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How Instagram Ruined the Great Outdoors

Social media influencers have helped turn public lands into tourist-infested swamps. And one cantankerous man is fighting back.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

There was once a swimming hole in a stream-fed gorge on the public lands of the Catskill Mountains that was gloriously free of Homo sapiens. You could go there in the height of summer and see no one and have the deep blue pools to yourself. Then came Instagram. I won’t tell you the name of the gorge or provide a link to the pictures, as that would only worsen the invasion of drunken, littering, caterwauling people in what was once a redoubt of solitude and quiet.

Instagram users who love the outdoors have a habit of ruining the wild places they touch—a perverse irony that seems lost on them. It is now axiomatic that a locale of stunning natural beauty will quickly degrade into a morass of crowding once it is posted on the platform as a pristine image. The herd instinct kicks in, and other users who also want to be photographed in those same lovely landscapes converge with their own cameras and Instagram accounts and followers—ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

It is therefore with great delight that I’ve been following the work of the saboteur who runs Public Lands Hate You, an Instagram account dedicated to exposing this noxious dynamic and castigating the app’s proliferating culture of “influencers.” The anonymous 31-year-old Idaho man behind the account—who doesn’t want his name published for fear that the Instagrammers he sabotages will come after him personally—warns on his page: “If you think this world and our public lands are here for you to promote yourself; your advertisers; your promoters; your photographer; anything with ‘You’ in it—you’re wrong. Very, very wrong.”

This fellow, who I’ll call Sabot, is an environmental engineer and an inveterate hiker and backpacker. “I’ve spent a lot of my life on our public lands, be it national parks, state parks, national forests, or Bureau of Land Management land,” Sabot wrote me in an email. “I started PLHY as a way to vent my frustration about the abuse I was seeing.” By this he means the illegal trails, campsites, and campfires; the growing trash along the trails; the human feces, improperly disposed, stinking in the forests and the canyons; the freshwater pools turned into urinals; the ancient archeological sites vandalized and looted; the trees scarred from the maulings of knives, the rocks graffitied, the vegetation stomped out of existence; and so on.

“All of this has really been tipping in the wrong direction for the last five years or so, which oddly enough coincides with the rise of Instagram,” he said.

Among the concerns of Public Lands Hate You is the ecological damage from the Instagram-driven mass visitation of a tiny parcel of public land called the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, in the grassland of the Mojave Desert. Here in springtime, amid the rich colors of the annual poppy bloom, is an influencers’ paradise. As Sabot has documented, the influencers bed down amidst the gorgeous flowers to peddle Campbell’s Soup, women’s clothing (rompers are a favorite), acrylic fingernails, cell phone cases, and M&M’s. They are among the perfect-photograph seekers who carve ever-widening trails that trample the plants and compact the fragile high-desert soil upon which the flora depend for life. Sometimes they pick the flowers and hold them outstretched to the camera—with, of course, the chosen consumer product conspicuously displayed alongside.

Resource-strapped park rangers appear helpless to stop the madness, as Instagram, among other factors, fuels ever-greater numbers of visitors. The result is the erasure of sizable portions of the poppy ecosystem.

Sabot considers it a public service to harm the influencers’ ability to make money off the public lands. His method in the case of the poppy reserve: first, expose them on his Instagram account for actions that violate the regulations, such as going off-trail or picking the flowers; second, contact the companies whose products they are promoting to suggest that it’s not good for one’s corporate image to be associated with lawless miscreants who are destroying our shared commons.

In some instances, influencers have lost sponsorship contracts as a result of his work. Many decide to remove their posts. Many others do not, and instead react with furious indignation.

The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in 2003—a happier, Instagram-less time.
Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Sabot finds all this deeply depressing. “The only way I get through it is a lot of beer,” he told me. “My beer budget has gone through the roof!” He gets a great deal of hate mail from influencers. “Suck my fucking dick,” wrote one Instagrammer. Another wrote, “We hate YOUR account and love public lands.”

Perhaps it is not a surprise that he has been threatened with lawsuits from individuals, along with an Instagrammers’ class action suit for harassment. Earlier this month, he was sent a cease-and-desist letter from one aggrieved influencer he targeted. The author of the letter, whose name was redacted in the document that Sabot shared with me, complained of “loss of income; loss of brand partnership; severe anxiety; loss of working hours, due to the time it’s taken to delete, block, and report these harassing comments and accounts.” Sabot has shrugged off the risk of legal reprise, and Instagram has not blocked Public Lands Hates You or otherwise taken action against him, as apparently he has violated none of the platform’s rules.

What he has done is organize a powerful emotional and psychological force that social media amplifies: public shaming. “Public shaming is definitely part of the equation,” he told me. “It’s a harsh tactic for sure, but there’s a reason that it has been used by the human race since we walked out of the swamp.”

Researchers have produced mountains of studies on the motivations and rewards that drive the social media user. The craving for attention, the narcissistic self-referencing, the seeking-out of the digital mob for emotional sustenance: It all comes down to the basic human need to be validated by others—to be loved, that is.

With the Instagram influencer there appears to be a dual motivation: one psychological, one pecuniary. There are profits to be made as the influencer unveils to the world a body ripening in the sunshine. This figure is liberated from the tedious confines of office and home, from domestic and professional routine; is wild at heart, adventurous, exploring the loveliest places that nature has to offer. Meanwhile you, sad viewer, sit on your miserable device, in a weird stew of jealousy and longing, wanting to be in that place looking as lovely as the influencer.

This is, needless to say, the oldest trick in marketing and advertising: Associate the product with scenic landscapes and attractive people, and by a kind of sympathetic magic, one becomes as attractive by purchasing the product.

The most insidious of these influencers are those who operate under a veil of environmental concern and advocacy and an expressed love of the wilderness. Take, for example, the Instagram account @running_bum_, whose feed primarily features a woman’s adventures in the remote backcountry of the controversy-ridden Bears Ears area of southern Utah, where bitter battles have been fought over environmental protections and designation of a national monument.

What do we hear and see from the Running Bum? Well, lots of pictures of the landscape that of course serve to popularize the area and draw more people to it. Mostly what we get is her: the Bum running and jumping; playing in the canyons; snuggling in a sleeping bag with a copy of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (while Abbey, one of the great misanthropes of American literature, rolls sickened in his grave, as the secret places of his blessed solitudes now unspool in mass communications for all the world to find and invade).

We hear nothing from the Running Bum about the denuding of the desert flora due to overgrazing of cattle; nothing about the malfeasance and corruption of the industry-captured U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees much of the Bears Ears area; certainly nothing about the environmental footprint of the growing number of adventure tourists such as herself—nothing, that is, about the most pressing threats to the ecological health of the landscape. We do, however, get a picture of a strategically placed plastic bottle of Almond Breeze on a cliff edge overlooking the vastness of the canyonlands. As it happens, the corporation behind Almond Breeze, Running Bum proudly announces, has sponsored her to run the Boston Marathon.

I found a Utah woman who self-identifies as an “environmental advocate” and “public lands activist” while also—here’s the catch—working, until recently, for the Outdoor Industry Association, running the group’s social media outreach program. The OIA’s stated purpose is to “ensur[e] the growth and success of the outdoor industry,” now valued at $700 billion a year. It represents huge corporate interests—Patagonia, REI, The North Face —along with numerous other gear and clothing manufacturers, motorized recreation companies and motorized vehicle manufacturers, backcountry guide services, hoteliers, restaurateurs, and retailers. Growth of the revenues of these companies and interests is the OIA’s chief and seemingly sole goal. The OIA website offers few niceties about conservation, preservation, or protection, but instead concentrates on the importance of recreation.

What the OIA wants, obviously, is more people gaining more access in more places on public lands consuming more goods and services during their “adventures”—with all the accompanying growth in carbon footprint for manufacture, distribution, and sale of those goods and the use of the services; with all the devastatingly carbon-intensive leisure-travel by car and jet plane that adventure tourism requires. The natural world, according to the OIA, is an experiential commodity, acquired through the poisoning of our atmosphere with enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses.

The adventure capitalists represented by the OIA also spread a lie about recreation’s local and immediate impact on land and wildlife. This lie is shared and promulgated by its minions on Instagram, suggesting that, even when conducted on a mass scale, so-called “non-consumptive uses”—hiking, cycling, climbing, kayaking, skiing, snowshoeing, and the like—are compatible with protection and conservation of wildlife and biodiversity.

In 1998, Scott Miller, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, found that “increasing evidence ... indicates that these activities are, in fact, not benign. On the contrary, data suggest that outdoor recreation can affect wildlife individuals, populations, and communities.”

Miller cited a 1995 study by Dr. Karen Losos, an evolutionary biologist who surveyed all the factors driving the decline of threatened and endangered species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Losos, to her surprise, found that outdoor recreation was the second leading cause of species extinctions on the public lands, after water development.

A 2008 study in BioScience appeared to validate Losos’s findings. In a report that same year for the Society of Conservation Biology, researchers in northern California who looked at mammalian reactions to recreationists came to a startling conclusion: “Paired comparisons of neighboring protected areas with and without recreation revealed that the presence of dispersed, nonmotorized recreation [emphasis mine] led to a five‐fold decline in the density of native carnivores and a substantial shift in community composition from native to nonnative species.”

In 2016, a team of researchers at Colorado State University reviewed all the available studies worldwide on the harmful ecological and environmental effects of recreation, and concluded that those effects were “widespread.” Noting the problem of over-visitation in national parks in the United States, the authors warned that “protecting biodiversity from potentially harmful effects of recreation is a primary concern for conservation planners and land managers.”

The upshot: More people engaging in recreation in the backcountry is bad for ecosystems, bad for wildlife, bad for all the non-human inhabitants of the last wild places.

Do we hear about any of this on the influencer feeds in which alleged nature lovers present their putative environmental advocacy? Of course not. Instead we are regaled with images of them glorying in those last wild places and inviting us all to come out and be like them.

The issue here concerns the longstanding game played by self-serving interests that reduce nature to a commodity and that exploit the great American outdoors for private gain. It’s been ongoing since the public lands were first established in the early 20th century, and it shows no sign of abating. Instagram’s public land purveyors are just a new iteration in the monstrous progression of this machine.