Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Mossome Grove near Port Renfrew, B.C., features old-growth bigleaf maple trees.Larry Pynn

Larry Pynn is a veteran environmental journalist who publishes the blog

I have a special little park that I’d love to share with you.

But I won’t, for that would defeat the purpose of this essay.

When I moved to the Cowichan Valley of Vancouver Island in 2018, the park in my backyard was a true gem, a place of extraordinary beauty but also a refuge of tranquillity.

Today, this same place – identified as a biodiversity “hot spot” in a municipal report and described on a park sign as “sensitive habitat” – is overrun with visitors, posing a threat to ecosystems and creating acute parking problems.

How did this happen in such a short time?

Sure, population increase is a factor. But I primarily blame the reckless use of social media.

Environmental groups learned long ago that posting heart-tugging photos and videos of remote, little-known natural areas can work wonders in galvanizing public support and generating campaign donations. After all, people need to know about a wild and endangered landscape before they can take an interest in protecting it.

But those same images can have a deleterious impact if they funnel crowds to vulnerable places that cannot withstand the foot and vehicle traffic.

“When a sensitive area is posted and so many people show up and there’s no money for infrastructure,” says Jordanna Bergman, lead author of a 2022 academic paper on social media and wildlife conservation, “that’s when these special beautiful places end up becoming degraded. That’s the tipping point, where it’s no longer a benefit to the environment.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Weekend traffic is so congested outside a small park in the Cowichan Valley it could impede emergency vehicles.Larry Pynn

Social-media posts can threaten all manner of wild species that might be harvested, harassed or hunted. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology eBird program advises birders not to “share nest locations of sensitive species except with appropriate wildlife officials or conservation scientists.”

I suspect most Canadians have their own local examples of good places gone bad, of the crush of humanity on the land.

In Ontario and Quebec, wild ginseng – dubbed the “rhino horn” of Canada – is at risk from poachers, leading Environment and Climate Change Canada to warn in an e-mail that “publicizing exact locations can further impact the long-term viability of this unique and imperilled plant species.”

A recent tourism-driven initiative labelled, Don’t Love It To Death, on the Sea-to-Sky corridor north of Vancouver, including Whistler, warns that “irresponsible social media use … has led to environmentally sensitive areas becoming overrun. It has also led to more calls to Search & Rescue and deaths. This has a negative impact on wildlife, nature, the experience, and other people. Is the selfie really worth it? You could be ruining that place through your thoughtless actions.”

Overcrowding at Joffre Lakes Provincial Park north of Squamish became so extreme that, last August, the Líl̓wat Nation and N’Quatqua First Nation unilaterally declared a temporary shut down of public access to the park to allow Indigenous harvesting.

In my own neighbourhood, visitors have posted hundreds of selfies taken in the park. Some people pose like fashion models, some in yoga positions, some semi-naked. There are photos of marriage proposals, panting dogs, drug paraphernalia, baby bumps, champagne popping, tree climbing, rope skipping – even an image of a debonair fellow drinking coffee in his house coat.

One YouTube video shows four young men in a car doing doughnuts in the parking lot, and driving at high speed down a narrow country access road. While walking the park trails, the young men joke it would be a great spot for a campfire and a 48-pack of beer (something that I previously did not know existed).

Like so many parks, compliance and enforcement is in short supply, creating conditions for ecological damage.

At the little park near me, I have observed beer cans at an illegal campfire site, constant trespass onto neighbouring private lands, and people disobeying signs telling them to keep to the trails and leash their dogs.

On weekends, the parking lot is packed and vehicles park on both sides of the road, to the point it could impede a fire truck responding to an emergency. Pedestrians take their chances running the gauntlet of moving steel.

Visitors’ shoes have reduced the once-thick moss beds to dirt, the dirt washed away to expose bare rock.

Debra Toporowski, a Cowichan Valley Regional District director and member of Cowichan Tribes, laments the continuing ecological damage to this park, including to medicinal plants. “The things we lose in our community, we can’t get back.”

Dr. Bergman sympathizes: “It’s so hard for ecosystems to come back after they’re degraded without lots of help or money.”

The problem is not just individuals who post to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and whatever other social-media sites are out there. Tourism organizations, travel writers and bloggers typically share their promotional articles on these platforms, compounding the issue.

Tourism Cowichan urges the public to “consider omitting the exact location of sensitive areas from social media; inspiring others to seek out new places themselves.” Yet recently the agency published a two-page photo of the same little park in my neighbourhood which is being overrun with human and vehicular traffic. When I pointed this out, a representative of Tourism Cowichan replied: “I have already flagged this to our marketing team and we will be sure to refrain from posting about this park on social media moving forward.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Excessive visitation has destroyed thick moss and other vegetation at a small park identified as a biodiversity hotspot near writer’s home in Cowichan Valley.Larry Pynn

Problem is, Tourism Cowichan’s existing social posts – and there are many – about this beleaguered park remain online for all to see.

There is a simple solution to the problem.

Don’t share location details about your experience. And certainly don’t geotag your images by uploading a photo with GPS co-ordinates to a social-media site.

The U.S. outdoor giant, REI, urges its customers to consider this question: “What are the implications, both negative and positive, of sharing this place?”

Recreational anglers have long known the value of keeping their fishing holes secret. These days, they coyly boast their fishing prowess on YouTube videos describing their location as Zipper Mouth Lake or Zipper Mouth Creek.

Cavers, too, know the importance of keeping the location of delicate underground karst to themselves. A 2022 study co-published by the International Union of Speleology and International Union for Conservation of Nature confirmed that “massive growth” in social media is creating a litany of conservation issues. These include cave visitation by inexperienced individuals and groups leading to damage, graffiti, marking of cave walls to record routes, and removal of features as souvenirs.

The Ancient Forest Alliance and the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance have successfully used social media to publicize threatened old-growth forests on Vancouver Island. But they haven’t posted directions to 13-hectare Mossome Grove (short for mossy and awesome) with its ancient bigleaf maples and Sitka spruce. They cite the grove’s small size, uniqueness, lack of formal protection and absence of trails that could lead to excessive trampling.

The message for us all is to be deliberately vague.

One of the easiest and clearest take-homes for the public is to not geotag at a small scale, Dr. Bergman says. In the case of my little park, visitors should just describe it as Vancouver Island, so it doesn’t result in an influx of people. “This little thing you can do can make a big difference,” she says.

The reality is that we live in a social-media world where people enjoy accumulating “likes” and “smiley faces” for their posts. That’s all fine and good.

But think hard before posting about sensitive areas and special places because once they are described on social media there may be no turning back.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe