Is Geotagging Good or Bad? New Conflict, Old Debate.

With the number of people hiking, camping and climbing in the Colorado mountains exploding, geo-tagging has quickly grown controversial. Many preservation-minded recreationists are convinced that geotagging needs is a harmful practice that needs to end. However, others argue that geotagging makes public lands accessible to those who lack the resources needed to get there otherwise. The debate boils down to a basic question: Do we conserve land for its own protection, or so it can meet our needs? We have a right to visit public land, but do we have the right to know about it?

What exactly is geo-tagging?

Geo-tagging is a process of adding geographical identification data (like GPS coordinates) to various media such as a geotagged photograph or video, usually on social media. It’s particularly popular on instagram, however you can also “Check In” on facebook and many other sites. It allows someone viewing an image to immediately click and identify where it was taken. It’s a very fast way to share locations, since we often don’t provide enough information to identify a location name on our own. Geo-tagging has been responsible for a significant increase in visitor traffic to many natural locations shared on social media, including Horseshoe Bend in Arizona and many others. It almost certainly is playing a role in the explosion of 14er climbers in Colorado.

Is Geotagging good or bad? Yosemite

So what’s the problem with sharing locations?

In itself, more people isn’t a problem – the issue is all the unpleasant side effects we bring with us. Increased traffic from geo-tagging usually catches government agencies and land manager off guard. They are unable to keep up with demand for parking and bathroom facilities, maintain trails that are eroded, or keep people safe from exposure, wildlife and other natural hazards. In short, geo-tagging quickly causes a spike in demand that and impacts that managers cannot mitigate. The result is a greater risk of damage to natural wonders, along with greater danger to human life and safety.

As a result of these many negative impacts, many recreationalists believe geo-tagging must end. The Center for Leave No Trace Ethics, one of the leaders in outdoor ethics nationwide, have added social media considerations including one suggestion to “think before you geo-tag.” While this isn’t an outright condemnation, it’s a significant move towards stigmatizing the act, placing it into the same ethical gray-area as things like campfires and not using a bear bag. Many others are even more stringent, calling for the Center to adopt a total call for an end to geo-tags.

But isn’t accessibility a good thing too?

From the perspective of Leave No Trace ethics alone, geo-tagging is clearly problematic. However from a societal standpoint, there are major accessibility and equity concerns to consider too. Many people lack the time, social connections or resources to do their own research on outdoor opportunities. For a poor single mom, social media be the only way she comes across free or low-cost opportunities to hike for she and her children. Furthermore, greater accessibility to the outdoors helps build greater support for conservation efforts, and promotes democratic ideas around public land. Afterall, our national folk song says “this land is your land, this land is my land…” If we monopolize land through knowledge, and do all we can to restrict that knowledge, are we really honoring the democratic commitment to publicly accessible land?

Indeed, many groups are finding innovative, positive ways to use geo tags for good. Native Outdoors has begun a movement to use geo tags to help identify and share indigenous names and history on the American landscape. The LNT Center adds that social media images can be a powerful tool to share and inspire Leave No Trace principles and practices among the community. While we can’t know the numbers, we also know that thousands of people have experienced their first outdoor adventure thanks to a geo-tag from someone else. These are all positive benefits, which cannot and should not be ignored.

Is Geotagging Good or Bad?
Family hiking at mountain trail with two dogs

Conservation vs. preservation.

The conflict here isn’t new – it’s as old as our public lands. It boils down to whether we prioritize preservation over conservation: Are public lands inherently meant to be conserved so we can use them? Or are they to be preserved for their own good, regardless of what it means for us?

This debate is over 100 years old. A classic example of the conflict involves the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Conservationists wanted to build a damn in the valley to create a reservoir for drinking water to serve urban needs. Preservationists fought the project, arguing that the valley should be protected, even if it was counter to human goals. While the conservationists won and the dam was built, the preservationists succeeded in eventually passing the Wilderness Act. It set aside millions of acres of land, protected from modern technology, and preserved for its own sake. The debate continues, largely unsettled, today.

Those who take a strict “no geo-tag” policy follow the preservationist strain of thought. Whether or not it makes the mountains accessible isn’t important. The key concern is the need to protect the mountains from hordes of uneducated, unprepared urban masses. On the other hand, those who view geo-tagging as appropriate follow the conservation tradition, where conservation is meant to serve human needs. Restricting knowledge of national parks, for example, would protect and preserve them – but it would make them completely useless from a human perspective. In order for conserved public areas to be useful, we must also make knowledge of them public as well.

Is Geotagging good or bad?
The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir today

The LNT Guidelines are a good place to start…

As referenced earlier, the Center for Leave No Trace Ethics has provided a valuable resources to work through the ethical issue of geo-tagging. Instead of taking a hard-stance on the practice either way, they recommend the following actions:

  • Think before you geo-tag: How delicate is the area? What will the impact be? How specific should you tag? Could you tag a general location or include key information on impacts?
  • Be Mindful of What your Images Portray: Are you violating LNT norms in your image? Are you creating unrealistic expectations, or leaving out info on risks and impacts?
  • Shaming is Not the Answer: Everyone’s experience in the outdoors is unique & personal. Bullying or attacking others who have chosen to geo-tag is not helpful or constructive.

What do you think? Is Geotagging Good or Bad? Leave a comment with your thoughts below!

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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