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The 'Instagram Effect' Is Shaking Up Public Lands And National Parks

A young woman struck a yoga pose in front of Mesa Arch at Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah on May 4, 2019.
Kirk D. Keyes, Keyesphoto.com copyright 2019
A young woman struck a yoga pose in front of Mesa Arch at Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah on May 4, 2019.

CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK, UTAH — The dark blue, predawn sky was just beginning to brighten over Mesa Arch — a once-hidden gem in southern Utah — as Jonathan Zhang frantically set up his camera and tripod.

The Los Angeles tourist wanted to get the perfect shot of the sun rising over deep, tan canyons and red rock spires, framed by the glowing, orange arch. But he had to squeeze through throngs of other photographers and smartphone-wielding tourists to do so, nearly 50 people total.

There was an Italian man with long, brown hair sitting next to a time-lapse camera rig. A bearded, college-aged man was FaceTiming the sunrise for his friend.The busy scene was not how it looked when Zhang first came here a decade ago.

“There were only two or three guys,” he said. “But now it’s like, every morning it’s crowded.”

Credit Screenshot | Instagram

That’s because Mesa Arch has joined the growing ranks of places in the United States that have become #Instafamous. The landmark first gained popularity in 2010 after Microsoft used a picture of the sunrise there as one of its default backgrounds for its Windows 7 operating system.

The sandstone formation has since caught on in social media and has been tagged on Instagram more than 25,000 times. But the growing crowds at Mesa Arch aren’t an isolated phenomenon. All across the country, more people are flocking to national parks and public lands with smartphones in their hands.

Horseshoe Bend in northern Arizona, for example, was once a sleepy, locals-only pitstop on the side of a highway until someone took a beautiful photo of the Colorado River there and posted it to Instagram.

Now around 2,800 people visit the landmark every day, according to data from the National Park Service. Across that agency’s eight-state intermountain region, visitation to national parks and recreation areas has increased by 37 percent since Instagram was first founded in 2010.

But is social media solely to blame for the big crowds at national parks and public lands? The evidence is anecdotal.

“There hasn’t been a study done yet, that’s been published, that’s been able to show a direct cause and effect,” said Ashley D’Antonio, a recreation ecologist and associate professor at Oregon State University.

Around 50 tourists and photographers were huddled near Mesa Arch to catch a glimpse of the sunrise on Saturday, May 4, 2019.
Credit Nate Hegyi / KUER
Around 50 tourists and photographers were huddled near Mesa Arch to catch a glimpse of the sunrise on Saturday, May 4, 2019.

A strong U.S. economy and low gas prices are more probable drivers for increased visitation than social media, according to D’Antonio, though she acknowledged that many of these new tourists are sharing photos on Instagram and Facebook. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she argued.

Credit Screenshot | Instagram

The National Park Service and other groups, for example, have been using social media to try and diversify the kinds of visitors who travel to places like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon.

“Most of the visitors to our parks and protected areas are upper middle class, white and slightly older,” Ashley D’Antonio, a recreation ecologist at Oregon State University, said. “There’s been a lot of groups that use social media to get more people of color, or people that aren’t traditionally seen in our protected areas, out promoting and saying that this is a space for you, too.”

Still, growing crowds of smartphone toting tourists means long lines, traffic jams and, in rare cases, even injuries and fatalities.

In 2018, a California woman fell to her death at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan while trying to take a selfie. Similar incidents have happened at Grand Canyon and Yosemite national parks. At Yellowstone National Park, a woman was gored by a bison while attempting to get a selfie with the wild animal in 2015.

Park officials there have now instituted a voluntary safety pledge visitors can take that includes a warning on selfies.

“No picture is worth hurting yourself, others, or the park,” the pledge states. “Be aware of your surroundings whether near wildlife, thermal areas, roads or steep cliffs.”

No one has fallen to their deaths at Mesa Arch yet. But as the landmark has become more popular with the selfie-taking crowd, tensions are brewing between tourists and serious photographers such as Drew Armstrong and his two friends. They watched as a young woman struck a yoga pose in front of the arch.

“It’s frustrating when they want to get a shot with their Lululemon pants because they’re wearing Lululemon pants,” Armstrong said. “I want them to be here and say, ‘You know, this is important. This needs to be protected.’”

Credit Screenshot | Instagram

Armstrong and his two friends believed that, in the rush to take selfies and post them to the internet, people are missing out on what makes national parks and public lands so amazing in the first place.

“Solitude, peaceful moments, and nature,” said Neale Zingle, Armstrong’s friend. “We’re so focused on saying ‘We were there.’ So focused on having that information that people think you can capture on a snapshot. But you can’t do that. You have to take the time to experience it. It’s sort of an old-fashioned approach. But there’s no shortcut.”

Zingle and his friends have been taking photographs around Canyonlands National Park for the past three decades. This new breed of “selfie tourist” appeared to get under their skin. But it didn’t seem to bother Los Angeles photographer Jonathan Zhang too much. He was finishing a time lapse of the sun rise over Mesa Arch.

“I think it’s getting crowded,” he said. “But you can’t really prevent people from coming. It’s public land. They have a right to see these things too.”

As the sun climbed above the arch and the day became warmer, the big crowds aiming to get their perfect shot began to dwindle. Eventually no one was left. The Instagram moment was over — at least until the next sunrise. This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Copyright 2020 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.

Nate Hegyi is a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau based at Yellowstone Public Radio.
Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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