Are we loving our wilderness and natural areas to death? Social media is creating an increased awareness among photographers, backpackers and hikers of new opportunities to visit beautiful locations in our National Parks, Forests and Wilderness Areas. Thanks to Facebook and Instagram this information now travels like wild fire, especially when someone posts a beautiful image of a previously not so well known location. Some of these images come from professional photographers, but they also come from people who have developed the knack for taking awesome images with their cell phones including selfies against a background of nature’s infinite splendor and beauty.
Franklin Falls Love and Death
Above is an image from a couple years back of Franklin Falls. During the year I took this image I showed up at these Falls a couple of times and in both instances there was absolutely no one there, just the sound of the water, otherwise silence and solitude. No such luck anymore! This landmark close to Washington State’s I-90 has become the latest hot-spot to attract throngs of visitors including some groups approaching fifty or more people. I have seen a few images this year where there were literally over a hundred people around the Falls, one was recently published by the Seattle Times. Now it is easy to understand why this is so, this place is absolutely beautiful, especially in Winter. Everyone has an equal right to go there. Social media increased awareness of the site, now everyone wants to go and shoot that precious selfie with the ice covered falls in the background!
A multitude of people at Rattlesnake Ledge on a Sunday Afternoon
All of this raises an interesting dilemma for photographers. Do I let people know precisely where an image was taken, or should I just be general and not share important details? For the most part I have chosen to share the detail and am likely at least partially responsible for throngs of people loving certain sites to death. Anytime I have an image that goes viral, I notice a definite uptick in people going to that very same location. Now of course I am not that only one that contributes to this and there are photographers with far more influence than me who also contribute to making sites go viral. But as others go to the same site, they encourage still others to go, and so on and so forth as droves of people head to a trending site. The sites we are talking about, however, are not only online but also occupy physical space in the great outdoors!
Gold Creek Pond (I have seen about a twofold increase in visitors this year)
What is a photographer like me to do? Should I stop posting pictures on Facebook so at least I do not help nurture too much awareness of a beautiful landscape? For the most part I have chosen to not do this and here is the reason why. Awareness is one of the best ways to protect a beautiful landscape. The most dedicated and passionate supporters of our natural areas are people who visit them on a regular basis. So in one sense the more people that visit a natural area (National Parks, other Public Lands, and even Private Lands), the better. But although awareness is one of the best ways to protect a beautiful landscape, it is also potentially the cause of lowering the quality of the wilderness experience.
Some of you may ask: “Erwin-should not we keep our secret spots private and not let others know about them?” In part I agree with this and I have a few places that I keep secret also. But if you are going to post images of these private spots on social media I doubt they will be secret for long. People can use an image as a basis to search and make a correlation with google earth to find out the exact spot. This search process is similar to face recognition except in is site recognition. The cat almost always finds its way out of the bag! So if you truly want to keep it secret, do not post an image on Facebook or Instagram at all! One of the only ways to currently capture images that have not been posted too much already on social media is to go to difficult to access areas. Many well known photographers are doing just that in order to keep themselves in the social media limelight. It is just my opinion, however, that the ultimate test of an accomplished photographer is not getting images where few have gone before, but rather their ability through creative photographic and processing techniques to make even the seemingly mundane and familiar look beautiful. Nowhere is this ability more needed than with raising awareness of the need to protect public lands because if the truth be known much of the vast expanse of lands that are public are not considered very attractive or interesting at all. Photographers can help in this regard by presenting even these areas in the most favorable light.
It is encouraging to know that we can have a high level of awareness of a landscape and still control the number of visitors if a government agency reduces the number of visitors into an area through the adoption of a permit system. This is what has been done for backpacking at both the Enchantment Lakes and also Mt. Rainier National Park. Both of these areas are considered environmentally sensitive and simply cannot absorb the impact of an uncontrolled number of backpackers.
Larches in the Enchanted Mist (Enchantment Lakes Core Area)
Mt. Rainier National Park has done a great job over several decades in not only reducing any further environmental impact caused by uncontrolled visitation, but has actually manged to restore meadows and shorelines in many parts of the back country.
Bench Lake Early Morning (Mt. Rainier National Park)
Although a great job has been done in reducing environmental harm at both the Enchantments and Mt. Rainier there are still problems. The Enchantments allows an unlimited number of through hikers that make the arduous trek in through Aasgard Pass and out through the Snow Lake Entrance. While anyone making this trek in a single day deserves recognition for this accomplishment, there are just too many people doing it. When I was at the Enchantments last year there was literally a steady procession of people all day long hiking through the enchantment lakes core area. At some point, unfortunately, a permit will also need to be required for the through hike in order to maintain a good quality wilderness experience and minimize damage to the environment. When I was at Mt. Rainier to take the above image of Bench Lake there was a group of young men camped right out at the lake shore which is strictly forbidden. Why were they there?– to get that precious image of the feet hanging out through the tent door looking out to the lake and Mt. Rainier! When we confronted them they pleaded ignorance, but I think they knew exactly what they were doing wrong and should receive the maximum fine of $5,000 and 6 months in jail. I might be a little extreme here!
Personally I think everyone in our nation has the right to visit our national parks, forests, and wilderness areas. Any kind of allocation scheme for providing permits needs to treat everyone fairly. It my opinion it is elitist to think that one person has more of a right to visit an area than another, including photographers. If the right to enter into a wilderness landscape is restricted through a permit process, there needs to be alternatives for the scores of people that need to have contact with natural areas on a regular basis. This means that some areas cannot be subject to the permit system. Mt. Rainier has adopted this policy in the areas around Paradise, Sunrise, and Tipsoo Lakes. Access is only limited by the number of parking places for vehicles. Areas that are not environmentally sensitive likely should also not be restricted.
Social Media has also increased awareness of beautiful sites where access to the site is over private property. Such is the case with Washington’s Spirit Falls close to the Columbia Gorge.
Water Spirits in the Forest (Spirit Falls)
The White Salmon River is a designated national scenic river and therefore has certain protections. To the best of my knowledge property owners do not own the river itself. When hundreds of people began making the journey to the falls, spurred by Facebook and Instagram photos, private property owners clamped down and cut off access to the primary route to the falls. Personally I do not feel that even a private property owner has the right to prohibit access to such a beautiful site, and it will be interesting to see how this one plays out in the future.
Landscape photographers when conducting photographic workshops can also contribute on a larger scale to a lower quality wilderness experience for others. I have personally witnessed this at locations such as the Columbia Gorge and Zion National Park where large groups of photographers participating in workshops commandeer the best viewing areas for themselves. At a recent trip to Elowah Falls there were so many unattended tripods in front of my viewing area where I set up my tripod earlier I had to just give up. There were also non-photographers in this area that wanted desperately to take in the same scene but could not do so. Also at Mt. Rainier I have seen large areas of freshly trampled flowers soon after a workshop vacated the area.
Most national parks and forests closely regulate conducting workshops within their borders but there is loose enforcement and even when photographers get permits they do not always adhere to the rules and regulations. Many do not even bother with permits, and associated requirements for first-aid certifications and insurance. Personally I do not think there is enough wilderness bandwidth to accommodate the huge number of photographers on the workshop bandwagon and there will need to be some kind of lottery system to allocate permits for certain areas along with better enforcement of current rules and regulations.
Our nation is entering into a challenging time where some elected officials would like to make our National Parks and Public Lands available for commercial use including drilling for oil. Advocacy and direct political involvement, although critically important, are not the only ways to help protect and preserve our wild areas. Increasing public awareness of our wild areas exerts a powerful influence even if there is a potential downsides of people loving a place to death. As more people visit our wild areas it will become increasingly important to share knowledge through social media of good environmental stewardship and there will also likely need to be an expansion of the permit system. Environmental stewardship is key and I will discuss this in a future blog post. Thanks everyone for reading this blog entry and let me know your thoughts and concerns along with your honest feedback!