All photos by Jessica Roberts

I recently participated in the pilgrimage to view the incredible spectacle of California poppies. It was around this time last year when I had just moved to California;  I was immediately awestruck by the California poppies and giant coreopsis along the coast. I couldn’t wait to see more this year, especially with the super bloom hype in the air.

A coworker of mine had posted an image of poppies at Lake Elsinore on Instagram. I quickly copy and pasted the name into Google maps, noticing that it was on the way to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. And just like that my pilgrimage journey was mapped. The display of flowers did not disappoint, but what was perhaps as spectacular was the number of visitors at the parks. Tour buses, traffic jams, and selfie-hunters were ever-present. How was the prevalence of social media and the construction of self-image impacting the landscape?

Last year a University of Vermont research team used geo-tagged social media images to measure the use and value of outdoor recreation on public lands. The study analyzed more than 7,000 images, calculating that conserved lands contributed $1.8 billion to Vermont’s tourism industry between 2007-2014. The team developed criteria that drives the use of conserved lands and they discovered that there were differences in use between in-state and out-of-state visitors. For example out-of-state tourists preferred locations with easy access to clean water and swimming. The study indicates how important it is to understand the dynamics of ecosystems in conservation.

Although the idea of using this kind of research to collect data on the value of outdoor recreation is exciting, what’s even more fascinating are the ways social media can impact the public’s perception of any landscape and its perceived value worth visiting and protecting.

The poppy covered hillsides of Lake Elsinore were populated as one might expect. The entrances and even the slopes directly adjacent to the interstate were filled with tourists from all over the world. You had to hike further to see the pro hiking gear and safari hat wearing local nature lovers in their element. Temporary accommodations were set up and there were volunteers everywhere. Clearly these parks do not usually see this kind of traffic.

Photo by Alex Reed

A friend of mine in Illinois uses Instagram to track seasonal morel mushroom sightings as they creep up from the south. Similarly, based on the tagged location and time of posted images on Instagram, I could predict when the poppies were fully opened and the quality of light I could expect to see. A quick #californiapoppy and #superbloom search had led me to all the hot spots. As overwhelming as the crowds were, I was pleased to see the masses appreciating the beauty of the landscape (with a little selfie-love in the mix). It will be interesting to continue to observe the intersection of social media and landscape value as the two continue to weave together.

A few related links for your superbloom flower expeditions:
• How to Shoot Epic Landscape Selfies – 6 Top Tips
• 10 Tips For Stunning iPhone Flower Photography
• 7 times selfies and nature didn’t mix
• Spatial and Temporal Dynamics and Value of Nature-Based Recreation, Estimated via Social Media

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