Instagram Influencers Are Wrecking Public Lands. Meet the Anonymous Account Trying to Stop Them

Illustration for article titled Instagram Influencers Are Wrecking Public Lands. Meet the Anonymous Account Trying to Stop Them
Image: AP

At this very moment, Southern California is full of poppies, and the poppies are full of influencers. The superbloom—a fun word for a particularly riotous profusion of wildflowers—has brought thousands of tourists flooding into areas across the state, like Lake Elsinore, where access to the Walker Canyon poppy fields was temporarily shut down because of City Hall called an “unbearable” amount of people, many of them stampeding through the fields and even picking the flowers.


People behaving horribly in natural spaces isn’t new, though it’s a problem getting more attention recently. During the government shutdown, Joshua Tree was particularly badly hit by vandalism, including people climbing the delicate trees, vandalizing them, and even cutting them down, damage that experts estimate could take as long as 300 years to repair itself. (Miley Cyrus apparently did not get the memo. She posted two photos of herself this week sitting in a Joshua tree. After the comments trended towards outrage, the comments on the posts have been closed, but the photos themselves remain up.) The damage to Joshua Tree alone was bad enough to generate an Instagram account, Joshua Tree Hates You, which shows a truly soul-crushing amount of damage, which seems to only get worse as the park gets more popular.

In the case of the superbloom, a more fleeting phenomenon, the unruly crowds have garnered a lot of attention and more than one guide to seeing the flowers without ruining the flowers. Yet reports of appalling poppy-centric behavior keep flooding in. Definitely not helping: the sheer number of influencers staging photoshoots among the flowers. The images tend to be pretty uniform: a beautiful, often white person sitting in a poppy field, gazing dreamily into the distance, sometimes holding a carefully placed sponsored product, like a cellphone case or a jaunty can of soup. They tend to make the poppies look very, very inviting, and like it’s cool to sit among them, which it’s absolutely not.

But it was that can of soup that really got to the person who runs Public Lands Hate You, an account dedicated to pointing out the ways that Instagram tourism—particularly the influencer variety—wrecks delicate natural ecosystems. What’s more, the account-holder is trying to do something about it, by either gently trying to educate influencers about the damage their actions cause and, when that fails, contacting their sponsors.

We spoke recently by phone with the person behind the account, a 31-year-old man who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He asked for anonymity due to the unquenchable ire of the influencers, several of whom he says are very angry at him for costing them money. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

JEZEBEL: Thanks for taking the time to talk. Are you also behind the Joshua Tree Hates You account?

Public Lands Hate You: I am not. We chat back and forth quite a bit. Whoever runs that account will send me messages saying, ‘Hey, take a look at this. It’s outside our domain because it’s not Joshua Tree but it should be brought to your attention.” I do the same thing, I’ll send things their way. I think they were the first account to do this, and I jumped on the bandwagon.


I agreed to your request for anonymity due to the threats you said you’ve gotten recently, but what are you comfortable sharing about yourself?

Yeah, my concern is that I’ve gotten threats from people, mainly influencers who have lost sponsors. I’m 31 and I grew up in New England. I have been hiking and backpacking and canoeing and all that outdoor stuff since I was five years old. I didn’t go to my first national park until I was 18. Since then, I’ve been to all the national parks in the lower 48. I’ve been to a bunch of national monuments, national forests, national lake shores, I’ve been all over the place.


In the last five years, I’ve also noticed a marked increase of disrespect towards the land. People having campfires where they’re not supposed to or leaving trash or carving their initials in the trees or rocks. I just got tired of it and thought, well, you can’t catch these people after the fact. Clearly they either don’t know the rules or don’t care about the rules, so how can I make a difference there? And also, honestly, how do I let some of my frustration about this out? And so I said, let’s put this on the internet like everybody else.

Once I started doing that, I came to the realization that this is part of the problem; so many of these public lands now, people see pictures of them and they want to go. And they might not have the background to know how to go to that area and treat it with respect.


Being outdoorsy and going to national parks has become cooler in the last five years or so. If you look at visitation numbers for the national parks, visitation from 2000 to 2013 was pretty steady, about 275 million. Then 2014 it jumps to 300 million, and in 2016, 330 million. And I think a lot of that is due to seeing beautiful pictures and wanting to go.

But for some people, it’s not just wanting to go, is it? It’s also wanting to be photographed there, and take your own photos and put them on social media.


For sure. I completely understand that. I go to those same places. My primary goal isn’t to take a really cool picture of myself and put it up for my thousands of Insta-friends I’ve never met, but I do go. [laughs]

Was there a particular photo that sparked your current account focus on influencers?


You know, there was. [laughs] Originally it was just like OK, there are people who have a lot of followers, let’s let them know this isn’t a good thing and they’re not sending a good message: Please reconsider, really think about what you’re broadcasting here.

But the photo that really kind of got me more on the influencer path, specifically, and sponsored posts, was a girl in the middle of the poppies holding a can of Campbells soup. I’m like: who the fuck thinks it’s a great to idea to haul up a plastic jar of soup, hold a can out and say, “This is a great hike, you all should buy some Campbells soup”? You’ve got to be out of your mind.


That’s what pushed me over the edge.

The rage and frustration in your posts is pretty evident. Tell me about some of the egregious stuff you’ve seen.


There’s a couple. Another one was somebody posting about acrylic fingernail covers. I don’t know what they’re called. I’m not a beauty guy. But just like holding a bouquet of poppies with like the fingernails showing and advertising the fingernails. Another one was somebody posting a picture of a Jeep in a poppy field. That’s fine, the angle for that one, they’re on the trail but made it look like they weren’t. But when I [commented], ‘You guys should stay on the trail if you’re in a Jeep,” the immediate backlash was “Fuck you, you’re not my mom.” Someone followed up with, “You should see how many doughnuts we went out and did in the poppy field.”

The account holder said that to you?

It was a commenter who ended up being that account holder’s sister. That’s definitely an extreme example, but that’s the response that I feel like I get probably 75 percent of the time: an immediate defensive response and an excuse: “We use Photoshop” or “It’s just a good camera angle,” or “We were really careful not to step on the poppies.” That sort of thing. My response to that is, I don’t really care about any of that. The picture you have appears to show you going off the trail, and going off the trail causes damage, and posting those pictures sends the message to all of your followers that it’s OK to go off the trail when it’s not.


It’s important to think about that and realize you’ve got 100,000 followers. Do you really want to send a message to 100,000 people to go wherever you want and do whatever you want? It’s not conducive to preserving what we have.

Right now you’re focusing pretty heavily on damage done during the superbloom. That must be because it’s the hot thing to photograph right now.


Exactly. Previously it was graffiti on rocks in national parks, but the superbloom is the thing of the moment. Influencers see this cool thing, do what they need to do to promote their products or take a cool picture. And then they move on to whatever else is cool, whether it’s, for instance, going out to the California coast, going past “closed” signs and taking a picture under a waterfall. Or whatever. And then Lake Elsinore, where Walker Canyon is, gets stuck with the aftermath. The people who live there. They have a poppy preserve that looks like a checkerboard. The people who did the damage are long gone. They’re on to the next thing.


The pushback you get seems to be a lot of comments like “they’re just flowers,” with the case of the superbloom photos, or comments that you need to calm down and focus on “real problems.”

I do try to respond to that and try to provide my point of view and get people to see, who might have lived in a city their whole life, who might not understand the biology of these areas. I say to them, “You’re not wrong, but I think that a lot of these bigger problems are symptoms of people not thinking about the little things and their impact.” Whether it’s the impact of of me stepping on a couple poppies or me getting my takeout tonight in a styrofoam container, people aren’t thinking about the impact of their actions and that’s applicable to small things like going off the trail, all the way up to big global issues like climate change or microplastics in the water.


You’re not just shaming people or reposting their photos, though. It seems like you’re actively trying to get photos taken down.

So the first step is the educational part. It’s not my goal to see a picture and just say, “Hey, my personal opinion here is this person is doing something illegal.” I start with “Hey, stay on the trail” or “Hey it looks like you’re not on the trail?” Some people are receptive and say yeah, you’re right. They update the caption and say, “I made a mistake, everyone please stay on the trail.” But some people bury their heads in the sand and say screw you, I’m on the trail. So that’s when I say, OK, you’re obviously not receptive to learning about this at all. That’s where peer pressure steps in. [Laughs] The goal isn’t necessarily to shame people but peer pressure does work. And the internet is a two-way street. People are posting things with the intent of like YouTube picking up their picture and reposting it and then maybe them picking up a bunch of followers. I’m reposting just like YouTube does but instead of spinning it in a positive light, I’m putting a twist on it that says, “This is illegal, you shouldn’t be doing this.”


A lot of times the photos do get taken down. A lot of these sponsored posts have come down. YouTube reposted a picture last week on their Instagram, they’ve got 18 million followers. Someone told me about it and I reached out to YouTube and didn’t hear anything back and I reposted it. The post was taken down by YouTube the next day. It is effective.

The goal isn’t to shame people but sometimes that’s what works.

Some people say “You’re just a bully.” But I’m not trying to steal anybody’s lunch money or making fun of your clothes or gender. All I’m saying what you’re doing is illegal, please don’t do that.


Well, it’s not just that it’s illegal, because not all laws are created equal. It’s that it’s destructive, right?

Yeah. When you go into a natural area, leave no trace. Don’t pick the flowers. I don’t care if it’s a poppy preserve or a national park or the side of the road. Take pictures but be respectful while you’re there.


So your last post was specifically focused on sponsored posts: people sitting in the superbloom shilling, like, sunglasses.

What’s been very effective is actually calling sponsors. Anything featured there are people I tried first to reach out to and say, “This isn’t cool” and it’s been ignored. What really gets influencers’ attention is when a sponsor reaches back out and says, ‘Take this post down, it’s not cool and you’re painting our company in a negative light.” So I reach out directly to the sponsors and say, “We saw that XYZ is trying to sell these fingernails in a poppy preserve and that’s not cool and we won’t support your company because of that.” And I think it’s really effective.


The whole sustainability thing has grown a lot recently and there aren’t many companies out there that are willing to be shown that they support destructive behavior, especially at the cost of public land. Public lands are not props for influencers to try to sell what they’re selling.


What role or responsibility do social media platforms or huge accounts like YouTube’s Instagram have here?

First off, YouTube shouldn’t be reposting pictures of this on their account and saying this is a beautiful picture. They need to think about what they’re sharing just like the rest of us. Instagram has plenty of different categories to report things like bullying or nudity or offensive content. What they don’t have is a way to report illegal behavior like this, and I think that’s something they should consider. Somebody actually started a petition a month or so ago to get Instagram to start policing this stuff and create a method of reporting illegal behavior. I think it got 17,000 signatures. Instagram responded and said it’d be too difficult to implement. It’s a programming thing. I’m sure they can figure it out.


Wouldn’t people just say it’s photoshopped to keep their pictures from getting taken down?

That’s a valid point and I understand it. But my response to that is it appears to be somebody engaged in something that’s harmful to the environment and possibly illegal.


I had an interaction with somebody where it looked like someone was sitting on an arch in a national park. I got in touch with that person and said, you know, you’re not allowed to climb an arch in a national park. His response was that it was photoshopped and I said, well, that doesn’t really matter.

The National Park Service has an investigative unit. I reached out to them, they took a look at that picture, contacted that person and that picture disappeared. And that goes to show that the National Park Service is a law enforcement agency and they don’t care if it’s photoshopped. If it looks like you’re doing something illegal, they care. So just make it clear: I’m on the trail. Also, you know, it’s not hard to take different pictures while leaving no trace.


What do you make of influencer culture? Why is everyone posting the same photos?

They all have the same captions: “Call me big poppy.” If I see one more of those captions, I’m going to vomit. I think it’s a herd mentality. People see the pictures and feel like they’re missing out.


As far as influencer culture, I just imagine they’re getting caught up in it and saying, “I’m gonna get this cool picture and get more followers and get money from this sponsor for taking this cool picture that looks good.” But they’re not really thinking. It’s just focused on them and what their goals are.

How are you finding these photos?

I get probably 200 messages a day right now from people who see things and send them to me. A lot of them I just say yeah, that’s not applicable or doesn’t look like something I need to chase down.


There’s been a couple instances where [I contact them] and influencers respond and then continue posting. And that’s mind-boggling to me. Like, OK, you know there’s a huge number of people out there who think what you’re doing isn’t a good look and might be illegal. It looks pretty damning, you walking through a field of poppies. But there’ve been a few who just clearly don’t care.

Tell me a bit more about the threats and response from the influencers.

I’ve just gotten messages saying, ‘Why did you do that? I’m not gonna get that sponsorship anymore!” And my response is, sorry not sorry. You were given an opportunity here to learn from this and show that you care and you made it extremely clear that you don’t. I don’t feel bad, sorry.


Do you ever think about whether this ties into the larger cultural moment? There’s a disrespect for public lands at a federal level, with the Trump Administration moving to privatize and commercialize more and more public lands.

I’ve definitely thought about the current administration’s view of public lands, which is that there should be less of them or that they should be open to large corporations to mine or log. I think it would be a stretch to draw a line between the two at this point. But I’ll tell you one thing: it definitely doesn’t help.


Does this make you cynical about human nature?

It’s not even these photos that make me cynical. We all make mistakes... What makes me cynical is the response I get, the people who won’t think of what they’re posting and the results of that action and what other people might do because of that. That rubs me the wrong way the most.


I do appreciate that you don’t use gendered insults, considering a lot of these influencers are women.

I try really, really hard. It’s been difficult. I have moments where I just want to scream. But it shoots the whole thing in the foot. But there’s no name-calling, just lay out the facts, and go from there. I’ve got a post on there that lays that out and also asks followers to do the same thing. Don’t go and call people names. It just doesn’t help. And I know that that’s not always the case. If and when I see that, I reach out to the people and say, hey, it’s not acceptable to call someone a bimbo or whatever. It’s a very, very fine line with Instagram. A lot of comments get reported. My posts all get reported immediately. After I post a post now I’m almost immediately limited in commenting. I can’t post again for a while.


Someone is immediately reporting them?

Oh yeah.

Let’s try to end this on a positive note: What’s the behavior you’d like to see on public lands?


In my perfect world, I’d like to see people who do the research beforehand, know the rules, see if they need a permit for commercial photography, bring a trail map, see if drones are allowed, and when they get there, read the signs. Every trailhead will have a sign that says what’s OK and what isn’t. And then third, for people to actually follow everything they’ve read on those signs. [Laughs] Stay on the trail. Don’t pick the flowers. Walk on durable surfaces. Just the bare minimum. That’s really all I’m looking for.

Anna Merlan was a Senior Reporter at G/O Media until September 2019. She's the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.



I love this so much and I didn’t know this account existed but I’m going to go follow it immediately.

I also am an active hiker/backpacker in the PNW and there are LOTS of discussions in outdoor circles recently about responsible use of social media. There are so many absolutely amazing, mind-blowing natural areas that are simply becoming over-trafficked, and social media plays a big role in it. It’s tough to talk about sometimes, because, really, we ALL want to share gorgeous photos of our adventures. But it’s important to remember that we need to protect the land, too.

I’ve stopped geotagging locations on my hiking photos and don’t mention specifics in my captions. If someone takes the time to ask me for a location, I will likely share privately, but I’m choosing to avoid making it super easy for just anyone to see my photos, decide they want to “do it for the gram” and head out.

I’ve seen a definite increase not just in the number of hikers out and about, but an increase in bad behavior on the trail. I always end up picking up trash these days - it’s sad. I WANT more people to be hiking and enjoying nature, and social media has encouraged that, too, but it’s hard not to get grumpy sometimes when you see more people out there to get a photo for likes and comments than to actually enjoy what’s around them.