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"Brad Pitt in America's National Parks" Is Part of a Larger Problem with How We Use Our Parks

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Department of Defense photo by Marvin Lynchard

Oh, GQ Style, you’ve done it again.

We thought you’d probably learned something from that infamous 2016 We Took Fall’s Crunchiest Designer Clothes Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park photo shoot, the one with the pro male climbers modeling designer clothing while female models sat idly by, the one that Outdoor Research brilliantly lampooned.

We’re not even going to pick apart how inane it is, as it would be hard to outdo this savage takedown in The Guardian. It’s too easy to make fun of. Here’s Brad sprawled in the sand with a $1,400 sweater. Here’s Brad looking anguished in a $3,700 outfit, and also standing thigh-deep in a swamp. No wonder he looks anguished, I bet his feet are cold and those pants are never going to be the same. It makes fun of itself; why bother?

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Perhaps your marketing department thinks all exposure is good exposure, no matter how negative the backlash. Perhaps you know that the worlds of high fashion and outdoor recreation rarely cross, and you don’t care if we think it’s dumb since we’ll probably think it’s dumb anyway. That’s fair. If you’re the type of person who thinks this is how a man is supposed to dress and act, you’re probably not reading this article.

And, no, we’re not going to link to your asinine Brad Pitt in America’s National Parks feature, the one where he’s curled in the fetal position on the ground in $1,600 pants by Giorgio Armani, then posing by a campfire in a $9,500 Louis Vuitton jacket.

I think there’s a larger problem here, one that wouldn’t exist if the Brad Pitt story had been nixed in favor of George Clooney Goes to the Zoo or, I dunno, Matthew McConaughey Wears This Summer’s Hottest Styles in Aisle 6 at Whole Foods. Forgive me if it’s hard to even imagine what these folks will trot out next.

What really gets me is that America’s national parks are best-suited as the backdrop for whatever you’re selling, or whatever narcissistic, self-promotional thing you feel like doing.

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I recently spent a month during peak season in Joshua Tree National Park, a place whose visitation has nearly doubled in a four-year span. You can’t drive a quarter mile in that park right now without stumbling into a professional photo or video shoot of some kind, often unpermitted, often involving photographers and/or models trampling all over fragile desert flora and soil crusts in the quest for the perfect shot.

Who’s to blame them, though, if this is the example? Despite the requisite internet outrage when a British parkour team broke every park rule they could findon a recent trip, it’s not far removed from spray painting the trees for a music video, nor one of several recent rashes of social-media-driven vandalism in the park.

And let’s not single out Joshua Tree, where park rangers and administrative staff are fighting the good fight against dipsh****ery on a daily basis; a similar incident at Yellowstone last summer and a graffiti artist’s multi-park spree in 2014 prove otherwise.

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On a personal level, I’m thrilled to see so many people venturing into our national parks, especially those new to outdoor recreation, and I’ve argued previously on this site that the outdoors is for everyone. An increase in usership is ultimately a good thing, and I hope that one day Congress decides to increase the National Park System budget accordingly so each park’s staffing and infrastructure needs can be met.

Yet the majority of this user group doesn’t seem to be, say, communing with nature or contemplating their place in wilderness or any of the things we imagine when we beg our politicians to keep public lands public.

In fact the mission statement of the National Park Service begins this way:

"(NPS) preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations."

Preserves unimpaired. I like that. Preservation is a key role of the NPS, which explains why park staff is likely to be more concerned about whether you’re disturbing wildlife with illegal drones than whether you find the evening light to be appropriate for a surrealist fashion shoot.

I’m certainly not claiming that GQ Style’s staff, photographer or writer defaced any of these parks during the photo shoots, nor that any of these issues are directly caused by a fashion magazine. I don’t think video games and gangsta rap are responsible for violent crime, and I don’t think we get to blame Toyota when illegal off-roaders rip up a sensitive area. We are responsible for our own decisions in this world.

But impact goes beyond the footsteps you leave.

As a society, we’ve somehow cultivated the impression that national parks are just cool places to take selfies and shoot a music video, rather than pristine locations to be treated with reverence.

Most people believe public land is worth protecting, but is the backdrop for Brad Pitt’s "rugged" fashion shoot really what we’ve protected it for?

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Author’s note: I feel like it’s important to grant Brad himself a pass here. Most movie stars are a little out of touch, and the poor guy is dealing with some stuff right now. I went through a divorce last year, too, and it sucks. If you’re looking for answers, Mr. Pitt, we suggest you try climbing mountains, or running an ultramarathon; I’ve found some of my clearest thoughts in the darkest moments of an epic outdoor adventure. Email me at labs@rootsrated.com; I have some ideas.

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