How social media affects the national park experience

Tourists gather at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, June 3, 2016. From feeding wild animals to perilous selfies, tourists risk their lives and the preservation of America’s national parks for fleeting social media fame.

Tourists gather at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, June 3, 2016. From feeding wild animals to perilous selfies, tourists risk their lives and the preservation of America’s national parks for fleeting social media fame. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — It may seem cute and fun for tourists to feed the wildlife at a national park until you realize this isn't a Disney movie but is, in fact, reality. One woman who decided to feed a grown bull — not in a national park, but on a Mexican beach earlier this month — learned the hard way that if you mess with a bull, you may get the horns. The video was posted online, per CBS News.

One Instagram account with nearly half a million followers posts videos of tourists risking their lives to get the picture no one else has for a temporary sense of fame on social media. The account, TouronsOfYellowstone, shares submissions mainly in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park but posted one photo of a tourist in Utah who had to be saved by search and rescue after jumping to a hoodoo rock overlooking the canyon thousands of feet below.

The phrase "touron," the combination of tourist and moron, describes those who don't think before they act when it comes to interacting with wildlife in America's national parks.

In 2022, influencer Katie Sigmund faced criminal charges after hitting golf balls into Grand Canyon National Park. "I was thinking in my head … 'I can make golf content. Like, it's such a pretty view. Let me just golf into the Grand Canyon,'" Sigmund said in an interview, according to & the West.

"Dumbest idea," she added.

After posting the video of golf balls and part of her golf club breaking off and being thrown below Mather Point at the South Rim of the canyon, some of Sigmund's followers reported her to the park. She was handed three federal violation notices and a $285 fine.

Carmen Holbrook has visited many popular scenic spots through the years and says she has seen a few people in national parks get too close to danger for comfort.

"I haven't seen people hitting golf balls, but I have seen people get way too close to the waterfall, and they just don't understand the power and beauty of nature," Holbrook told the Deseret News. "It becomes so risky."

The National Park Service mortality dashboard from 2014 to 2019 shows that the Top 3 causes of unintentional deaths are motor vehicle crashes, drownings and falls. Fifty percent of all deaths inside parks are reportedly unintentional and also occur when the individual is participating in physical activity.

While at Yellowstone National Park, Holbrook said she saw multiple instances of people tempting their fates. In one instance, she witnessed a tourist walk off the guided path even though the signs warned of a thin crust that resembled solid ground.

"I felt like I was going to have a heart attack watching him walk on the crust," she said. "It's annoying when people do dangerous things. They think it's only affecting them when everyone else around them is like, 'You're destroying the park, and you're stressing us out. You are doing something so disrespectful.'"

Another occurrence happened when she and other tourists were driving along a river in the park when someone spotted a grizzly bear on the opposite side of the bank.

"Everyone was getting out of their cars and standing across the river, which was a small river, probably only like 30-50 feet away from this grizzly bear," Holbrook emphasized. "It was just so sad, because you do hear all these grizzly bear attacks. There was a runner last year in Yellowstone who was attacked."

"Why can you not just look from your car? Why do you have to get out and get close and risk your life when you could just still enjoy it the same way, just in the safety of your car?" she asked.

Social media for those who behave

The power of social media is that it influences — some for good and others for bad. That said, there have been some positive outcomes for America's breathtaking landscapes in the digital world.

Research by Georgia Tech's School of Economics looked at different social media outlets tied to national parks in the last decade and found that "parks with high exposure see increases in visitation that are 16% to 22% larger than parks with less exposure, that see little change."

"Visitation to national parks in the United States has increased by more than 25% since 2010, rising from roughly 70 to 90 million annual visitors," the study added. "Anecdotes suggest that this increase was driven by the advent of social media in the early-to-mid 2010s, generating a new form of exposure for parks, and has led to concerns about overcrowding and degradation of environmental quality."

One account that provides both comedic relief and interesting information regarding the national parks and the wildlife within is the National Park Service's social media itself.

It also warns of potentially smaller threats that aren't so grizzly.

"We often get referred to as the dad joke," Matt Turner, the social media specialist for the National Park Service, told The Weather Channel. "I'm like, well … you know, I think that fits with the National Park Service personality, maybe of outdoors and going camping and spending time with family."

"We often kind of say, like, 'Safety with a smile,'" he added. "As a government agency, we don't want to say 'no' all the time or 'stop doing that.'"

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