Nature Interrupted: How Modern Exploration Can Hurt our National Parks

The preservation of our national parks is taking a back seat to social media selfies and self-serving exploration.

By: Jacalyn Beales

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The first time you traipse to the peak of a mountain overlooking a vast, teal-blue lake spanned by miles of lush evergreens and pristine shorelines is a memory you never quite forget. There's something inherently rewarding about taking your first breath of mountain air as you drop your pack and rest your tired legs after a long, seemingly unending hike to the top. People make careers out of chasing mountains and trekking impossible trails - but here you are, the morning's first witness to the peaceful calm that comes with seeing nature and wilderness uninterrupted. There are no tourists where you are; no loud camera-clicks, no "ooohs" and "ahhs," no noisy children or overly-curious onlookers. There's only you and the beautiful vista before you. It's as though you've stumbled upon a secret place, a wild Eden only you know, only you could find - the only proof of its existence captured by a singular photo which others would jump to post to Instagram, but which you keep for yourself. You take a still-photo of it in your mind, knowing this particular memory is yours, and yours alone. 

You may be in a national park somewhere across North America, or right in your own "backyard." Wherever you are, you know you are not alone in your love of and admiration for the outdoors. Across North America, popular national parks like Yellowstone are flooded with tourists each year who fly and drive many miles for a glimpse of wild bison or the perfect photo of a naturally-occurring hot spring. It's not just Nat Geo photographers who crave a piece of some of the most beautiful, protected areas across Canada the US. But therein lies the problem. 

Over the past few years, tourists and travelers who visit parks like Yellowstone have wandered off the proverbial (and literal) beaten path to take selfies with bison - a seriously dangerous activity which can result in injury or death - or get too-close to hot springs and geysers. These tourists enter these parks with hopes and aspirations of catching an Instagram-worthy picture, but leave with severe injuries, or they never leave at all. It's no secret that tourists have died in parks like Yellowstone after their attempts to get up-close-and-personal with wild animals or hot springs have resulted in death. In 2015, more than five tourists were injured by bison after turning their backs on the animal for the sole purpose of taking a selfie with the creatures for social media. Others have fallen into canyons for photos, angered bears after getting too close to their offspring, and have even taken baby animals from parks and transported them elsewhere in cars. Suddenly, our national parks went from pristine and protected areas of nature to public arenas for foolhardy tourist activities and extreme dares for perfect photos. 

Though tourists who choose to behave ridiculously in parks like this are often punished with fines or something of that ilk, the damage is done far before they have to cough up a few thousand dollars months down the road. Increasingly, the exploration of national parks across North America is turning into an opportunity for people to abuse the privileges we have of entering these protected areas and having the opportunity to see nature in such an untouched, unadulterated manner. Many tourists who move through these parks may only be there for a photo, but the impacts of abuse these Parks take from irresponsible park-goers means those who explore for exploration's sake, for the love of nature and a real appreciation for the outdoors, are left with the aftermath.

 This means that outdoors enthusiasts whose passion is hiking, camping, climbing, trekking and exploring nature in a responsible, conscious manner have to share in the consequences which result from those who behavior indicates they're less about nature and more about crazy adventure. Adventure can mean different things to different people, but our national parks are protected for a reason. Wildlife in these parks has seen its own fair share of issues - such as population decline, prey decline, habitat degradation, etc - without the added problems caused by tourists. Litter, garbage, pollution and other environmental abuses begin to wear down on the natural habitats of flora and fauna, making it increasingly difficult for species to survive in a place that has always been their home first, our tourist destination second. But perhaps more than that, hurting our national parks shows a conscious disregard for the land, the wildlife and the environment which has been here for centuries before we were. Rarely do those taking selfies with these bison stop to consider the harm their actions have on the parks themselves. 

Modern exploration is many things, but harmful to our parks should not be one of them. The call of the wild is intrinsic if many of us, but we have to remember that that "call" is also a call to preserve and conserve our national parks so that those same awe-inspiring moments we have when we can look down and see a whole new world below us can be captured and experienced by others for years to come. We need to put down the phones, the cameras, the iPads and i-whatevers, and appreciate nature for what it is - wild and free, ours to discover but not ours to abuse or neglect. 

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.