Let’s talk about geotagging

But first, I invite you to check your current opinions (read: ego) on geotagging. Just shelve ‘em for a moment, hit the pause button, give yourself 10 minutes of reading and considering before you interject with a “well, actually…” Here’s the thing about this post: you aren’t going to leave with a solid answer of to geotag or not to geotag.

So what is geotagging? According to our friends at Wikipedia,

Geotagging or GeoTagging, is the process of adding geographical identification metadata to various media such as a geotagged photograph or video, websites, SMS messages, QR Codes[1] or RSS feeds and is a form of geospatial metadata. This data usually consists of latitude and longitude coordinates, though they can also include altitude, bearing, distance, accuracy data, and place names, and perhaps a time stamp.

For our purposes, we’re mainly talking about the geotag feature on Instagram (and social media at large). According to SproutSocial, “an Instagram [geotag]  is the specific location, down to the latitude and longitude, of where you’ve stored your Instagram content. Geolocations are gathered from the physical location of your mobile device, which allows users to store or tag their content to those coordinates.” Geotags are a way to gain visibility amongst like-minded community, a way to give mountains back their Indigenous names, a little digital log of the places you’ve been from restaurants and cities to trailheads and summits.

The idea of imbalance between public lands and visitors isn’t new–rewind to the 1940s and you’ll see reference to the same idea of “rapid growth in the number of Americans hitting the trail” (source). If you’re reading this, you’re probably an outdoorist, so you get it. The great outdoors are, well, great, so it’s no surprise that more and more people want to get out there.

Here’s the thing, more than 500 million people visit public lands annually (source), with over 330 million visits to national park sites in 2017 (source)–and blaming Instagram and geotagging for an influx of people at trailheads isn’t going to solve the accompanying issues of overuse. To blame a geotag is to eschew the deeper, critical issues our lands are facing right now. To say “Instagram is ruining the outdoors” is to water down our current environmental crisis with cheap sentiments of bitterness and old guard. Is social media playing a role in the current issues we’re facing? Absolutely. But it’s just one teat on an udder full of problems that need solutions (like the crisis happening at climbing crags across the country).

Further, I wondered: do we have any data or research that indicates geotagging and social media as the root of all outdoor evil? The short answer is: no. There is a distinct lack of science behind all of this, though I did find a few studies that surprised me.

Here are the results from a hiker survey conducted by the Adirondack Council, asking folks on the trail “why did you decide to hike today?” Note the least popular response:

Hmm….

The debate around geotagging has reached every corner of the internet from National Geographic to the New York Times. The Leave No Trace center issued a new guidance specifically addressing social media. This is a topic that deserves nuance, as is seen within this Outside Magazine article that both cites Instagram as a reason folks fall to their death at Horseshoe Bend, and also recognizes that “the best way to protect public lands is to have advocates. Often the best advocates are the folks taking photos and sharing them on Facebook and Instagram.”

Either way, I wonder: why are we blaming Instagram solely for the popularization of the outdoors? It’s not just Instagram y’all. The outdoors are being promoted in film, guidebooks, through e-mail newsletters, by tourism groups, by motivational speakers, in commercials–it’s everywhere. Is it just easy for us to scapegoat Instagram instead of taking the energy to consider how big and complex this beast is?

During a coffee date with my dear friend Bri Madia, who is infamous for her strong stance against geotagging, she posed a question I hadn’t fully considered: “What I want to know is, why do people geotag?” So, naturally, I asked my community–on both sides of the aisle. First, I polled on Instagram stories, do you or don’t you geotag (including general/regional tags)? There was a fairly even split erring on the side of ‘do’ with 1107 vs. 825 ‘donts’.
*note, this is not intended to be deep scientific findings, just a pulse of my community, don’t get it twisted.

Why DO we geotag? (57%)

The overwhelming sentiment in the pro-tagging camp was around the idea of sharing the experiences we have with others. “To share with the community” and “to encourage, to inform, to let people know about the amazing places right in their backyard.” Folks from places like the southeast, Kansas and Texas expressed a desire to help their neighbors discover that they’ve got rad outdoor spaces they might not know existed (“Coming from Ohio, most Ohio folks have no idea how much great hiking there is!”). Some do it to provide updated imagery of trail conditions.

Karen Ramos (@naturechola) summed up the pro side eloquently:

“Because I don’t believe in using conservation as an excuse for exclusion.”

Folks cited Instagram as a resource they used when they were first exploring public lands and planning trips, and use geotagging as a way to pay it forward. Heck, I just searched Placencia, Belize geotags last night to vibe out my trip in a few weeks. While Instagram provides a pinpoint on a map to a place that’s been geotagged, I wonder how many people simply drive straight there vs. how many use that as a starting point to begin their research on a place. I found no conclusive data on this topic, despite many strong opinions.

Many people also ‘fessed up to doing it for self-serving purposes, to remember the places they had visited, to get more likes, or “to brag about the hard hikes I accomplished.” An interesting note is that many folks acknowledged having small platforms or private accounts where their tags had less visibility.

Why DON’T we geotag? (43%)

I’ll start with the legitimate responses–and this one I personally identify with: “because I don’t need internet strangers knowing where I am.” I had this conversation again and again with women in my community. I travel solo often, and usually haunt the same spots because they are safe and comfortable for me. So, I don’t geotag those areas, and if someone asks me about it, I’m honest about that. As Bri Madia puts it, “I grew up in a time when you didn’t tell strangers on the internet where you were. I’ll recommend guidebooks, map apps, and resources but I’m not going to draw you a map on how to find me in the middle of nowhere.” I personally have had a number of creepy run-ins with folks who ‘found me’ via Instagram, so I’m careful about sharing my location (I don’t post IG stories until I’ve left a location now).

There are the other, more dire instances where geotagging is undeniably harmful too–like when it can endanger rhinos being sought by poachers. I also spoke to a woman in Big Cypress, Florida who cited orchid poaching as an issue perpetuated by geotagging. A number of scientists and ecologists chimed in with similar thoughts about needing to protect certain flora, fauna, and archeological sites.

From there, the responses devolve. The anti-geotagging responses echoed ideas of “to keep it a secret, not everyone deserves to know,” and “can’t trust the general public with wild, untouched places.” There was also “I want to keep my special places secret,” and my favorite for honesty, “I hate people.”

Folks, if you are “protecting places from people who don’t deserve to go there,” you are engaging in something called gatekeeping. (Please see Melanin Basecamp’s #1 reason why they are pro-geotagging.) Gatekeeping is a self-appointed decision on who does or doesn’t have the right to access information, community, or identity. And I pose this question to you: what exactly qualifies you as the person who gets to decide who is or isn’t deserving of ‘your’ outdoor spaces? At what point did you graduate from average outdoorsy person to almighty keeper of nature? Did you forget that there’s no such thing as “pristine, untouched wilderness” because as my friend Dr. Len Necefer reminds us: Indigenous people have been moving across, living on, cultivating, and celebrating that land way before settlers forcibly removed Native people from it and declared it wild.

Gatekeeping isn’t cool. It isn’t okay, and if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable because you realized maybe you’re being a gatekeeper–I invite you to consider changing your mindset around how you “protect” the places you love. I don’t always tag the specific locations I’m in, often opting for the general park or forest name–but I will always engage in a conversation and share my resources if someone DMs me about a place. The outdoors is not mine to keep (nor is it yours).

Aside from the exclusionary bullshit behind being anti-geotagging, my number one qualm with folks who gripe about Instagram ruining the outdoors is a lack of solutions for the problem. A lot of “get off my lawn” and not enough “here’s what I think we can do to make it better.” Scroll down to the 4th point in Melanin Basecamp’s recent geotagging article, and bam, solutions. Whether you’re for or against geotagging, we can all agree that there is a massive influx of people getting outdoors, and we lack the infrastructure to accommodate the boom.

Do I think everyone deserves access to the outdoors? Hell yes. Do I also believe that once we hit carrying capacities for trails and ecosystems, we need to start implementing permitting systems and quotas? Absolutely. Back to that study from the Adirondack Council, dive into page 2 and you’ll see that hikers largely support management intervention, trail closures, etc.

After all of this, my thoughts on geotagging evolved and I realized: the problem isn’t that geotagging provides too much information, it’s that geotagging doesn’t provide enough. My original sentiments erred on the side of “geotagging shortcuts the educational aspect of learning about a place” – so what if geotagging supplemented that? What if, at the top of public lands geotag pages was a quick wiki-style bite of information that could offer information about whether a spot is illegal to access, if there are sensitive cryptobiotic soils not to step on, whether an area is prone to flash floods or avalanches, if there’s an archeological site it’s illegal to disturb, a warning not to crush the wildflowers. What if the users aren’t the problem, but the system of geotagging itself is what’s broken?

Further, if used well, geotagging can be a tool to promote advocacy and spread information. If you do choose to geotag, I believe the onus is on you to provide resources and education. When tagging a spot in Moab (whether you tag Grandstaff Trailhead or just Moab), include a quick blurb about how delicate cryptobiotic soil is and why it’s important to stay on the trail. Offer a quick ‘and remember to practice Leave No Trace!’ or remind folks “this spot is 30 miles down a dirt road with no access to water, and you have to carry your poo out!” You hold the power to spread advocacy, and you have the power to use an Instagram post to spark positive stewardship amongst your community.

Instagram and geotagging are what you make it. Are there “influencers” out there who make a profit off public lands without stewarding them, or taking any action to give back to the places they benefit from? Absolutely. Who has the power to support that or demand that they do better? You do. (Oh yes, this idea of the ethics of being an outdoor professional/influencer is a topic I plan on traveling down the rabbit hole of in the future…)

And folks, I do truly understand that there are some places that are so special, so spiritual, so personally sacred that we (read: our egos, and that’s okay) truly can’t bear the thought of sharing the location with the internet–so, don’t post pictures of them online. If it’s truly about the sanctity of the place, and not about your ego, don’t post it.

In a report by the Center for Western Priorities, the group concludes a study on public lands visitation by saying “Policymakers should steer clear of policies that limit public access to U.S. public lands. Instead, America’s elected officials should look for ways to maintain and expand outdoor opportunities by boosting budgets for land management agencies and guaranteeing permanent funding for conservation and public lands access. Hundreds of millions of visitors each year depend on it.” Replace ‘policymakers’ with ‘Instagrammers–and social media haters’ and you’ve got my feelings on this whole debate summed up.

Note: This post intends to act as a starting point for this conversation, and despite behind long as heck, isn’t exhaustive. Please add your resources, your thoughts, data you know about, etc. in the comments and keep it going. My hope is that this post will require many updates and revisions as we dive deeper into the topic as a community. 

Cover image by Dayne Tompkin on Unsplash.

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Outdoor Advocacy Update 005: public lands package + meet Zinke’s replacement

Let’s start with the good news. In case you’ve been living under (or climbing on top of) a rock for the last week: the outdoor community scored a big win last week with the passage of the public lands package through the Senate.

What’s the public land package, you ask? Here’s a quick peek inside the treasure trove of public land victories tucked inside this massive package, more formally known as the Natural Resources Management Act (SR.47): 

  • Permanently authorizes and funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund
  • Includes the Emery County Bill which designates 750,000 acres of wilderness 300,000 acres of recreation area and 60 miles of the Green River as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System
  • Protected Yellowstone and North Cascades National Parks from nearby mining
  • Provides funding and protection for national parks, monuments, and BLM land in California
  • Protects salmon, migratory birds and other wildlife across the country.
  • Creates wilderness areas in New Mexico, expands 8 national parks, and more.

If you want to dig in on this, check out this excellent guide to the Natural Resources Management Act from Outside Magazine. And if you really want to nerd out, you can read the full text of this legislation here.

What’s the current status of the public lands package? It has one more hurdle to clear: the House of Representatives, which is currently in recess this week. Hope is that the House will take up the package once they get back in office next week. It’s looking good that the public lands package will pass the House and cross the finish line–but you need to reach out to your reps and urge them to take action. Here are two letter-writing tools: this one from Outdoor Alliance and this one from Outdoor Industry Association.

Now for the bad news: meet Zinke’s (likely) replacement, David Bernhardt.

I wrote a new piece for REI titled Meet the (Likely) Next Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt–and it’s pretty damn good if I do say so myself. I dug into Bernhardt’s background and history within the Department of the Interior (it’s long and his client + project list speak for themselves, no bueno), what the process of getting him in office looks like, and what a Secretary of Interior actually does. Give it a read and let me know what you think. I learned a lot in the process of researching this piece. Here’s a quick snippet for you:

“Since rejoining the department in 2017, Bernhardt has taken on many initiatives while keeping a relatively low public profile—until this recent nomination. His previous work has included rescinding climate change and mitigation policies, and supporting the administration’s decision to overhaul protections in the Endangered Species Act, which he outlined in this Washington Post Op-Ed. He also implemented length restrictions on National Environmental Policy Act environmental impact reports. Since President Trump took office, oil and gas leasing on public lands has “generated $360 million, an almost 90 percent increase from 2016,” according to NPR.

During the recent government shutdown, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which falls under Bernhardt’s purview, allowed for a portion of its nearly 2,300 non-furloughed employees to continue some energy, minerals and grazing activities, according to BLM’s contingency plan. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) penned a letter to Bernhardt, questioning the department’s reported actions in moving forward on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite reduced staff and the impact on the public comment process due to the shutdown.” (Read the full article via REI here.)

Other things you oughta know about this week in outdoor advocacy + community:

Got an important outdoor advocacy or community story I ought to include in the next advocacy update? Leave a comment, send me a message, let’s do this!

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outdoor advocacy update 002: LWCF, Line 5 pipeline, and more

From breaking political news to outdoor advocacy movements, the world around us seems to be moving extra fast these days–and it’s hard to keep up sometimes. To help you stay in the loop, I’m going to start providing mini quick + gritty updates on all things advocacy and the outdoors. Let’s dig in:

ADVOCACY UPDATES + NEWS:

Yes, it’s a lame duck session right now–but there’s a big story happening for public lands and the outdoor industry in Congress. There’s a lot of movement on a package of bills that includes reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (read more here if you don’t know what LWCF is), solutions to the National Parks Service backlog, the Recreation Not Red Tape Act, and more. REI’s President Jerry Stritzke wrote an op-ed in The Hill about the bipartisan opportunity we have to get goodness done for our public lands.

Follow my updates on OIA’s Twitter channel here, it could all come together or fall apart at any moment. At this point, it sounds like a public lands package is likely to pass, and if it does, it will definitely include permanent reauthorization of LWCF!

Speaking of LWCF, there was a LWCF press conference in DC this week held by key bipartisan congresspeople supporting reauthorization. Even Senator Cory Gardner gets it, this is such a win-win funding program for public lands.

After years of leadership under Rep. Rob Bishop (UT-R), the House Natural Resources Committee will now be chaired by Rep. Raul Grijalva (AZ-D). I have visited Rep. Grijalva’s office in DC a few times, and it’s always a lobbying highlight. He is a champion for core issues like public lands protection and native sovereignty. Here’s my favorite quote from this article about Rep. Grijalva’s plans to tackle climate change in his new position:

“We have an opportunity to take this committee and its priorities and its policies and legislative initiatives and steer it in a different direction. Under our jurisdiction, we have issues that have to be dealt with — tribal sovereignty, education, health care, historical and cultural resource preservation.

The other issue is climate change. It touches every issue that we deal with, and the fossil-fuel extraction industries are making such a rush for resources in our public lands. This administration, in two years, has made every effort to suppress science and dumb down the issue of climate change. We want to elevate that again to the status it deserves in decision-making.” (source)

ONE WAY TO TAKE ACTION:

‘Tis this season of gratitude giving, and Outdoor Alliance has a letter-writing tool to thank key lawmakers for the their work on the above mentioned public lands package that could have big impacts on US outdoor spaces–and remind them to light a fire under their tooshes to get the package across the finish line and make! it! happen! Write a letter to your reps here. 

What I’m Reading:
  • OIA recently hired a new Vice President of Government Affairs, Patricia Rojas-Ungár, and I am amped. She brings such good advocacy energy, she’s super talented, and she’s Latinx. Read this SNEWS interview with her.
  • This in-depth feature piece from Nat Geo on Bears Ears and public lands. Highlights included a thorough guide through the history of US land, from stealing the land from native people to Clive Bundy, and seeing a shoutout to the public lands march organized by OIA in SLC last summer.
What I’m Watching:
  • Michigan Line 5 – My friend Adam Wells created this beautiful and tragic film about a pipeline that runs through the Great Lakes region. I visited this area a few weeks ago during my solo midwest trip, and I couldn’t believe that this environmental crisis is looming in such a precious landscape. Here’s a poignant snippet, and you can watch the whole thing below:

    Every day 23 million gallons of oil are pumped under the largest freshwater system on the planet, putting over 450 miles of shoreline and 100,000 acres of water at risk. The Great Lakes supply drinking water to 40 million people, provide crucial habitat to 47 species, and support a handful of multi-billion dollar industries. Line 5 expired fifteen years ago. It’s not a matter of if it spills, but when.

Before the Spill from Adam Wells on Vimeo.

Got a bit of advocacy news or updates I ought to know about and include in the next mini fresh? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail! 

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Advocacy Toolkit: Vote The Outdoors in 2018

If I could urge people to take just one action for outdoor advocacy in 2018, it would be to vote. In the last year, we’ve witnessed the dismantling of national monuments, erasure and denial of our planet’s climate change crisis, attacks on our public lands, and please-don’t-get-me-started-on-how-we’re-treating-our-fellow-humans-these-days.

This is a call to arms.  Your ballot is your greatest weapon in the fight for justice and representation in our government.

So, how do you get educated on the issues that matter most, and figure out which candidates will best represent your outdoor values in Congress? These resources will help empower you to vote, vote, vote the outdoors:

  • OIA’s Voters Guide 2018: In my opinion, this is the ultimate resource for outdoor voters this election. The team at OIA put together an extensive guide that covers: explanations on specific voter issues, endorsements of candidates in key races, a Congressional scorecard (see below), toolkits to help you spread the word, and more. It’s a true voter hub.
  • OIA Congressional Scorecard: A breakdown every incumbent candidate based on how they voted on issues like climate change, LWCF, wildfire funding, public lands, and more. Each candidate receives a letter grade–unsurprisingly, both Utah reps got an F. Did I mention how important it is to vote?!
  • Protect Our Winters Voter Guidebook: In addition to incumbent candidates, POW has breakdowns on every candidate on issues like climate, energy and environment. This interactive tool will help you create a ballot guide that you can print out and bring to the polls with you.
  • Vote.Org: Need to update registration? Go to Vote.org. Can’t vote in person? Vote.org can help. Don’t know where your polling place is? Vote.org does.

 

Specific state + ballot initiative resources:

  • Colorado: Check out this state-wide voter guide from Elevation Outdoors. It has all the amendments, propositions, candidate info, and more. 10/10

*Note: If you have additional state + local resources, please send them my way! I will be updating this through the election.

Once you’ve dug in and become an empowered voter, you’ll be moved to start taking action now beyond just bubbling in your ballot. There is so much you can do to support voters and help others make their voices heard. These are some of the ways you can take action this election season:

  • Empower your friends, family and colleagues to vote too. Help your roommate register to vote, translate ballots and voter issues for your abuela or your neighbors, put Vote.org in your instagram bio and remind the people you love regularly to get activated. Offer to drive folks to the polls on election day.
  • Join me + OIA on Oct 15th to pledge to #VoteTheOutdoors. Post on your social media channels on 10/15 with a message that says “I pledge to #VoteTheOutdoors this election–will you?” For the full toolkit and activation, join the Outdoor Advocate Network on Facebook and you’ll get access to a suite of social media posts + graphics I designed to get the word out. (Or just use the graphic here.)
  • Donate to your local candidates. Whether you have $5 or $50 to give, your local candidates need your support to win these races. If you can’t donate money, donate your time and energy. Round up your friends and help canvas neighborhoods. My parents in Miami hosted a dinner party meet-and-greet to support a local candidate. If you’re a graphic designer or have talents you can serve with, offer your services. – And if you’re looking for someone to support, may I suggest Shireen Ghorbani in Utah’s 3rd congressional district?
  • Keep talking about outdoor politics and the importance of voting. Post on social media, bring it up around the dinner table, invite friends over for a voter education party. Flex your voice, and make it heard often.

Listen, I get it: I’ve ‘forgotten’ to vote too. I’ve missed the registration deadlines, been traveling on voting day, whatever excuse is in the book for not voting, I’ve used it. But with this political climate, I will never miss an opportunity to make my voice heard through voting again. If you travel frequently or work a job that doesn’t allow you to get to a polling place on election day, remember that you can vote by mail. 

Not registered yet, or need to check your voter status? Here are the registration deadlines for all 50 states. Some states even let you register on election day (which they all should).

This isn’t about Democrats, or Republicans. This is about using our vote to protect the outdoors and voting for what’s fair and just for our fellow humans in this country. Political culture has become a beastly, embarrassing mess in so many ways, and I truly, deeply believe that if we make our voices heard, we can restore civility, community, and hope for America. I believe in my country, because I believe in the good people who live here. Justice will prevail, friends, if we just vote.

 

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