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Race, Public Lands And The Debate Over Geotagging

Vanessa Chavarriaga
Vanessa Chavarriaga says anti-geotagging campaigns are "perpetuating who has access to nature, which has historically been White people." She posted this photo to Instagram from the Cloudveil Traverse in the Teton Range.

Vanessa Chavarriaga loves to be outside, whether it's floating down a river in the desert or ice skating on a frozen alpine lake. And when she posts photos of her adventures, she includes information about where exactly she was.

"These are public lands, right? We're all supposed to have access to them," she says. "And it doesn't really make sense for us to keep public lands a secret. That's an oxymoron. That doesn't make any sense at all."

Chavarriaga is a mixed-race Colombian woman who's working toward her master's degree at the University of Wyoming where her research focuses on the intersection of nature and society. The way she sees it, if she can expand another person of color's access or knowledge of the outdoors, then it's a win.

"With social media and with geotagging, a person of color doesn't have to have these generations of knowledge to know where to go on a hike," she says.

Chavarrriaga believes the anti-geotagging movement is just the latest form of gatekeeping, and a way for White people to police others.

"So when people choose not to geotag, what they're really doing is perpetuating who has access to nature, which has historically been White people," she says.

Visitor data from agencies including the National Park Service does show people of color are significantly underrepresented when it comes to visiting our public lands.

The popularity of Instagram and the ability to add geographical coordinates to photos can put a bullseye on sensitive landscapes, drawing more and more visitors to little-known corners of parks and public lands. That created a geotagging backlash - but the conversation is evolving.

The Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board sees geotagging as such a threat that a couple years ago it launched a campaign asking people to "tag responsibly."

"When you're ready to share a photo of one of the many breathtaking areas of our vast wild, we ask that you skip the specific location tag," a marketing video says. "Instead, share your photo using our generic location tag - "Tag Responsibly. Keep Jackson Hole Wild."

Kate Sollitt, the tourism board's executive director, who is White, says they came up with the campaign when they started seeing increased traffic to more fragile areas in Grand Teton National Park. She also cites a growing number of people getting lost or injured when they were ill-prepared for hikes.

"And the reason they were going on these hikes," she says, "was because they were seeing a little pin on their phone thinking, 'Oh, this looks like a cool area. And there are a lot of people in this location. So let's go there without really planning or doing research or speaking to locals or rangers to find out more about this destination.'"

Sollitt says the campaign isn't meant to discourage people from visiting.

"On the contrary, the more people who know and appreciate public lands, the more stewards we have for protecting them," she says. "But we want people to be more mindful, have a more intentional, meaningful experience with the places they visit."

Still, other conservation groups have walked back similar anti-geotagging campaigns, including Leave No Trace, which recently reconsidered its social media guidelines.

"The biggest change more recently was with our more clear guidance on we're not anti-geotagging, and there is a reason for that," says the organization's executive director, Dana Watts, who is also White. They weren't comfortable with "this idea of gatekeeping."

Instead, when posting an image, Leave No Trace encourages people to include educational information such as safety measures, what to expect when visiting, or the location's history and culture.

But for Vanessa Chavarriaga, the entire controversy around geotagging points to something more fundamental.

"Our conceptions of what nature is and what wilderness is primarily come from myths," she says. "Myths that have been created by, to be frank, White colonizers that invaded this land several hundred years ago."

She says she was glad to see Leave No Trace walk back their geotagging guidelines. In the meantime, Chavarriaga and groups like Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors and other recreational groups for BIPOC communities are working to make it easier for people of color to experience the nation's public lands.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.
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