Work and World

What Happens When Nature Goes Viral?

This is Horseshoe Bend. It’s a stunning view of a U-turn in the
Colorado River near the border of Arizona and Utah. In the early 90s, this spot was a hidden gem
— accessible by an unmarked dirt trail off the side of the highway. Locals described it as “nearly empty”
— and that “hardly anybody knew about it.” But over the years, its popularity grew: first
slowly… … and then suddenly. Until it became this. In this past this used to be that this place would get maybe a few thousand visitors every single year. Now, that number is more like 1.5 million. And it keeps growing. That change didn’t happen because of any
big marketing push. It happened because of geotagged pictures
like these. Digital popularity is physically changing
the landscape. This place — and other public lands like
it — are trying to adjust. Social media — I believe — was the
main trigger. That explosion — just — has been overwhelming. You can see that social media explosion when
you look at the rate of Google searches for Horseshoe Bend. But it isn’t the only previously-hidden spot
that’s become internet famous. Similar increases have happened at Devil’s
Bathtub, a swimming hole in Virginia… … Kanarraville Falls, a waterfall trail
in Utah… … and Vance Creek Bridge, an old railroad
overpass in Washington. So why are these places getting so much attention? For outdoor photographers searching for the
perfect shot, Instagram made things easy: The app’s interface put geotagging — the
practice of attaching location data to a picture — front and center. And if a hidden spot didn’t already have
a location tag available, anyone could create one. These Instagram hotspots were often located
either just outside protected lands, or far off the beaten path. So as America’s National Parks became more
popular than ever, these places started getting National
Park-level crowds without having National Park-level infrastructure. Federally protected areas require a ton of
planning and work to keep people and the environment safe. There wasn’t a developed trail here. There weren’t any restroom facilities. There was no railing. It was an undeveloped site. Without that infrastructure, the natural landscape
can be damaged — and people following geotagging trends are at risk of injury or death. At Conundrum Hot Springs in Colorado, visitors
disturbed wildlife, cut down trees for firewood, and left behind an overwhelming amount of
human waste. And at Kaaterskill Falls in New York, at least
four people have died while taking or posing for pictures. So at Horseshoe Bend, trail designers are
getting to work. The park service and the city of Page are
creating over 400 parking spaces, a welcome center, bathrooms, a viewing deck with safety
railings, and laser-equipped signs to count attendance. And they’re building a new ADA-compliant
trail, lined with limestone to protect the surrounding environment and reinforced with
magnesium chloride to keep gravel in place. Throughout the trail, all the improvements
that we’re doing are aimed at creating as natural an environment as possible. It’s a difficult balance. You’re not going to stop people from going
to the rim’s edge and trying to capture that iconic photo. We don’t want to wall it off. So all we can do is implore that people be safe. For places like Kanarraville Falls in Utah,
that concern for safety extends to their residents, too. The town’s water comes from a spring near
the falls, where’s it’s piped to tanks near the canyon entrance. It used to be a local secret — but in 2016,
40,000 people hiked that trail, disturbing the water source and leaving debris behind. It shares so quick, and it gets out
there so fast, that people can look at it and say “Oh wow, look at that!” Then they tap on the photo, and it’ll tell
where it was from or where it was taken. Things like that, and people go wild over it. You can imagine what that does to
the canyon floor, the trail, the water — people in and out. We’ve just tried to take adequate measures
to try to work with the ecosystem, and not have it ruin our water source. Others are taking a different approach: there’s
now a growing movement in the nature photography scene against geotagging. So, in 1999 this organization called Leave
No Trace came up with a set of guidelines for people to use while they’re in the outdoors. These are things like don’t leave trash
behind, don’t interfere with wildlife, leave everything as it was when you saw it. And now in 2018 they’ve announced that they’re
encouraging people not to geotag photos while they’re in nature. We’ve always had the tendency to explore
— and sometimes be irresponsible in nature. Modern technology just amplifies those
urges. With so many natural wonders at our fingertips
today, it’s even more urgent that we treat them with respect and care — before it’s
too late. Hi there – thanks for watching The Goods,
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