It’s an interesting time for America’s National Parks. Tourism is on the rise worldwide, and the National Parks in particular are getting a bit overcrowded. For years, our impulsive response has been to see tourism growth as a good thing — tourism creates a lot of jobs, it’s educational, it favors experiences over things, it breaks down cultural barriers, and so on. But tourists can do a lot of damage to the sites they visit.
Even aside from the occasional jackass who breaks a priceless statue while trying to take a selfie, simply going to certain places can be a problem when there are thousands or millions of other people going there, too. Machu Picchu has famously shown signs of wear and tear due to the sheer number of travelers that have been visiting it in recent decades.
On top of this, popular photo locations on Instagram are feeling the stress of mass tourism. Horseshoe Bend, a famous attraction in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, has gone from 1,000 visitors a year to 4,000 a day in half a decade, thanks to this view:
It is undoubtedly a good thing that so many people are out there enjoying America’s natural wonders. But the reason that the Parks were founded in the first place was to protect them for all posterity. And our descendants aren’t going to be able to enjoy their parks if we trample them in an Instagram-fueled frenzy. So here is a brief guide to what you can do to protect the parks while you visit them.
1. Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
This is the perennial rule of the outdoors — try to leave the place you’re visiting exactly as you found it. Take as many photos as you like, but do not take any part of the landscape home with you as a souvenir. You aren’t going to do anything with that cool rock, and no one wants to see your name carved into that ancient tree.
2. Get creative with your selfies.
Part of the issue in the parks is not just that they’re overcrowded — it’s that every person visiting wants to snap a picture of the exact same thing. This means that the popular sites in particular will need to have parking lots and bathrooms and lodges built nearby to deal with the sheer mass of humanity converging on them.
So instead of getting the selfie by Horseshoe Bend or in front of Old Faithful, try and find a new, relatively untouched place to take your picture. Forego the big attractions: anyone who has ever seen the Mona Lisa knows that just because a bunch of other people have seen something does not mean it’s the most impressive thing there, and that there are often beautiful, underrated attractions just around the corner. Find those undiscovered nooks. Look at the parks as a place for discovery, not just as a place for rote consumption.
3. Take your trash out with you.
This goes beyond simple littering — obviously, it’s a dick move to leave a pile of garbage at your campsite, but it also puts stress on the park system to leave all of your trash in the provided trash cans. Because a lot of these locations are very far from the nearest landfill, it takes a lot of effort to cart garbage out of the parks and back into civilization.
So, if you can, take the garbage that you accumulated during your trip and bring it back out into the civilized world to dump it there. Some of the major parks are making an attempt to become “Zero Landfill” attractions (which means they recycle and compost as much as they can and, hopefully, throw nothing away), but they could use help from their visitors.
4. For the love of god, stay away from the animals.
The animals — even the cuddly ones — can seriously hurt you. Or you can seriously hurt them. Do not pet them. Do not feed them. Do not interfere with their life at all. Do not try to get close to them to take pictures. If you want up-close photos, buy a telephoto lens.
5. The posted rules apply to you. Follow them.
When you go to a park, you need to familiarize yourself with the rules and follow them. They are not arbitrary, they are not the “man” trying to tell you what to do. They are not only for your protection but the protection of the nature around you. And while you have every right to be a jackass and put yourself in danger, you do not have every right to destroy the nature that you’re visiting.
So stay on the trails. Stay the appropriate distance from wildlife. Do not go places you do not have a permit for. And, perhaps most importantly:
6. Do. Not. Start. Fires.
Unless you are explicitly allowed to have a fire, and are having it in a contained and legal setting, you are possibly putting millions of acres of parks (not to mention homes and property) at risk.
You don’t want a death on your conscience. You do not want the destruction of nature on your conscience. Be cool. Do not start a fire. Put out your cigarette butts in an ashtray.
7. If you’re posting to social media, avoid geotagging.
If you’re a particularly good photographer and you have an Instagram following, consider turning off the geotag function. This lets people enjoy your image, but makes it harder for them to go the exact location to attempt to replicate it. The “viral” effect is what is particularly harmful to these places. Consider it a testament to your skill that you have to hide your spots from your legions of adoring fans.
8. Support legislation that protects our Parks.
Ultimately, what’s causing harm to our parks is not just the actions of specific people, but the actions of masses of people. In a large enough group, there will always be assholes and rulebreakers, so the real fix to this is not to simply be good and hope everyone else is as well — it’s to support legitimate regulations in the parks.
As it is, the parks are often underfunded and understaffed. Park Rangers do their best, but if there’s just a handful of them and millions visiting the parks, they’re just not going to be able to be everywhere at once. So what’s needed is more funding, more staff, and better policies. Give a call to your Federal Representatives, find out what they’re doing for the parks and for conservation in general, and ask how you can help. This is not going to get fixed by a single person — we’re going to have to work as a team.