A Conversation With An Instagram Vigilante Trying To Protect Our Public Lands

We’ve all seen it — hell, some of us are guilty of it. We hear word of a beautiful natural phenomenon, like last year’s California Super Bloom, and take to our cars with our cell phones in hand, ready to stomp all over it to get an epic photo so that we can prove how “one with nature” we are. While said photo — assuming it’s lit and edited properly — is sure to garner a lot of likes, it’s often overtly destructive. And if you’re doing it as part of a branded deal for profit, it just might draw the ire of an Instagram account that is steadily gaining in popularity for calling out the harmful ways that opportunistic travelers photobomb our public lands.

The account — @publiclandshateyou — has become a sort of cyber Batman, but instead of busting clowns, the anonymous hero behind the account shines a light on influencers and irresponsible travelers who treat our public lands with disrespect for personal gain and the suspect currency of internet likes. So… clowns of a different ilk, we guess.

Look, we shouldn’t have to tell you that there is a right and wrong way to travel, but in case you’re unaware — there is a right and wrong way to travel! Visiting a public place, following the rules, and respecting the environment as to not degrade the experience for others and damage the surroundings? We’re all for that. Treating a place like your own personal trashcan and playground or acting like you’re above the rules because of your follower count? Not cool. And publiclandshateyou is here to let you know that.

We chatted with the anonymous person behind the account about how we can be better and more responsible travelers, the impact of social media on the travel space, and why his haters are so obsessed with unmasking him. I told him I’d happily refer to him as Batman for the duration of our interview, but he insisted on the more mundane, far less cool moniker “Steve.”

What was the tipping point that caused you to feel like you needed to take matters into your own hands and create this account?

Well, I think it was a build-up, but the final straw was I went for a hike with some friends out in the mountains in Idaho and we just saw one sign of disrespect after another. We saw people shortcutting switchbacks from a trail. We saw campfires that were in no campfire zones. We saw a campfire, in the height of fire season, that hadn’t been properly extinguished, graffiti carved into trees, trash left behind. And on the drive back from that, I was just kind of fuming and stewing about it and said, “Well, I think that a lot of it was due to the exposure of these places on social media.”

In the end, I thought: Why don’t I fight fire with fire? Start a social media account that’s highlighting this and why I personally believe that we’re seeing more and more of this kind of harmful and disrespectful behavior on our public lands.

How big of an impact does doing something like taking photos during a super bloom, for example, have on our public lands?

I think that the biggest impact is that a lot of people don’t understand that they are not the only person that visits these places. The super bloom is a perfect example. One person going and walking off the trail through the super bloom admittedly is not a huge deal on its own. But when that gets compounded by somebody sharing that behavior with 100,000 of their followers on social media, and then even if a 10th of those people show up, now you’d have 10,000 people engaging in that same behavior. And I think that that is really the gist of what gets missed here is that we’re not alone.

We share these public lands and one person doing it, not a big deal, but when everybody is doing it, that’s when it becomes a problem. And the super bloom, honestly, is probably the best example of that — where you have lots and lots of small actions that are adding up to something that causes visible harm. That’s quite disturbing.

What are some of the simplest things that people can do to be better stewards for the environment when they’re in public lands?

I think that the best thing that people could do to prepare is read up on the Leave No Trace Principles, understand them, and I personally believe that the most important principle is the first one, which is “plan ahead and prepare.”

That involves knowing the rules, where you’re going to go, understanding them, understanding why it’s important to follow them. All that information is available online for people to find in advance. And often it’s also available at trailheads on informational signs. So really it’s just taking that five or 10 minutes before going somewhere to understand what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are unacceptable at a certain location.

Could you go over some of the other Leave No Trace Principles?

Yeah, sure. So there’s seven of them and I’ll see if I can name them all off the top of my head here. The first one — you’re putting me to the test.

It was all a set-up to test your knowledge!

The first one is “plan ahead and prepare” like I just shared with you. The second would be “camp on durable surfaces.” So that’s also an important one that also applies to the super bloom. Just continuing to follow those rules, stay on the trails, not trample the vegetation. So then your third one is “dispose of waste properly.” That’s obviously not littering but also pertains to hygiene issues like where you’re going to go to the bathroom and how you’re going to get yourself clean while in the backcountry. Fourth one, “leave what you find.” Don’t pick wildflowers, they’re there for everybody. If everybody picks a flower, there’s none left. Same with historical artifacts and things like that.

The fifth one is about campfire impacts, which basically means use established fire rings when they’re available. Don’t create multiple fire rings, they sterilize the soil, which leaves bare spots. The sixth one is to respect wildlife. That’s another big one that I have seen a lot of on Instagram, people getting too close to animals for the shot. And actually a story just came out from Yellowstone National Park the other day that two wolves were killed by a vehicle and those wolves had been habituated to humans, lost their fear of humans, and were consistently seen too close to humans and too close to the road. And they were actually killed by a vehicle within the last few days. So that was a sad, depressing story.

And then the seventh one, which kind of encompasses everything, “be considerate of others.” Think about others, think about how your actions are going to impact the people who come behind you.

Do you find that there’s an age disparity here? Because if it’s all driven by social media, I would say social media is primarily used by the younger generations. So do you think that age has an effect or do you see people of all ages breaking pretty simple rules when you’re out there?

I think that it’s all ages, but I think it’s in different ways. For example, I would say that the older generation might not treat the land with respect because there weren’t as many people using our public lands 30 years ago and those statistics are very easy to find. Visitation has grown exponentially within the last few decades. So they might think, “Oh, my actions… There’s plenty of public land for everybody, whatever”. Whereas the new generations are engaging in those same behaviors, but doing it for different reasons, which are, “I want to get the best picture and I don’t really care, or I’m not really thinking about how getting that picture can impact the land”.

Do you think Instagram has had any positive effects on the travel space?

That’s a tough one. I do think it has had positive effects. I think for one, more people are visiting our public lands. I think that that’s a good thing. It’s made our public lands more accessible. It’s helped get that information out there. Unfortunately, I think that overall it’s been a negative because the focus on social media, and specifically Instagram, is about sharing the pretty pictures that other people are going to like rather than sharing information about why these areas are as beautiful as they are, and why they’re so special, and why we need to treat them with respect.

So I think that getting more people out there has been great and ultimately will be a good thing. But I think currently a lot of what’s being shared on social media is missing that educational component, which I personally believe is the most important thing that should be shared.

Let’s talk a little bit about the obsession your critics have with unmasking you. Why do you think this is such an important part of the fight against your Instagram account?

I really don’t know. I guess that the reason is that a lot of these influencers feel threatened by the account. These large influencers, with hundreds of thousands of followers, haven’t really had anybody holding them accountable. So what the Public Lands Hate You account has done is it has aggregated all of those people who want to hold others accountable into one spot. And that collective voice is now large enough to start holding these influencers accountable. And as we’ve seen, a number of influencers have lost sponsorships, which translates to money in their wallets.

And I understand that stings and I understand why they want to have the account shut down.

I don’t necessarily understand their obsession with finding the one individual behind the account. Ultimately, I don’t think that that’s going to accomplish anything for them, but more power to them. As I’m sure you saw, they thought that they found who it was within the last two days. They were sorely wrong. They still haven’t admitted that they were wrong but I think that they’re wasting their time.

But Hey, if they want to spend their time doing that instead of researching rules on public lands so that they can be better influencers, well that says more about them than it does me.

What would you say the ratio is between people who have a negative response to the criticism and those who take it as an opportunity to learn?

It’s a curve. And what I’ve found is that the smaller the account is, the more willing people are to listen to criticism. And I’m saying when I make that criticism in private in messages where nobody can see it. You saw the story that I shared that showed a mature response from somebody where I privately called them out for their behavior. I see that a lot more in the smaller accounts. The larger the account is, the more likely I’ve found that it is that I will be blocked or be told to go F myself. And I believe that that’s because these influencers know they have something to lose. And a lot of the times it’s because I’m calling out an ad that they’ve been paid for and they don’t want to lose that ad revenue and I get that. I really do.

But, they shouldn’t be sharing stuff like that. And when they do, they’ve got to understand they’ve got to step up and own their mistake. And I’m all about that. I’m okay with mistakes, just own them and share educational information with others so that they don’t make the same mistake.

To answer your question more directly, I would say that for larger influencers, we’ll say that with accounts over 10,000 people, I would say positive responses are maybe 20% of them. The other 80% generally will try and sweep it the rug and pretend it never happened.

What has surprised you the most since creating the account?

Aside from the number of people who feel the same way I do, the level of entitlement that a lot of these large influencers feel has probably been the biggest surprise. I had no idea that some people would, especially people who are making their living on public lands and sharing pictures of our public lands, could have this public face where they pretend or they seem to care so much about the land, but then when they’re called out for doing something harmful, they choose to ignore it and continue engaging in that behavior because it’s good for the likes and it’s good for their follower count. So for me, that’s been most surprising and… at the same time… most depressing.

Why do you think it’s everybody’s personal responsibility to better treat the environment?

I think it’s everybody’s responsibility because it’s everybody’s land. It’s public land. They’re there for everybody from all backgrounds to enjoy. And I don’t believe that a small number of people who are making a living off of public lands should be allowed to disburse false and harmful information to literally millions of people every day because that collective impact impacts everybody’s ability to go and enjoy our public lands.

When I have a day off, I want to be able to go on a hike and not see trash and not see trampled meadows. I want to be able to enjoy it without having to see that kind of harmful behavior.

You’ve been to almost every US National Park. Which is your favorite and why?

Oh boy, you’re going to make me play favorites, huh?

If you forced me to pick one favorite, I would probably go with Redwoods. And the reason for that is that I just find those trees to be so majestic, the setting to be so quiet and calming. And you can just walk through these redwood groves and just look at these trees and know, “Wow, these trees have been here for a thousand years. They’ve been here way longer than I’ve been here. They’re going to be here way after I’m dust in the ground”.

And for me, that really is a relaxing place and also really drives the point home of why we need to respect these places because they’re not just here for us now. They’re here for our children and our children’s children to enjoy and preserving them should really be of the utmost importance.