The Instagram and website title is direct and to the point: “Public Lands Hate You.” The Instagram account, which has nearly 30,000 followers, has been around since July, but has, well, blossomed, right along with the super bloom that’s turned big swaths of the Southern California desert into riotous carpets of wildflowers in recent weeks.
That blossoming is because as the flowers have come, so have the Instagram “influencers”—people with huge social media followings who are often paid to market any number of products. Those influencers flocked to the deserts in really big numbers and plopped themselves in poppy fields, all to get the shot. All the same shot, apparently. Which would be fine, had they stayed on trails and observed conservation-minded visiting practices, but all too often people appear in the photos traipsing through beds of wildflowers, sometimes pulling them out of the ground, driving through them in a car, rolling around in them lustily, usually well beyond markers asking people to stay out of the flowers. These are things that drive park rangers, conservationists, and anybody who wants to see sensitive public lands left alone to thrive, nuts. So the PLHY instagram account has had lots of fodder.
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These sponsored posts are so cringeworthy. What makes these so called “influencers” think that it’s ok to commandeer the beauty of our public lands to advertise stuff while concurrently damaging those very same lands? The logic here is absolutely mind boggling to me. Are they oblivious? Do they just not care? Are they getting paid so much that they can’t focus on anything except the $$$? . And for what? To get people to buy sunglasses, fake fingernails, cans of soup, clothing, candy, herbal supplements, hair products, and skin creams? We should not be losing access to our public lands because the primary concern of these “influencers” is to fatten their bank accounts. Our public lands are not a prop. . However, this is one spot where we can all REALLY make a difference. I don’t know many companies that are ok with their products being advertised alongside damaging environmental behaviors, especially if those behaviors are also ILLEGAL. So, take a few minutes to really make a difference. Do some research. Email and call these companies that have products being advertised. Let them know what you’ve seen. Let them know how you feel. And let them know that you won’t be buying any of their products in the future. . I’ve spoken with a number of customer service representatives over the last week about posts like these, and everyone I have spoken to has taken my concerns seriously. I’ve even gotten a call back from one corporate advertising team thanking me for bringing a certain advertisement to their attention. That post I called about? It’s gone. “Influencers” may have no intention of learning from you and me. But when the money tree is suddenly threatened with a chainsaw, the results are amazing. . #cutdownthemoneytree . . #capitalismworksbothways #makethecall #moneytalks #profitfirst #talkthetalk #walkthewalk #educateyourself #education #noexcuse #knowledgeispower #followtherules #capitalism #actionsspeaklouderthanwords #votewithyourwallet #walkercanyon #antelopevalleypoppyreserve #walkercanyonpoppyfields
PLHY has made it a mission to repost egregious Instagram shots of people frolicking where they shouldn’t and has taken to calling those people out in the comments. The account was created last summer, but swung into high gear after Joshua Tree was vandalized during the government shutdown (Joshua Tree has its own shaming account, “Joshua Tree Hates You” an unrelated site) and people began abusing the super bloom sites.
The Instagram account has now grown into a website that highlights poorly behaving influencers and geotaggers, but also has useful tips about how to actually take photos without damaging wild places and, for a splash of positivity, a “Hall of Fame” of people who are taking photos on trails, without harming the very wilderness they are meaning to highlight.
But the target is centered directly on people who, often unwittingly, encourage people to trample public lands just to nab a shareable selfie. Especially when those people are earning money, or products, to do it. The site’s owner explains that he feels that companies that sponsor influencers are responsible when those influencers demonstrate poor judgment in sensitive ecological zones and that there isn’t nearly enough responsibility being shown when a bad example is set. The site doesns’t say so directly, but there’s clearly a frustration with posing and inauthenticity here too.
Intrigued, we called the person who runs the account, a 30-something man living in the Pacific Northwest who wants to remain anonymous, to ask him what, exactly, his frustrated account is meant to accomplish.
AJ: So, we’ll keep this anonymous, but are you employed by a public lands agency of some kind? Or just somebody who gets particularly upset at what you think of as bad behavior in public spaces?
PLHY: No, I’m not affiliated with public lands in any way. Spending time in the outdoors and wild places has just always been like my vacation home. They matter a lot to me. Over the last 5 years or so things have gotten worse in terms of seeing people abuse these places, or at least, more than I’d previously noticed.
Was there a particular incident that you saw on social media, or elsewhere that made you so fed up you felt like you had to start this account?
What really got me irritated was a kid playing with fireworks in the Columbia Gorge who started a huge wildfire (back in 2017). It just seemed like people were acting like their behavior had no consequences. When I started the site last year it was just a way to blow off steam from being frustrated. I definitely didn’t expect the amount of attention it’s received. I might be in a little bit over my head, to be honest.
Are you actively trying to call attention to people to be punished, if that’s even applicable? Or is this more about calling out ridiculous behavior and getting people to think more about what their actions can cause?
Look, I really wish I didn’t have to call people out for this sort of thing, but if you’re going above and beyond, and breaking the law and hurting public lands to get a photo, then yeah, I think you should be punished. I always reach out to people who post these photos to give them the opportunity to take the photos down, to say yeah, I made a mistake and now I’ll fix it. It’s all about the examples these kinds of pictures set. Miley Cyrus put a picture up on her Instagram account of her sitting in a Joshua tree (the post has since been removed) and she has 91 million followers. It suggests, “Hey, climbing Joshua trees is fun!” That’s not okay. Even if only one percent of her followers decided that was a good idea and they wanted to do it too, that’s almost a million people. It would be super harmful.
I posted a picture recently of a guy who’d driven off-road in the wildflowers to get a shot. When I called him out, his sister responded in the comments, “Haha, you should see all the donuts we did before that shot,” just rubbing it in my face. Lots of people in the off-road community do a lot of responsible work to keep trails open for vehicles and then this guy makes them look bad. Nobody wants to lose access to public lands because of one idiot posting something online.
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The number of people who defend their off-trail travels as not having an impact is astounding. The thing is, humans are inherently lazy. We tend to take the path of least resistance. So, if someone wants to travel to the other side of a field, and they see a slightly beaten path that may have been taken by one or two people before them, they take it. This is how new trails are formed. The hiking community calls these “social trails”. They are unofficial trails that people take as the path of least resistance from Point A to Point B. . The problem with social trails is that as they become more frequently used, they become permanent. First the vegetation is slightly disturbed. The people that follow beat the vegetation flat. Continued use compacts soils to the point that they won’t support new growth. This breaks up what was previously homogenous habit into small fractured pieces. It's not good for vegetation. It’s not good for wildlife. And it certainly doesn’t make for good pictures. . The 1st picture is from a drone taken last week by @waterproject. The 2nd is a Google Earth satellite image of the same location taken a few years ago. Notice the difference? How can someone look at these two photos side by side and say that there hasn’t been an impact? How much longer do you think this area can withstand this amount of abuse before it comes a dirt hillside with a couple of flower patches protected behind wooden fences? . The next photos are close up pictures of what these new trails look like, progressing from slightly disturbed vegetation, to fully flattened and dead vegetation, to fully compacted soils and new dirt "trails" that will require either human intervention or decades of natural forces to recover. This is the progression that we want to avoid. Resist the temptation to use social trails. Stick to the official dirt paths. They are obvious. They are generally wide enough for two or more people to walk side by side. They are a fully dirt surface with no vegetation present. You don’t need to create new trails for beautiful pictures that others will love, as seen in the last two photos. . #walkercanyon #stayonthetrail #leavenotrace #lowimpact #poppy
Is your ire more directed toward sponsored influencers with huge accounts making money from taking photos illegally off-trail in public lands with no thought to the consequences? Or is this more of a general anti-social media thing?
No, not at all. Social media can be great. But companies paying their sponsored influencers to take photos in beautiful places puts the onus on the influencers to do the right thing, not the companies. Companies should be responsible for the behavior of their influencers.
What would you say to somebody who says you could be focusing on much bigger issues than inconsiderate people taking pictures laying in sensitive wildflowers?
This is a way to show people that they need to think about their smaller impacts. It all scales up when we encourage each other that it’s okay to cause just a little bit of damage. People often aren’t thinking about the fact that this all adds up. It’s these little things done by tons of people that have real impact.