News: Is Geotagging on Instagram Ruining Natural Wonders? Some Say Yes
Sorry, Instagrammers. You are ruining Wyoming.
Last week, the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board asked visitors to stop geotagging photographs on social media in an effort to protect the state’s pristine forests and remote lakes. Explaining the campaign, Brian Modena, a tourism-board member, suggested the landscape was under threat from visitors drawn by the beautiful vistas on Instagram.
Delta Lake, a remote refuge surrounded by the towering Grand Tetons, has become “a poster child for social media gone awry,” Mr. Modena said in an interview last week. “Influencers started posting from the top of the lake. Then it started racing through social media.” (Influencers, if you don’t know, are people with huge social media followings who sometimes make a living posting about places and products.)
A few years ago, one or two hikers a day would make the nine-mile trek up to Delta Lake. Now, he said, as many as 145 people are hiking there each day to shoot engagement photos and hawk health supplements. Little-known trails are heavily trafficked and eroding in some places, taxing park resources.
“We want people to have a real connection to nature,” Mr. Modena said, “not just a page with a pin on it.”
This isn’t the first time photo-tourism has led to protests by local people. Complaints about travelers taking selfies abound. In Hong Kong, public housing developments have become popular backdropsfor photographers, much to the ire of residents. A Canadian sunflower farmer recently barred visitors after they damaged his field. People have been spotted in Yellowstone taking photographs with bison. And visitors to the Louvre spend more time photographing themselves in front of the Mona Lisa than looking at it.
Now, conservationists are concerned that photographers who geotag their precise locations are putting fragile ecosystems and wild animals at risk. As a defense, they are asking tourists to stop.
In parts of South Africa, signs are attached to fences along safari routes, requesting photographers not share the location of rhinos, which are the target of poachers. Six months ago, Colorado-based Leave No Trace, an organization that promotes ethical use of public lands, published new social media guidelines that discourage geotagging. In Jackson Hole, the tourism board has suggested that visitors use the generic location tag, “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild.”
Some Instagram users, too, have adopted the hashtag #nogeotag. “There is a debate right now among photographers,” in part, because they don’t want to give up favorite spots, said Brent Knepper, who publishes nature photography on Instagram.
A spokeswoman for Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, declined to comment or make executives available.
But Dana Watts, the executive director of Leave No Trace, said: “There are a lot of reasons why people want to showcase where they have been. Bragging rights. It’s an unusual place.” But, she said, “We just want people to stop and think before they share a location.”
“While tagging can seem innocent,” she added, “it can lead to significant impact.”
Of particular concern, she said, are Instagram influencers hired by brands to promote a particular place or product.
For example, Emily Breeze Ross Watson, a personal trainer from Charlotte, N.C., recently visited the Four Seasons Resort and Residences in Jackson Hole with a friend. There, she posted photographs of herself on Instagram: with a herd of bison, taking a walk with the Grand Tetons looming behind her.
Ms. Watson, an influencer with more than 63,100 followers on Instagram, tagged her location in posts on her account in exchange for the hotel paying for her visit.
“I definitely think it is cool to bring awareness to the area,” she said in an interview.
One of the places she and her friend, Brittany Turner, visited was Jenny Lake, an alpine spot Mr. Modena said saw an overwhelming increase in traffic after it was discovered on social media. Ms. Turner tagged a photograph of herself there, wearing snake-print boots and modeling a sweater that was for sale in her online boutique.
She said she would not have known about Jenny Lake if not for Instagram. “I was in awe of it,” Ms. Turner said. “I can’t imagine them getting mad.”
A representative for the Four Seasons said the hotel promotes responsible tagging. And, to be clear, Mr. Modena and the tourism board are not asking people to stop taking photographs altogether. Tourism in Yellowstone and the Grand Teton national parks drive the local economy.
Besides, the mountains are certainly majestic. The T. A. Moulton barnin the Antelope Flats region is one of the most photographed areas in the country. “On any given day people are standing in line to take a picture,” Mr. Modena said.
Some people wonder, though, whether asking people not to geotag will have much impact in the long run.
“This is a little alarmist,” said Cathy Dean, the chief executive of Save the Rhino International, a conservation group based in London. “If you go to any park or reserve’s website, they often proudly tell you that they’ve got white and, or, black rhinos.”
That information attracts the curious, she said. And often watering holes are lit up at night when rhinos and other animals come to drink. “It doesn’t take a geotag to work out where these rhinos are,” she said.
That said. there are exceptions. “The Kunene Region of Namibia, a vast area that is not formally protected, has an important population of black rhinos that could be vulnerable to poaching,” Ms. Dean said. Her organization supports Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia, which asks people not to publish rhino sightings or document vehicle tracks.
Mr. Modena, the Jackson Hole tourism board member, said it could take years for behavior to change because smartphones are not going away. “We want to start a responsible conversation now about social media and conservation,” he said. “Selfishly, there are hikes I’ve seen that are beautiful that I am not going to name.”
By Laura M. Holson