During the third week of July, one of the busiest weeks of the summer, a photo of the locally loved “secret spot” Little Hawaii was posted to the Facebook group Overheard In Telluride. The post, which showed the oasis packed with people, drew 77 comments. Many lamented the impacts of the new crowds on the fragile ecosystem. Some pointed to social media as a culprit in creating the situation. Longtime local Dave Ziegler noted that he has regularly hiked and biked Little Hawaii for years and “this summer is the first time I have seen this much litter. I collected a whole trash bag full on a recent visit.”
This conversation is not unique to the San Juans. Across the globe, communities are discussing how to navigate the impacts of visitors in the era of social media as it has become easy for beautiful places to jump quickly from relatively unknown to “instafamous.” In 2018, Jackson Hole’s travel and tourism board created a “Tag Responsibly Keep Jackson Hole Wild” campaign in response to a steep rise in visitation to one of it’s remote alpine lakes due to photos of it on social media. On social media platforms such as Instagram, users have the option of adding a geotag identifying the location of the photo. The location can be general, noting the town, region or state; or the precise geo-coordinates can be added. If Instagramers select Little Hawaii as a geotag, its specific location will appear on the map.
Jackson Hole’s mission is was simple; encourage social media users to ditch the location-specific geotag for the “tag responsibly” geotag, which links to the location of the visitor center for Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone. By initially directing visitors to the visitor center, the hope is to encourage individuals to get more information before heading out. Other communities have since implemented similar programs. Aspen; Crested Butte; and Bend, Oregon, now all have “tag responsibly” campaigns. The Center for Outdoor Ethics added clear social media guidelines to its Leave No Trace principles for wilderness adventurers: “avoid tagging (or geotagging) specific locations”.
Yet, in terms of the impacts of the internet on our public lands, the geotag is only the tip of the iceberg. Some Instagram posts use the “tag responsibly” geotag while also mentioning the name of the place in the post itself or in a hashtag. This defeats the purpose of the non-specific geotag because users can google the place name and get directions to it even without a geotag to lead them directly there.
The Little Hawaii hike is now featured on several locally run websites, including telluride.com and visittelluride.com. An article detailing how to get there on imfromdenver.com boasts more than 133,000 views and 52,500 shares.
In this new virtual terrain, what does it mean to be a responsible user of public lands?
Communities surrounded by a wealth of public lands are grappling with the questions alongside other complex management issues. In Telluride, this summer has seen a marked increase in trail usage as visitors and locals alike swap festivals for outdoors adventures. The issues raised by the photos of Little Hawaii resonate across the greater Telluride trail system. Lexi Tuddenham, executive director of Sheep Mountain Alliance, a local nonprofit committed to advocating for the protection of wild spaces in the Telluride area, said, “We need to be doing comprehensive planning. This means thinking carefully about where we are directing people and ensuring that in each place infrastructure is sufficient for the rate of visitation. Everyone has the right to enjoy the benefits of nature on our pubic lands, but we need to manage our impacts and take care of these places for future generations.”
Local organizations are also mobilizing in response to the uptick in litter on trails. In early August, Telluride Mountain Club and the Telluride Tourism Board organized a trail clean up day. The Telluride Open Space Commission recently did a site walk of Little Hawaii to consider its future management. The access trail crosses through fragile wetlands, making it of particular concern. Next year, the commission plans to close off many of the social trails that lead into the Little Hawaii area and develop one preferred route for access.
“We will be looking to social media users and local groups to help with restoration efforts.” Lance McDonald, program director of the Open Space Commission, said.
Despite the challenges that it has brought, social media if used mindfully can also play a role in protecting the environment for future generations. California residents geotagged images during the 2015 statewide drought, adding a geographic lens to the larger story of the drought and calling for better water conservation policies. Greta Thungberg’s Youth Climate Change movement has used the hashtag #FridaysForFuture to link climate activists around the world and connect climate change to larger issues of environmental justice and equity.
The #nogeotag movement too has raised larger societal questions of equity, access and inclusion on public lands. Critics have identified the movement as a form of gatekeeping; elitist, privileged and based on the idea that certain outdoor spaces are for some and not for others. Many are hungry right now for the solace and peace nature can offer. Research shows that time spent in nature increases our well being and provides valuable opportunities for reflection.
Local licensed counselor Mandy Miller commented on this, explaining that “this grand shake up caused by the pandemic is also an opportunity for a grand tuning in. Nature in the most unadulterated way asks us to tune in and engage the five senses. I remember moving here five years ago, friends wouldn’t tell me where Little Hawaii was. The Telluride way was that it’s your duty to go out exploring and maybe find some other magical place along the way. The journey of discovery was the point.”