Is social media ruining Lake Tahoe’s wilderness?
Scroll through the hashtags #laketahoe or #tahoesnaps on Instagram, and you’ll find over a million photos of people hiking, mountain biking, kayaking or just lounging on a beach in the Tahoe Basin. More than ever people are getting out into nature, and in most cases, sharing their experience on Instagram or Facebook.
We live in the age of selfies, geotagging and outdoor photographers — both professional and amateur — inspiring their hundreds of thousands of social media followers to get out and explore.
This renewed interest in nature is a double-edged sword, according to environmentalists and land managers, who are happy for the increased exposure and visitation, but also scrambling to deal with the additional pressure put on sensitive lands.
It’s a trend that’s happening across the country.
In 2016, for the third year in a row, the National Park Service set a record for recreational visits. There were nearly 331 million visits to the parks, up 23.7 million visits from the previous year.
It was also the year of attention-grabbing headlines for National Parks. A well-meaning Canadian tourist put a bison calf in his car at Yellowstone hoping to save it, but ultimately caused its death when park officials could not reunite the animal with its herd and were forced to euthanize it. Also at Yellowstone, a man was killed after leaving the boardwalk and falling into a near-boiling hot spring.
Without park entrances at every trailhead or beach, it’s difficult to keep track of the exact number of people recreating in Lake Tahoe. However, the latest estimate from cellphone data puts the number of vehicles that make the trek to Lake Tahoe at 10 million this past year, according to a 2017 report by Tahoe Transportation District.
The report also said the average number of people in the region on a given day is four times the permanent resident population of roughly 55,000.
With booming populations in Reno, Sacramento and the Bay Area, social media is not solely responsible for an increase in visitors to Lake Tahoe, but it is a factor.
“Social media has definitely increased the number of engaged visitors who share the amazing aspects of the parks and the natural and cultural resources they offer,” said Adeline Yee, information officer for California State Parks. “It has introduced outdoor recreational opportunities to an audience who may never have considered it previously. There will always be a few visitors who break the rules, often unintentionally, but the overwhelming majority of visitors research the rules beforehand and abide by them.”
Lake Tahoe’s most well known route, the Tahoe Rim Trail, has seen a steady increase in use over the last decades — a fact that, in part, could be attributed to long-distance hiking’s mainstream moment back in 2012.
In 2012, the book “Wild” was published. In it, author Cheryl Strayed tackles the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail alone to overcome a break-up and other personal issues. It was later made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.
Before the book was published, roughly 300 attempted the trail each year. Now that number ranges between 2,000 and 3,000.
Though Tahoe Rim Trail Association (TRTA) Executive Director Morgan Fessler Steel doesn’t know how much the so-called “Wild effect” influenced use of the Rim Trail, she does believe social media has played a role.
“Having more ways to get the word out about the trails is definitely increasing use,” she said.
However, social media also allows TRTA to keep tabs on the trail users to a degree.
“Sometimes we’ll find photos on social media of a tent right next to the lake with a campfire going and it looks beautiful and great and inviting, but at the same time it’s set up in a spot in the basin where you can’t have campfires and potentially fire restrictions were in effect,” explained Fessler Steel. “You see these things and think, ‘Oh god, you’re going to burn down the forest.’”
Steel sees this as an opportunity for education and engagement through TRTA’s social media channels.
“We try to come up with funny or polite ways to just kind of hint-hint, nudge-nudge say that next time you need to find a durable surface that’s not next to a sensitive environment to set up your tent.”
Marilee Movius, community engagement manager for The League to Save Lake Tahoe, agrees.
“With our posts, we do show the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe to inspire them to get outside, as well as the work we’re doing as an organization — but even with our beautiful pictures of Lake Tahoe, we encourage people to protect what they love and be part of the solution and join the League through volunteer work,” said Movius.
The League regularly schedules cleanups at trailheads and beaches — the main areas they find trash. This year after the Fourth of July festivities on beaches around the lake, volunteers from the organization cleaned up 1,676 pounds of trash.
“I just hope that there’s a continued trend that if people are going to these places that they see on social media that they become empowered to make change for the better and use their awareness for a good cause.”
While articles circulating around Facebook touting the “10 hidden gems of Lake Tahoe” are certainly getting the word out about the region’s lesser-known trails, vistas and alpine lakes, a growing group of “Instafamous” outdoor photographers also serve as a source of inspiration for people to get out and find the spots depicted in their filtered and geotagged photos.
Lake Tahoe resident Suzie Dundas writes a travel blog called “Hike Up Your Skirt” and currently has over 36,000 followers on Instagram. In addition to sharing her international travels, Dundas frequently posts photos of her and her dog Doolie exploring around Lake Tahoe. She’s not worried about her favorite camping spots becoming overcrowded, so she shares the locations with her followers — something that not all highly-followed Instagram users are comfortable doing.
“These are places that are available to everyone, and it’s very important to me in terms of my Instagram to show that nature is really accessible for everybody and you don’t have to be some super athlete or young super photogenic girl, you just have to want to go out and do it,” said Dundas. “In that regard, who am I to say ‘I’m allowed to know about this spot and you’re not allowed to enjoy it?’ That doesn’t really seem right.”
Encouraging people to get outside and become stewards of the land is important to Dundas, and her blog and Instagram provide her the platform to project that message.
“If you want people to value and protect and care about nature, the environment and public lands, they need to go out and explore them and experience them and enjoy them,” she said. “Having people go out and have these amazing experiences in nature and then hopefully get behind policy which supports the environment or become an environmentalist, I think the net gain outweighs the net loss of having more people out in nature.”
Jason Grubb, outreach manager for Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, has seen first-hand the impact newfound social media fame can have on a sensitive environmental areas on public lands.
“I think that areas becoming ‘Instafamous’ is certainly attracting more and more people to areas that had historically flown below the radar, and this increased visitation is posing a real problem for land managers to figure out how to address this increased visitation,” said Grubb.
In addition to spreading the word on packing out what is packed in, the Leave No Trace Center visits areas that have become over-used and helps restore them through their Hot Spot Program. Most recently, the team went to Conundrum Hot Springs in Colorado’s White River National Forest.
“It’s pretty remote and requires a 9-mile hike in, but you get to this beautiful backcountry hot spring that historically hadn’t seen all that much use. It’s really in the last decade or so when those visitation numbers have climbed dramatically — and a big function of that is social media,” said Grubb, who has seen countless photos of the hot springs shared and geotagged on social media. “It’s not uncommon to go up there and find lots of glass and alcohol containers, litter, amplified music and groups of 50, 60 or 70 people.”
But, according to Grubb, increased use does not have to result in increased impact.
The center worked with the community and land managers to teach them how to have conversations with people who may be breaking the rules in a non-confrontational way.
“It’s one thing to follow the Leave No Trace principle yourself, but it’s something else to be able to interject Leave No Trace into someone else’s experience,” said Grubb. “For example, seeing someone washing their dishes in a pristine alpine lake, to be able to approach that person and be able to have that conversation about the ecological implications on the lake.”
This message is something he hopes more people will spread on social media along with their photos.
“Social media has a lot of power. It has the power to have negative impacts on an area and to have positive impacts,” said Grubb. “When you’re sharing information on social media, encourage and advocate for the responsible enjoyment of these areas. Communicate why the area is important, and ensure the resource doesn’t continue to degrade so people can keep posting those sweet selfies into the future.”