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Is social media ruining the great outdoors?

By David Ramsey • Jun 23, 2019 at 12:00 AM

It's 5 a.m. as I make the final ascent toward a well-known mountain summit in the Roan Highlands, visualizing different compositions for a photograph I want to take. It's still pretty dark, and though distracted by my thoughts of creating a great landscape image for a conservation related project, I try to choose my steps carefully on the wet, rocky trail. Finally I reach the top and see the first hint of sky color on the far horizon. My anticipation builds quickly as I head across the meadow to the place where I plan to shoot.

When I get to my spot, any hope of capturing the scene I've envisioned of a stunning Blue Ridge sunrise, with a very rare species of wildflowers in the foreground, suddenly vanishes like a wisp of mountain mist. The endangered Gray's lilies (Lilium grayi), which I hoped to frame against the pale blue mountains and now pink-orange sky, have been pretty much destroyed, most of them lying flattened or broken and pointing in every direction like slaughtered little soldiers on a miniature battlefield. Likely the aftermath, I suspect, of a thoughtless Instagram junkie (or a small herd of them) who beat me here, got their quick "See how cool I look up here in the middle of all these cool little flowers in this cool place I found!" selfie fix and moved on, leaving behind not just a "trace," but their personal contribution to a fast-spreading form of serious ecological damage.

Okay — before my botanist and naturalist friends rise up in arms — the event described above is fictional. I used it as a highly plausible example of a very real and disastrous trend that is affecting environmentally sensitive places and plant and animal populations throughout the entire world. It's the Instagram-Snapchat-facebook selfie epidemic, and it hasn't spared the Mountain South.

Selfie junkies are leaving established mountain trails, trampling sensitive terrain and damaging fragile plant and animal habitats at an alarming rate. Their Instagram and Snapchat postings prompt other people to go ever farther off trail, even into closed habitat, to get the shots they think no one else has. It's pretty evident now that it's not even about photography; it's about one-upping friends and other selfie chasers and creating a digitized illusion of cool or adventure.

This year, in one of the most incredible examples to date, the selfie epidemic hit the State of California hard, as its extraordinary wild poppy "super bloom" led to what some termed a "selfie apocalypse." Throngs of tourists and selfie junkies jammed the freeways and access roads and hit the poppy fields, crushing the flowers under their bodies for Instagram selfies, creating crisscrossed trails in restricted zones and trampling whole areas. One couple landed a helicopter in a protected field and then quickly flew away when security personnel approached.

Selfie seekers in Canada are even damaging fragile and highly valuable sunflower fields. One farmer cited 40 cars parked at the edge of his field on a recent Sunday. In addition to the damage they cause moving through the fields, many of the trespassers are taking the sunflower heads with them when they leave, a practice that is also common here in the mountains among wildflower selfie seekers.

Not only is the natural environment heavily impacted from the social media craze, so are the outdoor Instagrammers and Snapchatters themselves — sometimes literally. More and more we hear about individuals who have died attempting to take a selfie on the edge of a high structure, cliff or waterfall. In our parks, fools with phone cameras are posing near bears, sidling up to rutting elk and copping profile pics with one-ton bison bulls.

According to USA Today, in a recent six-year period there were more than 250 selfie related deaths. An MIT report states that three out of four of those victims were men under the age of 30 years old. In 2015 there were more selfie deaths than deaths from shark attacks, the report cited. Selfie deaths have been caused by lightning striking the metal selfie stick; a walrus attack; posing with a live grenade; being hit by a train; being gored by a bull; posing while flying a small plane; diving from cliffs and bridges and the list goes on.

There's a big difference between most avid nature photographers and commonly compulsive selfie seekers. The average outdoor photographer is typically in awe of the natural world, greatly respects it and wants to capture its wonder in a photo without harming it. Selfie seekers are often more in awe of themselves and want to show others how daring or cool or beautiful they look in a certain natural setting. Simply put, they're pretending to be cool models in cool outdoor places, often at the expense of those same places. Sorry — but that just ain't cool.


David A. Ramsey is a regionally and nationally recognized outdoor photographer and writer from Unicoi, TN. His recently released book, Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild, is available at Mahoney's in Johnson City and online at www.ramseyphotos.com

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