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Controversy Blooms Over Wildflower Geotagging

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(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

A man takes a picture among wildflowers in bloom Monday, March 18, 2019, in Lake Elsinore, Calif. About 150,000 people flocked over the weekend to see this year's rain-fed flaming orange patches of poppies lighting up the hillsides near Lake Elsinore. The crowds became so bad Sunday that Lake Elsinore officials closed access to poppy-blanketed Walker Canyon. By Monday the #poppyshutdown announced by the city on Twitter was over and the road to the canyon was re-opened.

With higher-than-average rainfall this year, Nevada’s 1,500-plus wildflower species are blooming all over the state. 

But along with the spectacular show, there’s some controversy. People taking selfies to share on social media are seen as both a good sign of diversity in the outdoors, and as a hazard to fragile landscapes. 

Janel Johnson is a botanist with the Nevada Natural Heritage Program. She has been researching Nevada's wildflowers for the past 15 years.

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Right now, she said, the desert peach and the bitterbrush are blooming, filling the air with fragrance. 

Johnson and the Nevada Natural Heritage Program want people to enjoy the state's spectacular natural beauty but have seen the consequences of people not being respectful. 

“In certain areas around the larger cities, we do see some problems with heavy use and not the greatest behavior in some of those areas, like illegal dumping and things like tha," she said. "But for the most part, in Nevada, there isn’t a huge population density that you have in some other states so we aren’t seeing quite as many impacts from farther away from town, but we do try to educate visitors to state parks and other places where the state is involved to encourage good behavior."

Johnson has seen what happens when people don't use good judgment.

She said a meadow near a hot spring with a particularly sensitive flower was geotagged, which is the practice of indicating where a picture was taken on a social media post, and not long afterward, the meadow was full of ruts where people had driven through with their trucks or ATVs. 

“The desert is really a sensitive place," she said, "Because we have so little rainfall, a lot of those impacts are visible for years and then it encourages more people to follow in those same disturbances.”

It is exactly that problem that has "Steve," an anonymous Instagrammer who manages the account  Public Lands Hate You, worried.

His account has featured dozens of photos of people damaging sensitive wildflower habitat and public lands. 

“I started it because I, on a personal level, started to notice an increase in abuse to our public lands, be it people carving their names in trees, going off trail, camping where they’re not supposed to camp," he said, "I finally got fed up with seeing that behavior. As a way to vent my frustration, I started to post the things that I was seeing and re-share things that other people were posting that appeared to be harmful to our public lands.”

He said the frustration was building but finally came to a head when he was hiking in Idaho and found an illegal campfire that was not fully extinguished. 

Since his account started to gain followers, his use of it has evolved. It now features a more positive message.

“It is also really important to share those positive stories, be it people engaging in good behavior or people who realize they’ve done something wrong and want to make good on that and do the right thing," he said.

For public lands advocate and social media consultant Katie Boue, the problem is about the bigger picture.  

“Funding is what this all really boils down to for me, funding and infrastructures," she said, "Are we allowing people to go to places that are ready to receive them?”

She said instead of calling out bad behavior on social media accounts, people should be calling their senators and representatives and demanding adequate funding for public lands.

Boue said nationally there is a $12 billion backlog in federal land maintenance and in Nevada, the backlog is $223 million.

"We are simply unable to meet the demands of the people to give these places the infrastructure and the management that they need to be able to sustain the increase in visitorship,” she said.

Boue is also concerned some conservationists are using the debate about geotagging as a way to keep people out of their secret spots or their favorite hiking areas.

If people want to stop the practice as a way to protect delicate lands or archeological sites that is a valid reason, she said, but if not, it is gatekeeping.

Steve's posts have received criticism, including some that his attitude is elitist. He said the criticism has given him a lot to think about but it has not changed his mind on the problems with geotagging. 

“It hasn’t changed my point of view at all about geotagging," he said, "I’m 100 percent against geotagging specific locations on our public lands.”

He said one misguided post can lead to an area being damaged for years, but he also 100 percent for giving information to everyone about how to enjoy our public lands respectfully.

“I think it is very, very important that everyone gets the information that they need to enjoy these public lands responsibly,” he said.

Guests

Janel Johnson, botanist, Nevada Natural Heritage ProgramKatie Boue, Public lands advocate and social media consultant; "Steve," anonymous Public Lands Hate You blogger  

    • "Steve," anonymous Public Lands Hate You blogger  

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