Why National Parks Need Selfie Stations

US national parks are overcrowded. Some think ‘selfie stations’ will help.

Arches National Park had to close its gate more than 120 times this summer when parking lots filled up creating a safety hazard for emergency vehicles. Yellowstone National Park reached 1 million visitors in July for the first time in its history. At Zion National Park, the wait to hike Angels Landing was a Disneyland-long four hours. And with the visitors came graffiti, trash, and reckless behavior.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s no secret that this summer has been the busiest summer ever. Preliminary visitation statistics show that the most popular 12 to 15 national parks are seeing record numbers.

On Facebook, the National Park Service (NPS) encouraged visitors to have backup plans when arranging a trip and included information on lesser-known parks with equally stunning sights and hikes.

Zion National Park trolley stop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Travel off the beaten path,” the NPS wrote. “There are more than 400 national parks across the country. We love exploring the lesser-known ones. They can be a great option for travelers looking for all the beauty of nature, hiking trails, and rich history, with fewer crowds and lines.”

Have a plan…and a backup plan…Check

Pack your patience…Working on it.

Don’t pet the fluffy cows…

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer is here and a little trip planning can ensure that your only surprises when visiting a park are happy ones. To help everyone have a great experience, National Park Service rangers have shared their top 10 insider tips to #PlanLikeAParkRanger.

The record-setting crowds of people surging into public lands this summer have set off new challenges for park managers. They are using counterintuitive tricks like encouraging selfies in one place to prevent them in another and they are rolling out algorithms and autonomous vehicles to manage the throngs of recreation-seekers.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They are also acknowledging a hard truth: perhaps there simply isn’t enough space at America’s most iconic attractions for everyone who wants to visit them. In an earlier post, I provided a framework for adding more national parks.

One of the biggest issues facing parks is the many visitors all aiming to get the perfect photo. At popular spots in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, some have even fallen to their deaths in the process prompting the NPS to create a guide for safe selfie-taking. And in 2018, the tourism board in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, made an unusual request to visitors heading toward Grand Teton National Park after local trails were overrun with photo-tourists: stop geotagging photos.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enter the selfie station: a humble wooden stand in front of a stunning vista, ready to hold a camera for a safe and easy photo experience. They are part of an effort to corral people’s natural desire to take photos and to promote less-well-known areas.

Tom Hazelton, who leads Iowa’s County Conservation System, has overseen the installation of more than a hundred selfie stations in his state. Some of the stations celebrate quirky parts of history like the first train robbery west of the Mississippi while others point people to a lake, vista, or nature center they might not otherwise come across. Similar efforts exist in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is Iowa’s third season using the sturdy, cedar stations and they installed another 15 during the past few months. They are getting used and they are low maintenance and easy to build: the signs are $30 and the wood is another $60.

Another tactic to reduce the strain on parks is to cut the number of visitors permitted to enter them in the first place. The NPS oversees a total of 423 protected places that include national seashores, national lakeshores, national recreation areas, and national monuments, among others. Popular places like the summit of Haleakala on Maui or Muir Woods in California require timed entry slots available on Recreation.gov. More public lands are turning to such systems to reduce the number of visitors in one part of a park especially as the pandemic trimmed staffing numbers.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Recreation.gov program uses algorithms to show where there might be less-trafficked attractions in the vicinity that you’re searching in real-time. The Park Service also launched an app with tools to explore more than 400 NPS sites. You can download content from entire parks for offline use. It’s especially handy if you’re exploring remote areas in parks or concerned about data limits. And it can point visitors to other potential public lands outside the parks.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the future, the Park Service is focusing on rolling out predictive technologies that will allow people to anticipate crowds and plan accordingly. They are taking tools used in urban planning and congestion planning and repurposing them for recreation and parks. That could mean a future where a hiker scans a QR code to check-in at a trailhead sending information back to when the trails are most clogged with people. That way, the next group could be advised to wait an hour or come another time to take the same adventure. It also could mean that traffic is routed to less popular areas of the parks.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To cut down on traffic, some parks are experimenting with autonomous cars. The Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina tested out a driverless shuttle this summer and Yellowstone is also trying a shuttle. That park is expected to run out of space for additional cars by 2023. The idea is to stop people driving between the sights in the Canyon Village area—the area around the famous Yellowstone River and Tower Waterfall—and get them in the driverless shuttle instead.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite the crowds and the traffic and noise, the park service says it’s a good thing that more people are getting out to experience parks and public lands. The Park Service wants people to have exceptional experiences and they’re looking at ways to enhance opportunities for people to plan to have the best experience and stay safe.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

Selfies Don’t Kill People

Height, water, trains, and animals lead the list of factors involved in selfie deaths

259 deaths worldwide have been attributed to the selfie between 2011 and 2017.

While that statistic may sound alarming, there are well over 1.4 million accidental deaths per year worldwide. Risk taking is not a new phenomenon nor is doing it in an attempt to become famous. That we are all talking about selfie deaths is likely just the result of the media’s obsession with reporting about them. 

Canyonlands National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No one has ever been killed by a selfie. A lot of people have been killed by stupid behavior. No beautiful destination has ever been ruined by an Instagram post. A lot of beautiful places have been ruined by irresponsible assholes. 

selfie

[sel-fee]
noun
An image that includes oneself (often with another person or as part of a group) and is taken by oneself using a digital camera or smart phone, especially for posting on social networks.

New River Gorge National River, West Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2016, Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, an associate professor with Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Delhi in India, served as the principal investigator with researchers at IIIT and Carnegie Mellon University on a study called “Me, Myself and My Killfie: Characterizing and Preventing Selfie Deaths.”

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kumaraguru, a computer scientist who is interested in following societal problems and patterns and developing solutions through technology, said he read an article about someone who died while taking a selfie and was intrigued. He lives in India which leads the world in “killfies,” the word sometimes used to talk about deaths tied to selfies.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

He and his team collected newspaper articles on selfie-related fatalities to document and categorize the problem. Height, water, trains, and animals were the leading causes of death in the 127 cases the team studied. They also found that the victims were primarily young and male: The majority was 24 years old or younger and 75.5 percent were male.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2016, a man was taking a selfie by the Ganges River in India when he slipped and fell in. Six others tried to save him and all seven died after being swept away. “It is not about just me trying to take a selfie and making my life dangerous, but I’m actually putting others also at risk,” Kumaraguru says.

The so-called selfie deaths aren’t anything new. There’s hasn’t been an increase in the frequency of accidental deaths since the advent of Instagram—people have always managed to find stupid ways to die. Smart phones could stop working tomorrow and a teenage boy will still find a way to put his life at risk in order to impress a girl even if he can’t snap a photo in the process. The biggest change would just be that the rest of us wouldn’t see a photo of the shenanigans and would never get the chance to get outraged about it. 

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When people get the opportunity to visit a really cool national park or see a neat wild animal, it is only natural that they want to document the experience and share it with their friends. Again, this is not a new phenomenon. Are Ansel Adams’s photos of Yosemite Valley really that different from an Instagram photo that tourists snap in the same spot?

Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every time I see a news story about national parks and other public lands being “loved to death,” and blaming social media for a boom in visitation, I can’t help but see a missed opportunity. More visitors should equal more dollars for the places that we love; the only reason that it doesn’t is that the media and politicians would rather grandstand about other issues.  

Jungle Gardens, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every time I see a news story blaming a selfie for a death, I also see a missed opportunity. If social media was powerful enough to draw a person to that place and inspire them to take a photo then surely it can also be powerful enough to reach that person with a powerful message about responsible recreation. 

Are you practicing safe selfies? It might be time to examine your photo-clicking habits and put caution first. Consider these suggestions for practicing safe selfies:

Snake River at Twin Falls, Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay focused on your surroundings, not your shot. Tripping, slipping, and falling have all led to selfie deaths. A single distraction or moment of inattention could mean the difference between life and death. Keep your eyes focused on where you’re going and where your feet are when taking a selfie. Make sure your feet are planted firmly before you line up the shot, and then don’t move once you do that.

Worth Pondering…

As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”