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Know the West

5 reasons to keep geotagging

Public lands face far greater threats than recreational overuse.


This article was originally published by Melanin Base Camp and is republished here with permission.

If you enjoy reading about national parks in the news you’ve probably seen terms like “loved to death” and “overuse” thrown around a lot lately. Then there are the attention-grabbing headlines such as “How Instagram Ruined the Great Outdoors.” The recent spate of articles criticize photo-sharing social media apps like Instagram, which allow users to post photos of their favorite outdoor spaces while tagging the exact location. The authors are mostly white baby boomers but include a sprinkling of white twenty-somethings who despair that selfie-taking millennials are ruining the outdoors. Not single-use plastics. Not oil and gas drilling. Not climate change — but, selfies.

In June 2018, the Center for Outdoor Ethics issued its first guidance on social media by urging people to “avoid tagging (or geotagging) specific locations. Instead, tag a general location such as a state or region, if any at all.”

We disagree. We invite all public land owners to experience and fall in love with local, state and national parks, national forests and wilderness areas — and here’s why you should too. We don’t care whether you are hiking for the Gram, taking selfies at overlooks or enjoying a Sunday afternoon in your recumbent bike.

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Public lands are for everyone. So here are five reasons why you should keep geotagging.

1. Gatekeeping is racist

The #nogeotag movement is a form of gatekeeping, or elitism. It involves individuals — usually those unaffected by structural racism and privileged to have grown up hiking and camping — asserting their self proclaimed authority over who should and shouldn’t be allowed into certain outdoor spaces.

Most of the articles begin with a white writer reminiscing over a much beloved hot spring, a treasured swimming hole or a rustic hiking trail from childhood that has now been “ruined” by a sudden influx of selfie-taking hikers.

They never stop to consider that their childhood was privileged with outdoor experiences not available to the majority of working-class families in the United States. They never stop to consider that this is a privilege many people in the U.S. would like to experience if given the chance. Their lack of self-awareness is pretty stunning.

Of course, their view is the opposite. The writers are united in a belief that certain types of people are inherently bad for public lands. Those certain types of people include new and casual hikers, selfie-takers and urban hikers (code for black and brown people). The writer then explains how important it is to keep those people away from geotagged locations in the first place. It’s for environmental reasons. It’s for their own safety. Their ask is simple: stop geotagging. Show, but don’t tell. Entice, but give away nothing.

Similar to Leave No Trace hysteria, the pushback against geotagging involves ordinary people deputizing themselves and asserting authority they don’t actually have to keep the outdoors “pure” or “wild”, “pristine” or simply, the way they remembered it from childhood by excluding people they view as dirty, loud, offensive, or simply not sharing their values.

Protect public land from deforestation, uranium mining, single crop farming, oil and gas extraction — yes! These are all worthwhile causes. But protecting public lands from people of color? Seriously? Urban hikers, who are disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental racism, are frequently posited as a major threat to public lands in racially coded diatribes posted around the Internet. Yes, it is just as ridiculous as it sounds. Also, have they never heard of an image search? The digital age is here to stay folks. And we need practical solutions that don’t involve gatekeeping.

2. Let’s leave purity tests behind in 2018

So, who makes the cut? Who is allowed to enjoy public lands without being harassed, policed, patronized or made to feel as if they don’t belong?

The anonymous 31-year-old Idaho man behind the Instagram account Public Lands Hate You recently had this to say about the influencers and mostly casual L.A. hikers posting photos from the poppy super bloom in Lake Elsinore, CA: “They all have the same captions: ‘Call me big poppy.’ If I see one more of those captions, I’m going to vomit.”

According to his argument and that of others like him, casual hikers quoting rap lyrics don’t pass the purity test. They’re doing nature wrong. They don’t belong. Or their motives are questionable. They are uniformly “drunken, littering, caterwauling people” or “imbecilic with checklists” says The New Republic contributor Christopher Ketcham. Or they are “ill-prepared” according to writers Kristen Pope and Wes Siler. These writers go to great lengths to otherize entire groups of people. No hyperbole is spared. No stereotype is left behind. The message is clear: They’re not like us. They don’t belong in the outdoors. We’re doing this for their own good, their own safety. If you’re a fan of young adult dystopian literature your alarm bells should be ringing at this point!

What they don’t say is striking. None of the articles place responsibility on Congress to increase appropriations for the Department of the Interior which faces a budget cut and a massive administrative overhaul. Nor do they ask Congress to stop weaponizing government shutdowns — which have devastated national parks like Joshua Tree in the past — to play to their political base. There is also little expectation that land management stakeholders respond to overcrowding with increased staffing, education, permit requirements, enforcement or outreach. No, the overwhelming emphasis is on keeping hikers they don’t want in, out.

Instead, they focus on creating degrees of separation between good outdoor people (us) and bad outdoor people (them). Ketcham believes national parks should be car-free, and their occupants forced to walk or travel on horseback — a fascinatingly ableist and classist attitude — “as few people except the very hardy will want to walk.” Many like Ketcham believe that public lands should belong to a select righteous few, the right sort of outdoor people—and no, they don’t mean Indigenous.

It starts to feel as if racist screeds are low hanging fruit, while actual problem solving is too much work or simply not their intent.

The anonymous individual behind @PublicLandsHateYou applies purity tests to millennial influencers who use public lands to sell everything from Campbell soup to acrylic fingernails because “Public lands are not props for influencers to try to sell what they’re selling.

Except that public lands have long been backdrops for companies to sell and advertise. The Outdoor Industry, representing $373 billion in revenue in 2016, is built around the concept of public lands as a vast playground for upper middle class and wealthy Americans. This includes filming ads for sport utility vehicles, jackets, hiking boots, tents etc. on public lands. Last time I checked Subaru, a National Park Foundation partner, was still in the business of selling cars. So is it only bad when Asian and Latinx hikers from L.A. do it?

Enough with the purity tests, gatekeeping and white privilege. It is incredibly bizarre that racist white folks would posit themselves as the true, rightful public landowners when there are 573 federally recognized tribes and many other state recognized tribes across the U.S. — when everywhere you go in the U.S., you are standing on Native land. Do they not know this?

Joshua Tree National Park.

3. The myth of the pristine wilderness is harmful

There’s something you should know about the wild spaces frequently referenced during discussions of why geotagging is harmful — they aren’t actually wild, and they haven’t been wild for millennia. The concept of the “pristine wilderness” is a myth. These outdoor spaces we love and treasure have been home to Indigenous communities — long before the U.S. ever existed. Their history didn’t begin with the Antiquities Act or the Yellowstone Act in 1872.

The idea that a subset of privileged white people can now stand up and object to new hikers having access to public land is very strange to me. It’s also very arbitrary. So stealing native land, stripping away Indigenous place names, deforestation and oil and gas extraction are okay but brown skinned, selfie-taking urban hikers are suddenly the tipping point?

This type of crisis manufacturing certainly plays well to certain crowds. But it begs the question: what is overuse and what is sustainable use? The authors railing against Instagram and urban hikers seem to think that outdoor history started with their childhoods and their memories of a given hot spring or trail or lake. They conflate their nostalgia and sentiment with appropriate use. Overuse is everything and everyone that came afterwards. This false binary of course completely erases Indigenous history.

The truth is these “wild spaces” aren’t wild and haven’t been for a very long time. Land management isn’t a new concept that white folks just came up with. Land management practices are Indigenous in origin. And there are way less racist techniques to manage public land than trying to play keep away from urban hikers on social media.

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4. There are better ways to protect public lands from overuse

Instead of emphasizing education, or the transformative quality of spending time outdoors — which has the power to make conservationists out of casual hikers — many writers and people online resort to thinly veiled or outright racist remarks.

Should you feel compelled to geotag every single outdoor pic? Of course not. Just don’t use racist or classist reasons to justify your opposition to geotagging.

None of the alternatives listed below are perfect, but all of them are more ethical than refusing to geotag because urban hikers “have to earn it”, or “they’ll find it if they’re serious enough” or “I’ve been coming here with my family since I was five and they’re going to ruin it.”


Public land is Native Land. The history goes back much further than your family’s use of a particular hot spring. There’s a reason why your family had that swimming hole all to yourselves — well several — and they’re called illegal land cessations, broken treaties, ethnic cleansing, Jim Crow, lynchings and sundown towns. Yes, it’s a mouthful. But, honestly, how do you not know this? Oh wait, it’s because privilege is the ability to be ignorant about issues that don’t personally affect you.

The takeaway is for white folks to stop using gatekeeping and purity tests to play “keep-away” of public lands from new and casual hikers, from urban hikers who may not share their skin color. And for white folks to acknowledge that the history of public lands is Indigenous history. Indigenous communities that have been stewarding the land for millennia and who continue to be vital stakeholders in land management practices through their partnership with BLM, USDA and NPS.

Here are a few alternatives to gatekeeping, purity tests and fabricating myths about the “pristine,” “untouched,” wilderness:

  • Promote just-as-beautiful, typically less crowded state parks instead.
  • Shorten Request For Proposal (RFP) windows for DOI government contracts so that the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service can quickly adjust staffing, services, or any government contract to fluctuating demand.
  • Lean hard on public-private partnerships to provide flexibility where the federal or state government cannot. Consider “whole park concessions” whereby (Section 8a) private companies collect visitor fees, provide services and are responsible for park maintenance. It’s public land, privately operated and maintained with a percentage of revenue going back to the government.
  • Continue to work closely with conservancies, brands and various conservation groups to educate the public about environmental stewardship.
  • Use a permit system. Yes, that disadvantages new hikers, but it’s better than trying to prevent them from going at all.
  • Work with brands to eliminate this snobbish preference for national parks, mostly located in western states, over state and local parks that is so prevalent in national ad campaigns. Enough with the “Great Outdoors” already. The outdoors is the outdoors.
  • Pay influencers to promote state and local parks!

5. Social media makes the outdoors more diverse and more inclusive

Apart from the hand wringing, gatekeeping and purity tests coming from certain (very vocal) corners of the internet, I would argue that social media is making public land users more diverse. People feel inspired to go see and be a part of outdoor spaces they may have never entered otherwise — and that’s a good thing. Conservation starts with falling in love with America’s public lands. So post away! And geotag! And stick to Leave No Trace principles as long as they’re not outright racist. And uplift and pay Indigenous communities. It’s their land. We’re just living on it.

Danielle Williams is the founder of Melanin Base Camp, an organization that works to increase ethnic minority and LGBTQ+ participation in adventure sports. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.