I came to photography well after I started hiking and backpacking. Thus, my early sources of information about wild places all prominently featured advice about outdoor ethics, especially practices like Leave No Trace. If you are not familiar, the basic idea behind Leave No Trace is that travelers in the backcountry should strive to leave no evidence of their visit, minimize their impact, and if possible, improve the condition of the places they visit (leaving a campsite in better condition than you found it, for example). With many wild places experiencing increased visitation, human impacts can cause significant damage if visitors do not show this kind of respect and care during their visits.
Increasingly, it seems like some landscape photographers do not view these principles for outdoor ethics as applicable to our kind of outdoor pursuit and the damage left behind is becoming obvious in an increasing number of spots. I have recently engaged in a few online discussions on this topic and have found some of the responses disheartening, with some portraying the attitude that they are entitled to a photograph regardless of their impact. Other arguments favor a dismissive tone, downplaying any specific example as an exaggeration for nothing more than making a point or so minor that it doesn't matter (trampling some plants is no big deal). All this seems to be a sign of the times, with daily stories about how the forces of willful disregard, ignorance, entitlement, and narcissism combine to do a lot of damage to special places (click on the links for a sampling: national parks in general, the Appalachian Trail, Sedona, Death Valley).
Even though photographers are not tagging waterfalls with spray paint, some individuals and landscape photographers as a collective group are causing noticeable damage in some places. While I could share a dozen examples, I will share two because I have photographs of the “before.” First, Emerald Falls in Oregon is a delicate waterfall, surrounded by lovely green foliage in the spring. A few years ago, the waterfall could be photographed from the top, including a lush fern and flowering bush in the foreground, or from the bottom after climbing down a small area of exposed rock to the base of the falls. After years of photographers climbing down to the base with little regard for the plants, the fern and much of the flowering bush is gone. The character of the falls is quite a bit different because the foliage is now gone from a section of the waterfall’s left side. Had photographers been more careful to stay on the exposed rock when climbing down to the base, the plants would still be there. Yes, this damage might only affect a few plants but our visits are changing the character of this place for the worse.
The second example is Panther Creek Falls in Washington. Over the last few years, this spot has been added to the Columbia River Gorge rotation of popular spots and the popularity is justified, as it is an incredible location. The massive waterfall fans out over a large expanse of rock, creating many tendrils of water surrounded by vibrant moss. This vibrant but quite tender moss also grows at the base of the falls and the frequent visits have obliterated much of the moss (after a season of heavy visitation, one photographer, in discussing her disappointment at all the damage, characterized the base of the falls as a formerly lovely place that is now a mud pit). Since photographers are the only people regularly visiting the base of the falls in both of these cases, we as a community are solely responsible for this damage.
If we as a community were more committed to Leave No Trace principles, this kind of damage would not be happening because we would be placing the preservation of a place above our photograph of it. I fully understand why people want to visit and photograph these places, especially since I have photographs of both as illustrations for this post. However, I probably will not visit either of these places again because I do not want to contribute to the damage. I am certainly not claiming to be perfect in this regard, but I do strive to have low to no impact on the wild places I visit. Still, this ideal can sometimes be difficult to achieve since the best composition is often beyond a trail or road.
A recent example of the fine line we walk as photographers took place during our recent trip to Crested Butte, Colorado. Crested Butte is known for its fields of lush wildflowers and this year did not disappoint. With many plants growing chest or shoulder high, it is almost impossible to navigate through a field of flowers without doing some damage - trampling individual plants and leaving a path. I tried to stay on paths that others had already established, but with some steps, I felt like my decision to venture off trail was a bad one in terms of my impact. After all, if everyone visiting these flowers walked through them, there would be no flowers left.
Where to draw the line can sometimes seem ambiguous, so I am interested to hear from other photographers about how you work through the issue of your impact when out in the field. There are some clear-cut examples of irresponsible (and sometimes illegal) behavior that should be roundly condemned, like the photographer who trampled a bunch of lupine at Mount Rainier to eliminate a composition for the photographers that followed or lighting a Dura-Flame log under Delicate Arch and leaving a massive scar on the sandstone below. In other cases, the line seems much harder to draw. Does it matter if you trample some ferns in walking off trail to visit a waterfall? What about damaging a field of wildflowers in an attempt to find a pleasing composition? What if your tripod damages sensitive sandstone fins by breaking off the delicate edges? What about leaving footprints on a wet playa or mud flat? Does it depend on if the playa in question is the Racetrack in Death Valley or a remote, rarely visited playa somewhere else?
I am not advocating for a prohibition of photography that takes place beyond an established trail or road. However, I do believe that we as landscape and nature photographers need to be more cognizant of our immediate impact as individuals and our cumulative impact as part of the stream of people visiting a single spot. While my single visit to Panther Creek Falls might not destroy the moss, kneeling down with my tripod and knees might scuff it enough to be prone to more damage when the next photographer arrives. And, in the scheme of things, I place value on the idea that protecting these places from damage due to our visits should be a higher priority than our individual desire to get our own photograph of a particular spot. The cumulative damage we are doing to some places does not seem worth the cost to wild places that we have the privilege to visit.
So, where do you draw the line for yourself in terms of your impact on the places you visit for photography? Please feel free to share your thoughts and examples in the comments.