A Digital Dilemma for Wild Places

Whether helping or hurting, social media is changing how we experience national parks and the great outdoors

By Tristan Scott
Illustration by Dwayne Harris | Flathead Beacon

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A few hours after Glacier National Park opened its iconic thoroughfare to motorized vehicles last month, a scrum of giggling millennials crowded a scenic overlook along Going-to-the-Sun Road high above the Lake McDonald Valley, hugging and posing and hoisting no fewer than three selfie-sticks over their heads.

As the young visitors snapped competing portraits, their backs turned against Glacier’s peak-studded canvas, a stream of traffic rolled past, a conga line of motorists thrusting iPads and iPhones and GoPros through open windows, training the devices on the eye-popping scenery that streamed by at a steady clip.

It’s become a familiar tableau in popular national parks as the digital age gains purchase in wild places, where hash-tagging has supplanted peak-bagging and seven-second attention spans are bracketed by a landscape that is 170 million years old. Once reserved for members of a generation eager to unplug and divest themselves of society’s technological trappings, national parks now draw a crush of outdoor admirers rearing to capture their experiences on app-heavy electronic platforms while casting themselves in the bright hues of an Instagram filter.

The trend is not lost on park administrators tracking visitor experiences and trying to learn more about the cultural expectations of the shifting demographic.

“The selfie culture has definitely arrived in Glacier National Park,” Superintendent Jeff Mow said. “It is a different user group and at Glacier National Park, we are not used to those people.”

Last summer, for example, staff reports described a trend of visitors to Iceberg Lake swimming out to its namesake ice masses in order to plant a downed Douglas fir for a staged photo. Park staff has found it increasingly difficult to clean the pit toilets at Hidden Lake due to the throngs of visitors using them as changing stations, donning bathing suits and splashing around in the glacially carved pool.

And always, the ubiquitous photo shoots.

“It’s less about sharing the experience with all the other people on the lake. It’s about getting the photo,” Mow said.

Meanwhile, day hikers blast music from portable Bluetooth speakers while others narrate their experience to a GoPro camera for a future audience of social media followers.

Whether or not social media use is helping drive the rise in visitation to national parks, it’s never been easier for visitors to seek out a secret spot — simply click on the geotag attached to a #glaciernationalpark post and let Google Maps show you the way. And as shares of posts increase, so too does the amount of foot traffic to a favorite lake.

Visitors snap selfies at the Oberlin Bend overlook in Glacier National Park. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The public’s infatuation with sharing experiences on social media has also prompted, in some cases, a burgeoning irreverence for park resources, other visitors and wildlife. In one photo of Glacier Park’s Clements Mountain, a spray of wildflowers and delicate flora carpet the foreground as the mountain’s prominent spire dominates the background. Problem is, the photo was taken from an area closed to promote regrowth, even as commenters shared beta about how to access the point.

But as visitors’ experiences and expectations shift, so too has Glacier Park’s grasp of social media’s potential as a tool for education; rather than use the platforms as a marketing device, administrators are promoting leave-no-trace guidelines, sharing information about closures, congestion, delays, and parking difficulty.

“Those are not great marketing terms but that is the reality,” Mow said.

With 680,000 Facebook followers, 625,000 followers on Instagram and 250,000 followers on Twitter, Glacier has made a conscious effort to direct its social media efforts toward education, connecting with a new generation and a changing demographic.

“The Logan Pass parking lot is full as of 9:43 a.m.,” read a July 1 Twitter post informing visitors of the status of one of the park’s most popular sites. Other posts encourage visitors to check out other, less-frequented corners of the park, although even those sites are being hit with added pressure.

Photographer Tony Bynum, president of the Professional Outdoor Media Association and a one-time critic of the park’s approach to social media, said the park’s shift in how it uses social media is a welcome change.

Logan Pass. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

“I think it’s getting better. In the past, when social media was rather new for the park service and other federal agencies, they were really aggressive with trying to promote the parks at any cost,” he said. “Since then, visitation has exploded, and I feel they have improved the way they deliver social media. From what I once thought was irresponsible social media, now I see them including education, conservation messages, scientific information. I think the park is doing a fantastic job now.”

Other social media accounts regularly spring up about Glacier Park, even though they’re not sponsored or monitored by park administrators, making it difficult to control the message from a communications standpoint, according to park spokesperson Lauren Alley.

Rather than attempt to dispel these accounts, Alley said the park’s communications team has tried to lead by example.

“We have the ability to fill a niche and be a leader in some new innovative and informative ways and hopefully others will follow our lead as more social media accounts spring up,” she said. “We would like to generate new ideas about how people can use their accounts. A lot of accounts just cover the scenery, but there is also the informative pieces — trip planning, safety, history, tapping into scientists, teaching behind-the-scenes facts about the park that followers are not getting elsewhere.”

Each week this summer, the park is promoting a new factoid about leave-no-trace principles, whether that means encouraging visitors to stay on trail, explaining why adhering to the guidelines is critical to preserving the park’s resources, or discouraging a discarded orange peel that could change the course of a grizzly bear’s future.

Social media is also helping park managers learn more about visitors in terms of where they want to go and where they are spending time, Mow said.

But it’s also made clear that the type of visitor to Glacier is changing. Whereas Yellowstone historically tends to draw more visitation than Glacier, particularly roadside spectators and Old Faithful faithful-types, Glacier drew a more hearty set.

And yet last July Glacier ushered in more visitors through its gates than Yellowstone.

“That’s pretty off the charts,” Mow said. “I never would have predicted that.”

“We really think the kind of people who are coming to Glacier is starting to change,” he added. “I think Glacier had a certain reputation as not being a place for first timers. We now feel that social media has really changed that and erased that reputation.”

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