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How social media is impacting our public lands, for better and worse

Trails may not be ready for increase in visitors chasing that perfect photo
A group of friends from across the United States makes their way down Horse Gulch Trail on Thursday. Group members said they found the trail using a trail app during their visit to Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Trails in the San Juan National Forest that were once word-of-mouth destinations between locals and hikers are now shared worldwide thanks to social media.

After seeing photos of sites like the crystal blue pools of Ice Lakes and the winding white waters and falls of Cascade Creek, it is no wonder outdoor enthusiasts want to capture and share their own moments on social media platforms.

“We’re not saying don’t post about it, but it does have an effect where it invites more use that the sites might not be ready for,” said Jonathan Erickson, recreation manager for the San Juan National Forest. “I don’t think anybody really knows what to do about that.”

Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics devised a list of best practices for posting and tagging pictures of photos from public lands trails in 2019. The list urges people who post to consider including a message of stewardship, think and research before geo-tagging an area, be mindful of what’s portrayed in posted images, volunteer at the places they enjoy, and educate others online instead of shaming.

A group of hikers make their way up Animas Mountain Trail on Thursday in Durango. Social media can lead to overuse of some trails and outdoor destinations, but it can also be used to educate backcountry users about how to be good stewards of the land. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“Leave No Trace did a really nice job advocating for best practices for anyone who’s going to go out and spend time on public lands,” Erickson said. “They’ve struck a nice balance in helping people post their content, but also recommend practices to help moderate the attention that tagging or geo-tagging can cause.”

Ice Lakes Trailhead does not have the proper facilities to accommodate the large number of people who have been visiting it in San Juan County.

“There’s no bathrooms, or parking controls, or barriers. Nothing to accommodate the amount of use that site is currently getting,” Erickson said.

Erickson likened the increase in traffic at Ice Lakes to a previous job he had working with the Forest Service in Oregon, where his office did a study on visitors to Blue Pool at Tamolitch Falls in the Willamette National Forest.

In the study, Erickson said he and his colleagues traced back social media posts about Blue Pool to 2010 when the site saw about six to 12 cars a day.

“On quiet days you might not see anybody there,” Erickson said.

From 2010 on, social media posts about Blue Pool snowballed and Erikcson said by 2013 the district was reporting 150 to 215 vehicles per day.

“The destination wasn’t developed or engineered to handle that kind of use,” Erickson said. “We wanted to show that there was a drive just through social media posting that resulted in this new kind of use condition that was developing at the site.”

Cindy Dunbar, front, Shawna Off, center, and Linda Bunk all from Durango, hike down Animas Mountain Trail on Thursday in Durango. Group members, who are regular hikers, said they have noticed fewer people on the trails this year than last year, but also noted that trailhead parking remains a problem. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Erickson said no studies have been done to develop the same sort of social media timeline in the San Juan National Forest on Ice Lakes, but he believes social media results are similar.

In areas that experience sudden increases in recreation, Erickson said the Forest Service identifies small things that can be done to immediately help deal with larger crowds.

“The way that we respond to it is that we try to do all the low-hanging fruit first,” Erickson said. “Try to get in some parking controls, emphasize some staffing there.”

Columbine Ranger District has begun investing in an environmental analysis for Ice Lakes to determine what priority projects need to be completed to alleviate the impacts of increased traffic.

“I think it’s wonderful that the Columbine Ranger District is trying to address this,” Erickson said. “They really want to take their time and deliver a quality product though, because it’s not just about parking.”

The Hermosa Creek Special Management Area saw a large increase in traffic during 2020, Erickson said, but has seemed to level out in 2021.

Erickson said the U.S. Department of the Interior has done several of studies based on the number of interactions with groups or other individuals while on public lands, and have found that a positive recreation experience is extremely subjective.

“A lot of what the Department of the Interior research shows is that there is really a wide spectrum of tolerances out there before an individual may report a decline in the quality of their recreation experience,” Erickson said.

Some people associate a larger number of interactions with a sense of safety, while others choose to recreate on public lands specifically for solitude.

“Back at Yosemite, the Park Service did a survey on recreation quality experience. ... What they found was that the population of people accessing a highly developed recreation site had a tolerance of about 40 encounters before they had their experience severely impaired.” Erickson said. “On days where we have hundreds of visitors up at Ice Lakes, we’re clearly exceeding that threshold the Park Service identified. ... If we’re way beyond 40 encounters, I think we’re well justified in trying to figure out how to respond.”

Erickson said responding to high foot traffic must be thoughtful when considering how to be inclusive to diverse groups of people.

“Different people experience our public landscapes in different ways,” Erickson said. “The job gets tricky trying to create an environment with high-quality recreation that also feels safe and inviting to anybody that wants to come visit.”

Noticeable impacts include trails being widened, new user trails and trail braiding. Trail braiding occurs when multiple trail alignments start to form through repeated use.

The Forest Service has the National Visitor Use Monitoring Program that aims to produce estimates of the volume of recreation visitation to national forests and grasslands. NVUM also records information about visitations, including activity participation, demographics, visit duration, measures of satisfaction and how much money visitors spend.

NVUM statistics show a significant spike in trips to public lands in 2020 that coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of recorded visitors to public lands in 2020 was up by 18 million from 2019, with a total of 168 million. NVUM began recording visitor data in 2005. Visitations numbers stayed between 140 million and 150 million until the spike in 2020. Numbers for 2021 have not yet been reported.


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