Even Trump Can’t Take Away the Majesty of the Interior Department’s Instagram

The agency still posts images of national splendor as though nothing in our country has changed—and I’m fine with it.

Dunes with wildflowers, a canyon, a manatee, and mountains.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Trumpstagram is Slate’s pop-up blog that close-reads Instagram accounts in the Trump orbit.

Since the Department of the Interior joined Instagram in 2012, it has used its account for one basic purpose: to unabashedly highlight and celebrate the beauty of America’s public lands. The DOI oversees the national parks, national wildlife refuges, national monuments, and more—in short, it has plenty of splendor to post.* The photographs are consistently breathtaking, and the account has garnered special standing among government-agency Instagrams—it tops lists of such things and boasts 1.6 million followers, small compared with NASA’s extraordinary 33.5 million but nothing to scoff at. (It’s also posted about 1,000 more photos than NASA—take that, space!)

What is perhaps the most remarkable about the DOI’s Instagram, though, is its ability to stay above the political fray. Instagram’s only been around for one transition of presidential power, so there’s a limited data set to observe. But while other agencies choose to mark the passing of the torch with soft, subtle messages of farewell from officials leaving office—see former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s transition selfie or former Department of Education Secretary John King Jr.’s heartfelt goodbye post—the DOI breezed through the change without so much as a mention of outgoing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Instead, it posted a gorgeous photo of the Lincoln Memorial, which it oversees, with a caption that can be read as innocuous, subtle, or, as I read it, downright reassuring. “At the west end of the #NationalMall in #WashingtonDC, the #LincolnMemorial stands in tribute to President Abraham Lincoln. It’s not only a reminder of one of our history’s greatest figures, but a place of celebration, education and demonstration. In times of trouble and of peace, the @nationalmallnps has served as America’s symbolic front yard and the eyes of Lincoln’s statue have kept watch over our unfolding history.” And then it went back to posting pretty park pics.

@USInterior is the only government agency account I follow. I follow it for the same reason I follow National Geographic’s blockbuster Instagram: It’s gorgeous. Like nearly all other Americans, I love America’s public lands and agree that the national parks system is, as others have called it, America’s Best Idea. I feel lucky to have a personal connection to these public spaces: Twice during my childhood, my parents, both teachers, packed our family into a rented minivan and took my siblings and me on weekslong summer road trips across America. The plan largely involved setting up camp for several nights at various national parks, spending the days hiking and exploring, and then packing back into the van to head to the next one. Like any family vacation, these trips had ups and downs—on one, my sister broke her kneecap in a dune buggy accident in Oregon—and yet we kept camping. But I also learned that Glacier National Park’s lakes are an otherworldly color of turquoise, that the Grand Teton’s Mount Moran looks like a sleeping St. Bernard, and that there are deposits of claylike mud in Zion’s rivers that you can cake to your body to cool off when the temperature creeps up. The experience instilled in me a sense of appreciation for the size and scope and biological diversity of our country, coupled with a sense of awe that we had decided to protect these lands and share them in this way—both of which contribute to my affection for the account. (Also, it’s worth noting that there are problems with accessibility to the outdoors, and, yes, it is a bit ridiculous that we pat ourselves on the back for protecting something we stole. We should be aware of both things as we consider how to steward these spaces in the future.)

But even with its popular and placid Instagram, since Trump took office, the Department of the Interior, under the direction of Ryan Zinke, has gotten its fair share of bad press. It raised admission prices on national parks to public outcry (though, as Slate argued, there were good reasons to do that). It lifted a six-year ban on plastic water bottles sold inside the parks and made it easier for oil companies to drill inside of their borders. Perhaps most controversially, at Zinke’s recommendation, Trump announced that he would shrink the size of two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, despite the fact that 96 percent of citizens commenting on the proposal opposed the plan. And of course, none of this is to mention the broader assaults on the environment the Trump administration is delivering, perhaps most importantly, Trump’s decision to bail on the Paris Agreement. And yet the account just continues on as if nothing were amiss:

It’s weird to feel so much frustration toward what the government is doing to protect and preserve nature and then to find yourself, minutes later, loving the pics they’ve posted of that very same now-more-threatened nature. Judging by the occasional outbursts of anger that make their way into the Instagram comments, I’m not alone in feeling this cognitive dissonance. “Cute ears on them, too bad Zinke hates Bear’s Ears,” writes one commenter on an adorable photo of two bear cubs. “We should change the State bird to the Black Vulture. The dignity and strength of the Eagle no longer represents us as a Nation,” writes another on a majestic shot of a bald eagle. (Animals really seem to bring out the most angst.)

And yet, I have no interest in unfollowing the account. Part of that is because I suspect the person who runs it is a career government worker who truly does want to protect our public lands. Part of it, though, is because even with the occasional jolts of anguish the photos bring, seeing a steady stream of these amazing nature shots actually does me a great deal of good. It reminds me of a thing I love about this country, that most Americans love about this country, which is something worth holding onto right now. It reminds me that these spaces are worth protecting, which is motivating. And, most importantly, I think, the epic photos from the Department of the Interior deliver the same gut-punch nature often does, which is to say that they remind me of my place in the world. The epic mountains and sunsets and coasts help put things into perspective—to remind me that our present is just one small blip in space and time, that there are forces on this planet that are much greater and far more spectacular than Trump. Yes, it’s just one Instagram account. But it’s reassuring and revitalizing just the same.

Read more Trumpstagram here

Correction, July 9, 2018: This story originally misstated that the DOI oversees national forests. The Department of Agriculture oversees national forests.