Commentary: Do social media threaten our special places?

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Capital News Service

LANSING — When I felt sand beneath my hiking boots, I knew I was close.

My excitement grew as I envisioned the sapphire gleam of Lake Michigan stretching peacefully into the horizon.

As it turned out, what awaited me was a bit different.

As I crested the hill, moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, toddlers, teenagers, twice-removed cousins — basically whole family generations — were taking in a view that could barely be seen.

I imagined people taking selfies, running past signs that say the trail is behind them and practically holding the sign that reads “don’t go down the dunes” above their heads and cracking it on their kneecap.

Visitors taking in the view of Lake Michigan

Rayna Skiva

Visitors taking in the view of Lake Michigan

The scene was reminiscent of the moment right after a beehive falls out of a tree.

As I observed the family reunions, I thought, “Where did all of these people come from?” 

It reminded me of a debate on social media about the harm of disclosing favorite hiking locations.

Does sharing these locations cause more harm than good?

There is a lot to consider, said Elizabeth Perry, an assistant professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University.

There are three focus areas in park research: the environment, the social experience and management, she said. Each area can be impacted differently by crowding.

“When we have higher levels of use, we can generally expect higher levels of impact,” Perry said.

Some parks can handle lots of use, she said, citing the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

It has substantial sidewalks, parking and signs that explain how to take care of the environment, Perry said. A remote park like Isle Royale in Lake Superior is more sensitive to an influx in visitors because it’s not as developed as other parks.

And high levels of use can have positive impacts too, she said.

“High levels of use might make some people feel safer in a park.”

More people add to the social setting as well. Knowing that others around you are enjoying what you are enjoying can elevate your experience, she said.

“You don’t want to show up to a party by yourself. You want a few other people to enhance the social experience,” Perry said.

Ultimately, the hope is that people are thinking about how their visitation or lives outside of the park affect our resources, she said.

“Our hope would be that they are thinking about how to be better stewards of these places,” Perry said.

When sharing hiking locations on social media, it’s important to think beyond the caption.

“Embed in it some information that can help somebody not only have a positive visitor experience, but that can also help out to make sure there’s no negative impacts to the resource,” Perry said. People should promote ethics of care.

So the next time you find yourself at a park, set your phone down.

Read the dune signs that warn of getting stuck and paying a hefty fine.

And when you pick your phone back up to post a picture showing off the rolling dunes in the distance, make sure you include ways to respect that area as well.

Rayna Skiver is a reporter for Great Lakes Echo.