backed by dark spruce and a vista of early snow, the scent of lingering autumn rushing over us on the crisp air.

Yet instead of surrendering my whole being to the overwhelming grandeur of it all, wallowing my gaze in the endless ridgelines, or inhaling the scent of fallen leaves and mossy rocks, I felt compelled to whip out my digital camera, snapping 30-plus pictures without even getting out of the vehicle. E. Abbey just rolled over in his grave. Instead of living in the moment, it was as though I thought something would be lost if I did not reduce an awe-inspiring world of 360 degrees of beauty to a 2-by-4 inch screen.

Isn’t that what we do now? Take beautiful pictures to impress people we never talk to? Share incredible views just for “likes?” Sure, I’ll probably look back through them a few times and exclaim, “Wow, that doesn’t even do it justice.” And I’m not against capturing a few memories here and there, or using photography for art. But I believe that we need to seriously re-evaluate the way we use social media in relationship to the outdoors.

The physical impacts of this trend are already obvious.

Secret places are no longer secret. Secret places are part of listicles from outdoor brands splashed across the Internet to enhance their search engine optimization. I’m looking at you, Outside Online. Secret places are now for bragging rights and therefore are suffocating under exponentially more visitation than they were ever meant to sustain. Think Hanging Lake, Maroon Bells and Conundrum Hot Springs.

Thousands of feet trample delicate riparian areas daily so that someone who will most likely never return can paste their face in front an impressive backdrop.

Right away, a common justification jumps to mind — the more people who know a beautiful place, the more people who will fight to protect it. And this was probably true 15 or 20 years ago. But access to the addictive, superficial, instant gratification relationships provided by social media has altered the way we live, think and love. And needs to alter the way we behave when in the woods.

The kind of relationship we create with wild places when only viewing them through the digital lens of an omnipresent audience will not generate one of love and respect, but rather one of usury and one-upmanship.

Here’s the truth: Not everyone needs to go to every beautiful place. There is a reason why the hardest places to find are the most precious to those who find them.

What makes a place special is discovering it. If someone can just pull it off a list somewhere on the Internet, why would they value it? The knowledge was cheap and easy to come by, like all information now: often undervalued because it is only a click away. Arrive, snap photos and go, already certain to receive validation from the faceless mass, able to check it off the list.

Until about a decade ago, in order to find the truly incredible places, you had to be able to do one of two things:

1. Develop a relationship with the land and the people in a region so that someone else would take you there once they were certain you would love and respect it like they did.

2. Read a map.

Now, neither one of these is necessary to learn about the “best of,” and the danger to the user group generated by the low-hanging knowledge of these places is already painfully obvious. In recent years, the number of times search and rescue teams have had to swoop in and rescue “peak baggers” from their own poor decision making has also increased exponentially.

People who have never set foot off a smooth trail are trying Class 4 knife-edge traverses so that they can, go figure, get a picture down by that lake. And because they never had to learn about backcountry travel or establish a relationship with someone who already knew it in order to get there in the first place, they are ill-equipped to take care of themselves, putting both them and their inevitable rescuers in danger.

I am not trying to be elitist. People are always welcome to explore and discover the mountains. And I’m not saying that we are at capacity, or that if you aren’t here already, too late.

But I truly believe that without those steps of exploration and discovery, without the desire to know the land, and so love it, any experience of the land is tainted by our constant popularity contest that is social media, and the exposure of our most vulnerable assets will eventually lead to permanent scars on the land we are meant to steward.

So go out, explore, discover and fall in love with the land. Meet the people who already love it and learn from them. And try, just once, to leave your phone/camera at home.

Lindsay DeFrates lives in Carbondale and writes, rafts, and raises boys.

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