Harnessing social media to #SaveHangingLake
April 8, 2016
As the Internet and social media have contributed to record crowds at Hanging Lake, they also may be the key to educating visitors on how to treat the fragile attraction.
At least that's what Aspen Trail Finder founder Preston Files suggests in a recent blog post that focuses on one of the most flagrant violations: walking on the log.
It's conceivable that someone can overlook the rule against dogs or write off the warnings that the rough 2.4-mile round trip is no cakewalk. It's harder to imagine missing the polite sign right at the base of the log that has jutted out into the lake for as long as most folks can remember.
"Please keep of the log" even shows up prominently in several Instagram posts. Files' blog post cites social media responses like "Never liked signs telling me I couldn't do things," and "Nobody tells me how to live my life."
"It just gets kind of frustrating to see repeated flagrant offenses," Files said in an interview.
Aside from the fact that climbing out on a rotten old log is likely dangerous and tends to ruin everyone else's photos, it's a good way to end up in the water. That, in turn, is an excellent way to damage the travertine that supports the lake and gives it its lovely color.
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Unfortunately, it's an almost irresistible photo opp.
"You could do a lot of things that you're not supposed to at Hanging Lake, but the log is the most enticing," Files said. "It seems like people feel entitled. They get to the top and feel like it's their one shot."
It doesn't help that many visitors may have been inspired by just such a picture. From Instagram and Twitter to travel blogs and even Outside magazine, the image is everywhere. That's where Files decided a little polite, educational public shaming might do some good.
'REVERSE THE CULTURE'
"One person, one corporation, one government agency doesn't have the power to stop people," he said. "With enough comments, maybe that person who thought the photo was cool realizes that it's not cool. If you kind of reverse the culture, people take down their photos or stop posting them."
To that end, Files linked readers to some prominent violations on Instagram. Several users have since deleted the posts, one has apologized, while others appear to simply be ignoring or even deleting the comments.
The Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association has used a similar tactic with organizations instead of individuals, with some success.
"I think that any time we can educate the public on how to conserve our natural resources and how to protect this beautiful landmark, it's very valuable," said Lisa Langer, vice president of tourism marketing. "Everyone we've approached has been appreciative, and most of the time they take the photo down or added a note about the violation."
What people learn online is important, Langer said, because the crowds are only growing — topping 100,000 visitors last year, according to the Forest Service — and many have misconceptions.
"We have people all over the world that post pictures of Hanging Lake and talk about the hike." she said. "It's the No. 1 thing people search on our website, so some people are getting information from us. Most are just hearing about it and going there."
That would certainly explain how so many people end up attempting the hike without proper footwear or gear, and provides some insight into the tourist who called to inquire about canoe rentals. Just last week, a group in light clothing had to be rescued near the icy top of the trail.
"I think what we're seeing across the board is more and more people not being prepared for the experiences they want to have," said White River National Forest public information officer Bill Kight. "You never know what people are going to do next."
It's hard to stay ahead of the problems. Last year, Garfield County and the Glenwood Chamber covered costs for a pair of rangers to keep order on peak days at the rest stop 9 miles east of Glenwood Springs that serves as the trailhead. Without their supervision, visitors park on the grass and in fire lanes while traffic backed up out of the exit.
The same plan will be in place this summer, but it's unlikely to make a lot of difference beyond the parking lot. According to trails coordinator Kay Hopkins, the Forest Service also has applied for a Colorado Parks and Wildlife Grant in hopes of paying for two more rangers to work on the trail itself and interact with visitors.
"We're excited about the opportunity," she said. "It would be the first time we have a dedicated crew working on the resource itself."
The Forest Service also is working with the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to come up with long-term solutions at Hanging Lake. They've already conducted capacity and alternative transport studies, with public scoping planned for the summer.
"The goal is to sustain visitors' experience, their safety and, of course, the site itself," Hopkins said. "It's going to be a balance, and we'll have to adapt."
The public will have a chance to comment on the process, with solutions hopefully starting to take effect in 2017.
While government action takes time, community action can happen right away.
"People's awareness of the obligation they have to the commons has to come from other people," Kight said. "I think the people who use the resource are going to have to set the balance. I trust them to do that."
Files had similar sentiments.
"I'm not the spokesman for Hanging Lake," he said. "You just get a lot of people to do a little part."