Outdoors commentary: Public lands hate you, or do they?

Outdoors commentary: Public lands hate you, or do they?

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This year I’ve been responsible for the annual conference for the Outdoor Writers Association of America. We were finally ready in January of this year to publish our agenda for the conference at the Jay Peak Resort in northern Vermont. Then the coronavirus arrived.

Undeterred, we pivoted to the concept of a virtual conference. We trimmed our offerings to a shortened format, but one of the sessions we kept was a presentation called “Are We Loving Nature to Death?”

The panelists originally included the venerable Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, a 25-year-old organization whose core belief rests in education of the public in the seven core principles of outdoor behavior.

We considered the Leave No Trace folks to be a centerpiece of that session so I was more than a little surprised to receive word from the moderator that they were refusing to take part as long as one of our other invitees remained on the panel.

The object of their concern was a man called "Steve" (not his real name), who runs a website, blog and Instagram post called www.publiclandshateyou.com. Steve does not use his real name because the tools he uses to combat poor behavior in the outdoors include publicly identifying and ridiculing the offenders in various internet formats. His targets complain that they are being bullied and shamed. He refers to his actions as "legitimate callouts" against the most egregious public land offenders. Steve has also pointed out what he considers to be the unhealthy relationship between Leave No Trace and large corporate sponsors.

I wasn’t going to allow anyone to dictate who our speakers could be so I told the moderator to say "thanks, but no thanks" to Leave No Trace and continue on with Steve and our two other speakers. All three presenters were excellent, informative and engaging, but I was particularly impressed by Steve and his presentation.

His website and posts are well researched and intelligent, aggressive without being belligerent. And they include high quality photographs of many people breaking laws on public lands. One of the most remarkable aspects of his most effective—and damning—photographs is the fact that most of them were taken by, or with the cooperation of, the offenders themselves.

A remarkable number of young women bare their bodies in restricted areas on public lands—then share the resulting photos with thousands of strangers. I fear to comment.

Influencers are particularly nettlesome to Steve and in addition to providing multiple photos of their illegal activities, he also maintains a list of the worst of them on his website. Predictably, these people do not respond well, although Steve’s unwelcome publicity often results in the loss of income, as their sponsors run from the negative publicity he creates. Then, their responses tend to be more positive. Some have even issued apologies, which he readily accepts and helps to promote their redemption in the cyberworld.

The most worrisome of all, in Steve’s opinion, are geotaggers, people who provide exact digital information and photographs on social media of pristine, relatively unknown locations. Armed with the exact coordinates, it’s easy for ill-equipped, unprepared people to descend on those places and the consequences, as his website shows, are never positive.

The result of the presentation was striking. A significant number of the attendees, including me, were convinced by Steve’s argument that although the educational efforts of the Leave No Trace Center are critically important, we need special tools to combat the profit and fame-seeking bottom feeders who flout the laws of our public lands for their own benefit.

And if the most effective of those tools include shaming and bullying, so be it.

Good on ya, Steve. www.publiclandshateyou.com

Pat Wray writes about the outdoors and can be reached at patwray@comast.net

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