Monday, January 1, 2018

Eighth Leave No Trace principle - consider impact of social media

Yesterday I stumbled on a posting in Paul Magnanti's blog that pointed to a longer, well-written article in TrailGroove Magazine about the possibility of adding an eighth principle to the Leave No Trace guidelines:
Be mindful when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts that rapidly increased use can have on wild places.
or possibly
Use discretion when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts of creating a ‘buzz’ about specific destinations
I surely understand the concerns of hikers regarding the impact of social media! In the Catskills, where I hike most often, I've seen the Blue Hole nearly ruined (NYT- link may be paywalled) after the 'buzz' hit the Internet that it was a gorgeous swimming hole in the middle of nowhere, close to a road. I've been on a work party trying to clean the place up and get ahead of the hordes who were fouling it, and I wholeheartedly approved of the emergency regulations that DEC had to issue, while bemoaning their necessity. It appears that Blue Hole will hence forth be just another 'frontcountry' site.

I've also seen the way that social media can bring in bad behaviour. Some trails in the Catskills are now plagued with groups of hikers who joined together on Meetup, and never had a mentor to teach them how to operate in the wilderness. They are typically young, and have tremendous athletic prowess coupled with abysmal ignorance. Most frustrating, they seem to be nearly unreachable - they think that their ability to get up and down a mountain in jig time makes them the experts, and even friendly warnings that some of their behaviours (postholing, traveling in too-large groups, failing to bury excrement) risk tickets go unheard. They make it clear that they consider me to be unconscionably rude because I don't go as fast in my sixties as I did in my teens and twenties, and can't always even get out of the way before they want to push past me. 

Believe me, I know what can happen when the knowledge about a place goes viral. So I agree in principle with what Mark Wetherington and other on the are promoting.

Still, I wonder where to draw the line - and in my experience, LNT advocates can be quite "zero tolerance" about their lines in the sand. As Paul correctly points out, "don't post - keep it all secret" is not workable. The more impacted "wild" areas are our recruiting office - they're the place where new wilderness advocates get made. If we don't share, if we don't invite, if we don't promote, then wilderness will not be in the public consciousness at all. Worse, when it arises at all, it will be as a Waste of the Taxpayer's Money, not as something they can relate to. Getting interested people Out There is how we maintain pubic awareness.

For that reason, I'm willing to consider some of the popular trails and sites to be sacrificial. People don't immediately step out of the city with both a love for the wilderness and the knowledge of how best to protect it. They need a place to learn to love it, and a place to learn how to love it. If those places come close to being "loved to death", it's probably worth it.

It's probably time for an agonizing appraisal of my social media practices, though.

Review:  I do indeed maintain this blog, and many of my hikes get documented here. 

I also maintained a trail journal, the season that I hiked the Northville-Placid Trail. I happen to think that as the granddaddy of long-distance trails in the US, it deserves to be better known. But perhaps I'm wrong! Paul's advice to leave the obscure to obscurity resonates. Still, it seems to me that particular trail is more likely to languish from lack of attention than to collapse under overuse. The sheer remoteness (the 137-mile trail includes two 40-mile roadless sections) deters many hikers; the few that go, for the most part, know what they're about. I don't think I can feel too guilty for writing about a long-established trail, particularly in telling it as it was - the dunking in a stream while the sky was spattering sleet, the collapse of a bog bridge, the sprained knee, the attack of bronchitis, the unremitting mud, all are in there along with the swim in a beautiful clear pond on the hottest day of the year, the astonishing blue of gentians, and the satisfaction of passing through the arch in Northville. Most of the people who've read my account and commented are non-hikers, who tell me that I'm crazy. Somehow, I don't think I'm suddenly going to draw in the hordes.

I post a fair number of pictures to my Flickr account, most of which are about hiking. The questionable thing about these, I suppose, is that most are geotagged - the photograph's metadata gives a map location. I find this useful for organizing them, and in fact, at least some of my panoramas are indexed and set up over here so that I can find a picture simply by clicking on a pushpin. How risky do the wiser heads than mine consider that practice?

Bringing in that map brings in another practice of mine. When I hike established trails, I usually have a GPS track logger running, and I tidy my tracks and integrate them with OpenStreetMap on a regular basis. Having them there also makes the trails show up on sites like and Waymarked Trails. Since the USGS has really gone out of the business of producing detailed topo maps - at the very least, hiking trails are beyond its capability for the new USTopo series - it remains to citizen mappers to fill the gaps. The maintaining club for the Northville-Placid was glad enough that I did the mapping. since the current mileage table was largely derived from this work.

On the other hand, I ordinarily do not share tracks for off-trail outings - at least since I learnt that where I hike, the DEC asks informally that hikers refrain from doing so. I have in the past shared maps of the tracks as images, but now will do that only for some trips that carry a personal, special meaning, like the tragic family history associated with my climb of North Dome in the Catskills.

I do sometimes go into some detail about where I went to - at least to the extent of naming geographic features that have names. That said, as often as not it's to unrecommend a route - if you feel like following me up the back side of Balsam Cap, be my guest! You'll be swimming in vegetation all the way. I'm not going to climb that way again!

The view from the top was still worth it. 

Generally speaking, I incline toward openness. I'm terrible at keeping secrets. I think I'm likely to go right on mapping trails (and making the result totally free for others to build on), taking pictures (and geotagging them), writing about my experiences (if only to organize my own thoughts) and, of course hiking (even though the only way truly to leave no trace is not to go).

Those that know me know that I tend toward being scrupulous. I very seldom hike the same place twice, unless I'm leading others to a particularly nice spot. (Better that others should enjoy it without the burden of repeated impacts from me.) They will know that I don't enter permit lotteries - if my getting to enjoy a place will deprive others of that enjoyment, better that they should have it. I'm not a wonderful writer, artist, photographer, or naturalist; let it go to someone who has more to bring to the party. If that means that I never walk the more popular routes in Yosemite, see the more remote reaches of the Grand Canyon with my own eyes, or summit Katahdin, so be it. There are lots of wonderful places under less pressure.

I'm therefore no doubt overthinking this principle, the same way that I overthink everything else. But I'd love to hear what others think. "Digital Leave No Trace" is a new idea to me, and I'm cautious that I'm falling victim to the natural desire to justify one's own actions.

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