Crowds vs. Conservation–Conflict or Cooperation

Crowds of tourists and photographers start to gather by Delicate Arch hours before sunset.

Crowds of tourists and photographers start to gather by Delicate Arch hours before sunset.

Story & photo by Frank Gallagher

Where do you draw the line between access and preservation?  At what point does introducing a larger number of visitors to the wonders of nature start to endanger that very nature?  It’s a tough call and one that land owners, government agencies and photographers are facing every day.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since regular contributor Jerry Ginsberg brought to my attention a proposal before the Bureau of Land Management to almost quintuple the number of daily permits for The Wave, in the Paria-Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.

Congress gave the BLM the “mandate of managing public lands for a variety of uses such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting while ensuring natural, cultural, and historic resources are maintained for present and future use.”  Those are a lot of uses that are sometimes conflict with each other.  Fulfilling the BLM mission requires a lot of delicate balancing acts.

And the BLM is hardly alone in dealing with increasing crowds.  Record numbers of people are visiting national parks, and that’s great!  The more people see and experience these magnificent places, the more they might appreciate nature and the more they might want to protect it.  But, at some point, more people becomes too many people.  To manage the crowds, some of the busiest national parks are considering a reservation system, whereby visitors would need an advance reservation just to enter the park.

Horseshoe Bend, outside Page, AZ, used to be a dusty pull-off with a ¾ mile sandy hike to the overlook.  Now, because of a massive increase in visitors, there’s a paved parking lot, entrance fees and, when that lot is full, a ban on parking anywhere nearby.  A gently graded path to the overlook is being built for people with limited mobility and there’s a viewing platform with railings at the top.  That’s nice for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to see it, but it sure changes the experience of being there.

We want more people to get out and immerse themselves in nature.  Sadly, that’s not why some are there.  As Instagram and other social media proliferate, more people are made aware of special, scenic spots, which encourages them to go to these places to replicate the shot.  In the quest for Instagram fame, bad behavior by some has resulted in wildflowers being trampled, landscapes destroyed and lives lost.  And are they actually experiencing nature if all they’re interested in is “the shot?”

As nature photographers, we see the crowds at popular places.  There are solid lines of tripods at many of the iconic spots — Oxbow Bend, Delicate Arch, Schwabacher Landing, Maroon Bells.  Thousands of feet have trampled vegetation and left hard-packed, bare earth.  We see the trash left behind, the people going off trail and damaging fragile environments.  We see the tourist with a selfie stick approaching dangerously close to wildlife for that epic photo.

So, what’s the answer?  As nature photographers, we can exhibit safe, ethical, respectful behavior and hope folks learn by example.  We can help educate people about appropriate behavior (see, for example, NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices).  We can stop geotagging locations or “tag responsibly,” (one photographer I know tags every photo “Mesa Arch,” regardless of where it was taken). We can use our own social media to help followers learn how to treasure, not trample, nature.  We can advocate with government agencies and our elected representatives.

But where do you draw the line?  Who gets to say “Nope.  Sorry.  You can’t go there.”?  How do you balance access and preservation, recreation and stewardship, enthusiastic crowds and capacity limits?  There are no easy answers.  The pressures and problems and crowds are only going to get bigger.

What do you think?