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.”

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Public lands are for everyone to enjoy, regardless of skill level. We were ALL beginners at some point. ⁣ ⁣ Historically, many people gained exposure to the outdoors through group hikes organized by local shops, trail clubs, or conservation organizations that were led by knowledgeable leaders. Today, Facebook groups and sites like “Meetup” have put a new age spin on group hikes, allowing anyone to organize an event and invite thousands of people with a few keystrokes.⁣ ⁣ I’ve run across a number of these large groups on hikes, as I know many of you probably have. The organizers of these events likely have the best of intentions, but good intentions do not always equal a positive outcome.⁣ ⁣ Large groups are not inherently bad. The issue arises when these groups exceed group size limits, ignore LNT principles, and disregard basic trail etiquette. These groups are often observed barging past other users, walking side by side on narrow trails to hold conversations, and trampling vegetation at viewpoints to fit a large number of people into pictures.⁣ ⁣ A quick perusal of hiking Meetup groups shows 100's of photos of people in these groups engaging in less than Leave No Trace behavior on group hikes, making it clear that many group leaders are not making a serious effort to educate attendees. ⁣ ⁣ Don’t get me wrong, more people being exposed to and enjoying our public lands is a GOOD thing! Every person who uses and appreciates our public lands is one more person who will understand the value of public lands and work to help protect them. However, if the people participating these group hikes are not getting the information required to be good stewards, the result is counterproductive.⁣ ⁣ Shared space means shared responsibility. All public land users have an obligation to educate themselves and others about how to treat our public lands with respect. Leaders of group hikes, particularly those that are introducing new users, have a further duty to educate about respectful, low impact behavior. Discussing and incorporating the Leave No Trace principles early, often, and consistently while using public lands is an excellent way to convey these critical skills.

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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.

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Naked in nature.  What's not to love?  There's something to be said for prancing around acting like you're the first person to walk the face of the planet, with not a stitch of clothing to hide your skin from the blazing sunshine and refreshing breeze. . Except you're not alone. You share this planet with 7 billion other people and countless other living creatures and plants. If we all did whatever we wanted without regard for anyone or anything else, where would we be?  What would this planet look like? . Going a few inches further off trail than the person before you might not seem like a big deal on an individual scale. And I suppose its not. But if everyone had that attitude, if every single person decided to go just a litttttttle bit further than the last person for that "untouched" background, it becomes a big problem. The behavior and damage we've seen at Walker Canyon (and other poppy fields) is a direct manifestation of that "just a little bit more" attitude. . Walker Canyon is a prime example of huge masses of people making bad choices that, on an individual scale, appear to have no impact. But added up, those hundreds of thousands of poor choices DO have an impact. We've all seen the pictures. And it's not pretty. . . Sure, there are bigger issues than people crushing a couple wildflowers to get pictures to share with people they don't even know on the internet. Pollution, over consumption, micro-plastics in drinking water, oil spills, deforestation, and extinction of entire species are some issues that immediately come to mind. But is it too much to believe that if people turned their small negative impacts into small positive ones that we could make a difference for the better? Good behavior spreads just as bad behavior does. It just takes a few people who are willing to speak up and thoughtfully educate those who might not know any better. Some might not be open to being told their actions are destructive.  That just means the rest of us need to step up our game to compensate. . #walkercanyon #knowledgeispower #ignoranceisnotbliss #lakeelsinore #publiclands #saveourpubliclands #saveourplanet #education #planetearth #selfish #publiclandshateyou

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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.

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Leave No Trace Principle #4 – Leave What You Find⁣ ⁣ Most of us learned in grade school that we shouldn’t take things that don’t belong to us and that if we do use something that isn't ours we should return it in the same (or better) condition than we received it. That lesson applies on our public lands as well, where plants, rocks, archaeological artifacts, and other items of interest should be left as they are found.⁣ ⁣ Trees and plants should be left unmolested. That means no carving into tree trunks, picking wildflowers, or nailing things into living plants. If you use a hammock, pick mature trees with thick bark to hang from, and be sure to use tree protectors. A 1” piece of webbing is not sufficient.⁣ ⁣ Although tempting to take a rock, sand, or a deer antler home with you from our public lands as a memory, please leave them for others to experience. If you see something interesting, take a picture and share it with your friends rather than hoarding it for yourself. In National Parks and on many other public lands it is illegal to remove natural objects, including cultural artifacts like pot shards and arrowheads which are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.⁣ ⁣ If a site requires alterations for an activity such as camping, those alterations should be minimal and reversible. Moving pine cones and branches to clear a site is fine as they can be replaced when you leave, but using a shovel to level a site and dig drainage ditches is frowned upon. Good campsites are found, not made, so if a site doesn’t suit your needs, continue exploring.⁣ ⁣ Taking one rock, some sand, or picking a few wildflowers may not seem like a big deal, and on an individual level it is not. But imagine if all 330,000,000 visitors to our National Parks last year removed a rock or wildflowers. That IS an impact. So do your part and leave our public lands as you found them. ⁣ ⁣ And this should go without saying, but leaving what you find means leaving it in the same condition you found it. Carving initials into trees, spray painting rocks, throwing holi powder everywhere, and building frivolous cairns damages our public lands and detracts from others experiences.

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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.

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Instagram has been called “the friendliest social network ever”, and I think that accounts on this platform are accustomed to being able to post whatever they want without any critical feedback. The prettier the picture the better, no matter what laws/rules had to be broken to create it. The few people who are willing to voice their critical feedback are usually ignored, told they are just being negative, or that they need to stop policing “art”. . If you think adults deserve to be coddled, to have their hands held, or should be ignored when they repeatedly lie and break the law, there are plenty of accounts you can follow that conform to the status quo and take that approach. @publiclandshateyou isn’t one of those accounts. I call it like I see it. Is the approach here salty, sarcastic, and snarky? Yes. Is it effective? Yes, I think it is. I understand that no one is perfect. People screw up. I screw up. And that’s ok. Life is a learning process, however when the response to a harmful mistake is excuses, ignorance, and lying rather than learning and growth, there needs to be a level of accountability. Unfortunately, IG & FB have decided that preservation of our environment is not a priority and have chosen not to provide a way to report illegal/harmful actions on our public lands. That leaves it up to us, the peers of people who post harmful actions, to voice our opinions and make it known that we don’t support illegal and harmful actions on our public lands. The goal isn’t to bully, insult, or make people feel bad, but to show with polite and educational dialogue that we don’t support illegal and harmful behavior on our public lands. The goal is to change the social norms around what is acceptable on our public lands, and that change requires a lot of voices. Change never happens by following the status quo. People have to get out there and stick their heads out. Is that going to make some people uncomfortable? Yes. But our public lands don’t have their own voice, so that means people like you and I need to step up and be that voice, speak out for what we believe in. No one is going to do it for you and our public lands are not going to protect themselves.

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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.

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Despite what many people seem to think, I do enjoy seeing people use our public lands.  It’s not my goal to keep people away from our parks, forests and waterways, but rather to encourage people to use these places wisely to relax, explore, learn, and reconnect with our natural world in a responsible way. With that in mind, tomorrow is 4/20, and that means its time to… . Go visit your favorite National Park Service unit for free!!!! . What did you think I was going to say? 🤣🤣 . That’s right, in honor of the start of National Park Week all of the 419 National Park Units are free tomorrow, Saturday 4/20!  That includes the 112 units that normally charge a fee! That’s right, all National Parks, Monuments, Preserves, Historic Parks, Battlefields, Memorials, Recreation Areas, Seashores, Lakeshores, other sites managed by the National Park Service are free. The vast majority of people in America live within a three hour drive of one of these sites, so I encourage you to get out there and check one of them out.  The map in the third photo shows the distance to many of these sites.  The map is 7 years old, so only 349 of the current 419 parks are represented, but you get the idea.  There are plenty of options and there is sure to be a park that has something of interest to everyone! Get out there and visit these national treasures but please do a little research before you go.  Are pets allowed?  Are certain areas closed this time of year? Do certain trails require permits?  And if it’s been a while since you’ve visited one of these places, brush up on the seven Leave No Trace principles as well. 1. Plan Ahead and Prepare 2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces 3. Dispose of Waste Properly 4. Leave What You Find 5. Minimize Campfire Impacts  6. Respect Wildlife 7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors If during your travels you see people breaking the rules or the LNT principles, feel free to speak up and say something.  Not everyone knows how to act responsibly, and a friendly reminder and education can go a long way towards protecting our public lands and getting people to think more about the impact of their actions! #leavenotrace #nationalparkweek

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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.

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Leave No Trace Principle #8 – Share Responsibly⁣ ⁣ I’ve personally adopted this 8th principle, and I encourage you to adopt it as well. Social media is creating new ways to share and celebrate our public lands, but reckless and irresponsible sharing can and IS having a tangible negative impact.⁣ ⁣ Sharing responsibly means think about WHAT, WHY, and WHERE you’re sharing.⁣ ⁣ WHAT – Are you sharing content clearly showing behavior that is responsible and legal? Use of Photoshop and “camera angles” to hide the truth and make your content appear to be something it’s not gives others the wrong idea about what’s acceptable on our public lands. If pets are required to be on a leash, why Photoshop out the leash and send the message that off leash pets are allowed?⁣ ⁣ WHY – Are you sharing because you love a place and want to share information about that place to encourage others to visit, enjoy, and preserve it? Or are you sharing exclusively because it’s a pretty, eye catching location that will get more people to enter a contest?⁣ ⁣ WHERE – Are you sharing a location that can handle a potential influx of visitors if your content goes viral? Norris Geyser Basin in YNP is equipped with boardwalks, signage, and staff to help prevent resource destruction from huge quantities of visitors. A remote hot spring in a wilderness area? Not so much.⁣ ⁣ If you feel the need to geotag a location, PLEASE consider the three W’s. Geotagging gives everyone the EXACT location of a natural feature without any relevant context or information. Would you give the keys to a Ferrari to someone who has never driven a car before? No? Then why would you give the exact location of an environmentally sensitive area to someone who may not have the necessary experience or knowledge to safely visit that area and treat it with care and respect?⁣ ⁣ If you do want to geotag a location on your public lands, consider tagging the local visitors center or ranger station, where others can get all the information they need to visit safely and responsibly!⁣ ⁣ So share your favorite public lands! They belong to YOU! But please remember, what you share on social media CAN have impacts in the “real” world. #lnt

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