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Spencer McKee: Will the internet destroy the Great Outdoors?
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Spencer McKee: Will the internet destroy the Great Outdoors?

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From Wikipedia to Reddit to AllTrails, finding information online is easier than ever, and as search algorithms become smarter with each software update, the process only continues to improve. (Tom Baker/Dreamstime/TNS)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Upon the creation and development of something revolutionary, it’s often hard to tell exactly how that invention will eventually be used. Do you think Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web, thought that his creation would be used to spread funny cat videos? Probably not. But as it would turn out, this is what the people wanted, thus this is what the people got. And the changes brought about by the internet weren’t limited to the cat video industry. They stretched far and wide, changing the way people interact with the world around them from reestablishing the standards of basic communication to developing new currencies with a value that exists in digital code.

As the human drive to obtain knowledge remains a priority, the means of obtaining information via the internet are continually honed to make this process more efficient. From Wikipedia to Reddit to AllTrails, finding information online is easier than ever, and as search algorithms become smarter with each software update, the process only continues to improve.

It’s important to note that this ease of access also makes information increasingly difficult to restrict. In recent years, we’ve seen a direct (and some might call it negative) impact of this unlimited access in the outdoor space. What used to be a “hidden gem” can now be easily found via a quick Google search. This technological shift makes it crucial for us to acknowledge the new world of outdoor recreation exploration that we live in, adjusting our practices accordingly to diminish potential negative impacts.

Try it. Type “Secret Trails of Colorado” into your search bar. You’re delivered more than one million results in less than a second from sources that range from official tourism boards to local newspapers to outdoor publications, like OutThere Colorado. It’s true, “secret” trails are less “secret” than ever and as more people continue to spread the word about these once unknown attractions, more people become interested in tracking them down. The consequences of this shift toward easier exploration come in a variety of forms, some good and some bad.

Working for a resource like OutThere Colorado, I’ve noticed that feedback from the outdoor community tends to come from one of two polarized opinions. In one camp, people are excited about finding new places, thankful to have access to the resources that allow them to do so. In the other camp, some people feel violated, as if sharing information about “their local secret” is, in a way, stealing the ruggedness that makes a certain destination so special.

Personally, I don’t think that either train of thought is off-course. While published content about enchanting natural destinations can fuel the desire to form a connection with the great outdoors, it can also lead to increased foot traffic in remote areas, something that can damage fragile ecosystems not meant for so many human visitors. But what’s right and what’s feasible in regard to seeking a solution are two very different questions.

This issue is something that I battle with on a regular basis, as many of the pieces that I write put the natural beauty of Colorado in front of the public eye. As someone who spends most of their free time outside, often without cell phone reception, I understand the instinct to keep some places sacred. There are a lot of beautiful places around Colorado that I refuse to write about because of this, and as a result, far fewer people will be able to see them.

At the same time, I also understand utilizing the resources available to seek out the best possible experience. If I’m looking for my next adventure, I’ll probably head straight to the AllTrails in search of finding a tried and true recommendation, some of which are local “hidden” gems. I’d bet that a lot of the people who feel scorned by the content that brings awareness to outdoor destinations act the same way that I do — aware of the necessity to protect these natural areas, while also utilizing the resources that let them find a new natural spot.

Think back to the example at the beginning of this piece regarding the funny cat videos that found a home on the internet. People wanted cat videos, so they got cat videos. People tend to adapt technology to fit their specific needs, regardless of its original intention, and for many, that need is easy access to information about exploring the outdoors. As long as this need remains widespread, the internet will continue to be used to fill the gap left by the lack of accessibility that existed when trails and attractions could only be found by word of mouth or on a physical map. Unless internet users suddenly stop looking for new places to explore, the content about these places will continue to be created and will continue to be utilized, whether we like it or not.

Instead of becoming fixated on the fact that the internet is making these places easier to find, effort would be better spent on seeking a balance that allows humans to coexist with the places they’re insistently tracking down. The internet will likely always be there … until the next big thing comes along that makes finding information even easier than it is now. Simply assuming that this information will somehow disappear is no longer an option.

So, will the internet destroy the outdoors? It could … but it doesn’t have to.

What needs to happen is a congregation of communities. Those who consider the outdoors to be sacred and those who are new to the scene need to be all-in-the-same. This allows for a deeper level of education to exist — a place where the experienced can teach the inexperienced about how to properly interact with the places that both groups are passionate about understanding.

To those experienced in outdoor recreation — Rather than shunning newcomers who ask about a remote trail, embrace them and show them how they can join the effort to ensure that these places remain beautiful for future generations. Otherwise, the inexperienced will continue to find these places via the internet without having the tools it takes to interact with nature in a safe manner. As easy as it is to say “stop talking about the places and they won’t be found,” this doesn’t solve anything. The fact is that the places exist and so does the widespread desire to seek them out and as the amount of information on the internet continues to grow, regardless of whether it’s coming from a publication or massive group independent users on social media, these places will continue to become more public.

You can’t hate the newcomer for not picking up their dog’s poop on a trail. While this is common sense to many, it’s not common sense for all. The only way this practice can be learned is if this practice is taught.

To those inexperienced in outdoor recreation — Be willing to be a student. Ask questions and take advice from those that know more than you. Take the time to reduce your impact in a natural space and always make sure you’re prepared to handle the terrain you’re entering. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t feel discouraged by those that might push you away.

My call to action is simple. From one person that loves the outdoors to another, don’t stand by and watch the places you love get destroyed, but don’t push people into a hostile situation by doing so. Many people are united in entering the outdoors seeking something more fulfilling than the scenery they’re surrounded by in their everyday life. Everyone didn’t grow up around natural areas, but most people that choose to enter this realm have the best intentions in mind. Do the world a favor by sharing your knowledge about how to preserve and how to protect.

Building a bigger community of people that love the outdoors isn’t a bad thing. A bigger community means more awareness, more economic means of protection, and a louder political voice when it comes to building laws that ensure the natural beauty of the planet will be preserved for generations to come. People are exploring the outdoors at a higher rate than before whether you like it or not. It’s up to those of us that have been exploring the outdoors for years to welcome the newcomers into our community of stewardship and responsibility.


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