Pale Blue Dot: Use social media ethically to preserve the natural world

Joscelyn Stocks | Daily Trojan

In a remote stretch of Mason County, Washington, along the Olympic Peninsula, a breathtaking steel bridge vaults out of the forest. Standing at 347 feet tall and spanning a 422-foot expanse of evergreen trees, the Vance Creek Bridge is one of the tallest bridges in America, and its old-fashioned, arched steel silhouette is striking against the misty foothills. The bridge, retired by railroad companies in the late 1960s, was a place frozen in time, and its existence was a secret among locals and adventure seekers for several decades. Then Instagram happened.

Images of the photogenic bridge began to flood my feed around 2012, as the Vance Creek Bridge went from community secret to tourist destination. Growing up about 30 minutes away, I remember Vance Creek fever sweeping through my high school as groups of kids would make the expedition there, take pictures and reap the rewards of likes and retweets. This wasn’t just a western Washington thing, either; as the bridge was featured on popular travel pages, tourists from all over the country and the world started to show up, according to representatives from Green Diamond Resource Company, the bridge’s owner.

Today, more than 13,000 posts have been tagged #vancecreekbridge, most of which feature young people precariously balancing on the railroad ties. As a result, the bridge and surrounding area has been slowly destroyed by foot traffic, vandals and fires. Today, the bridge is a sad shell of its former glory; burnt-out boards, graffiti and trampled brush mark the area.

The Vance Creek Bridge is my local example of an issue that public lands executives have been wrestling with for several years: What do you do when nature goes viral? Areas like Horseshoe Bend in Arizona and Kanarra Falls in Utah have met similar fates, drawing huge amounts of visitors who often deface the landmarks and cause major headaches for locals. As national park-level crowds start to descend on areas that don’t have national park-level planning and infrastructure, things can get out of hand quickly.

Social media already affects our culture, politics and habits, but Instagram hotspots show that it is affecting our planet as well. On the bright side, Americans are getting out into nature and visiting national parks more than ever, but this uptick in visitors also causes some sites to be overrun and disrespected by tourists who care more about getting the perfect shot than preserving the space for future generations.

For decades, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has maintained a framework of rules to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. They emphasize practices we’re all familiar with, such as only hiking on established trails, minimizing campfire impact, disposing of waste properly and respecting animal life.

But in June 2018, the group added new guidelines for mindfully using social media in the wilderness. The key takeaways? Be mindful of what your images portray, give back to the lands you enjoy and, above all, stop geotagging specific locations.

The last one might seem like an odd conclusion, tagging the location of a cool nature shot seems like an innocent or even a charitable act, allowing others to find the same view that you did. But geotagging can go haywire, as it did at Vance Creek, and lead to overuse and degradation of the natural world. This is exactly what we don’t want.

If you truly feel the need to add a GPS location to a photo, tag the general area or the state name and resist the urge to be specific. Remember that even if you are just going to a wild location for the pictures, you still hold some responsibility to be a steward of that land, especially if it is not part of an established park system. Weirdly, sometimes the most helpful thing that you can do is to keep exact locations a secret.

Additionally, taking a hard look at what behaviors and ethics your nature photos depict is important. If they show a person putting themselves or others in danger, getting too close to an animal or leaving waste in wilderness areas, these photos are implicitly advocating for that behavior and may lead viewers to follow your (bad) example. Multiply this effect by a few thousand photos, and the impact can be staggering.

As a society, we’re still trying to figure out how to integrate technology with the natural world, and I dearly hope that we are close to achieving  balance between the two. I hope that we can learn our lesson from the unfortunate stories of Horseshoe Bend, Kannara Falls and the Vance Creek Bridge to take our treatment of the natural world seriously, both online and offline.  We must act in a manner that ensures that generations from now, these breathtaking places can still exist as more than simply photos.

Kylie Harrington is a junior majoring in journalism. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Pale Blue Dot,” ran every other Monday.