Using Your Voice & Photographs to Help Protect Public Lands: Tips for Nature Photographers

Please share! If you find all or parts of this post to be helpful, please share this information with your fellow photographers and others in your networks. As I mention below, amplifying your voice and views is one of the most important parts of advocacy.

Mud cracks filled with ice at the Alvord Playa, below the snow-capped Steens Mountains, in the remote southeastern corner of Oregon near the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Public land around the Steens Mountains is being considered for transfer or sale under HR 621, as discussed in this post. 

Mud cracks filled with ice at the Alvord Playa, below the snow-capped Steens Mountains, in the remote southeastern corner of Oregon near the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Public land around the Steens Mountains is being considered for transfer or sale under HR 621, as discussed in this post. 

I will start this post by acknowledging that some of our readers will probably be unhappy to see politically-oriented content on this blog. While both Ron and I have strong views about a lot of the political issues happening in the United States right now, we have generally stayed away from engaging in political discussions on our social media pages and our website. We know that most people follow us for our photography and educational resources, both of which will continue to be our primary focus.

We are making an exception for the topic of this post - protecting public lands - because this issue is directly relevant to nature and landscape photography. Most nature photographers feel a special connection to wild and scenic places and we have a unique way of communicating about their protection through our photography. With many threats to our special places emerging from the federal government and some western state governments, we think we need to speak up and encourage other photographers to do the same.

The foresight to preserve some of the most special places in the United States is frequently referred to as “America’s Best Idea." As nature photographers, this legacy of protecting public lands and offering access to wild and scenic locations is essential to our pursuits. Public lands offer photographers the opportunity to explore diverse and inspiring scenery, experience the rejuvenating power of nature, pursue personal expression, and create our photographs.

For nature photographers who earn income through their photography, access to public lands is essential for creating photographs that can inspire and motivate others, that can be sold or licensed, and serve as the basis for other income earning pursuits (for example, providing the settings for educational workshops). For all of these reasons, nature photographers can serve as one of the most powerful voices for the protection and preservation of public lands. We can use our photographs to help convey our ideas with more impact than we might be able to do with words alone.

Pending legislation could have very real negative impacts on special places that you care about and photograph. For example, all of the photos in this post are from places that are threatened in some way by current policy proposals being considered at the federal level. In talking with photographers about the issues discussed in this post, like the move to overturn or curtail the designation for Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) in Utah (a popular spot for landscape photography), a common response has been “that will never happen!”

Now, it seems like this could actually happen to GSENM and on a large scale across the American West. When considering newly introduced legislative proposals and the current unpredictability of governing at the federal level, the assumption that protected lands will be preserved and accessible in perpetuity is now highly flawed. So, if you care about protecting public lands, now is the time to get involved or increase your advocacy activities. Now, as in RIGHT NOW. TODAY.

This is one of the many remote canyons in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This canyon is one of the first non-commercialized slot canyons I visited and based on my experience here (and in a lot of other places in GSENM), I believe that the wilderness quality of this area should be protected in perpetuity.

This is one of the many remote canyons in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This canyon is one of the first non-commercialized slot canyons I visited and based on my experience here (and in a lot of other places in GSENM), I believe that the wilderness quality of this area should be protected in perpetuity.

A Few Examples of Current Threats to Public Lands

Support for protecting and preserving public land has strong bipartisan support. For example, Colorado College just released its findings from its long-running Conservation in the West Poll of voters in seven western states, which is conducted by a bi-partisan team of public polling firms to help increase its credibility. Their findings indicate strong support for public lands and their protection from voters across the political spectrum. Despite the broad-based support for public lands, some members of Congress are seeking to implement significant changes to how public lands are managed and protected in the US.

Here are a few examples, some of which might have already passed or been defeated by the time you read this post (since legislation is moving fast, this blog post from Modern Hiker can help you stay on top of pending legislation).

Land Transfer Movement: Some members of Congress are actively advancing legislation to sell or transfer large swaths of federal land (land that currently belongs to the American people) to state governments or private interests for commercial development, especially oil, natural gas, and coal production. This post from Greg Russell offers a good overview of the land transfer movement if you want to learn more.

As explained in this article, selling even small pieces of public land can eliminate access to much larger parcels. And, few states have the resources for things like fighting wildfires, making the idea of state management untenable in many cases. In Congress, HR 621 has been introduced and if successful, could result in the sale of 3.3 million acres of federal land. This land, which again belongs to the American people, includes many places that are popular with hikers, anglers, photographers, and other outdoor recreation groups. (Update: Right after I published this post, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the sponsor of HR 621, announced that he is withdrawing the bill due to the outcry from the public --> advocacy works, at least for now. We can expect similar bills to be introduced in the future).

National Monument Designations: The President of the United States has the authority to designate national monuments, generally without the input of Congress, through the Antiquities Act. President Obama used this power liberally, creating 29 new monuments during his presidency.

Some of these designations have been controversial for reasons that are quite interesting but beyond the scope of this post (examples: Bears Ears, Maine Woods). In response, legislation to eliminate or significantly scale back some monument designations is being introduced in Congress, with a focus on the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante designations in Utah. While monument boundaries have been adjusted in some cases, a presidential monument designation has never been reversed, so such a course of legislation is unprecedented.

According to the recent Conservation in the West poll, strong majorities in all seven states included in the poll favor keeping President Obama’s national monument designations in place, including the voters polled in both Utah (Bears Ears National Monument) and Nevada (the newly created Gold Butte National Monument). Some important locations for landscape photography are located in these locations.

Energy Production in National Parks and on Other Protected Lands: For 40 national parks, the federal government owns the surface land but not all of the mineral rights for the energy resources below ground. Current administrative rules require those holding the mineral rights to follow a certain set of rules to help preserve the surrounding public lands. These rules seem reasonable when considering the spectacular and one-of-a-kind locations where these mineral rights exist. Some in Congress want to eliminate many of these rules which could significantly increase the impact of drilling and extraction in national parks (yes, really - national parks!). You can find out more about HJ Resolution 46 in this brief from the National Parks Conservation Association. 

The Bureau of Land Management is currently taking comments on drilling leases in the region near Zion National Park. If approved, drilling operations could flank Kolob Terrace Road, the road that leads to the trailhead for the Zion Subway hike - a wild and remote section of the national park. You can read more about this issue here and if so moved, you can send a comment to Dave Corry, St. George Field Office, 345 E Riverside Dr, St. George, UT 84790 or via email to ustgmail@blm.gov (by February 10, 2017).

Other Selected Examples:

  • Law Enforcement Authority: Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz has introduced legislation (HR 622) to strip the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service of its law enforcement capabilities, instead leaving such responsibilities to under-resourced local law enforcement departments that may not see natural and cultural resource protection as a priority.
  • Eliminating Stream Protections: Today, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution aimed at "dismantling the Stream Protection Rule, which safeguards streams from pollution created by mountaintop removal and surface coal mining." This legislation will affect streams on national park lands that are frequently used for recreation (coal mining debris in national park streams - no big deal?). You can read more about this issue in this brief from the National Parks Conservation Association.
  • Activities Along the Mexican Border: Protected landscapes like Organ Pipe National Monument, which sit right along the Mexican border, will be dramatically impacted by building a wall. Additionally, border protection activities that include physical barriers interrupt wildlife corridors with damaging consequences (see this Washington Post story for more on this latter topic).
  • Eliminating Resources for Managing Public Lands: Proposals to cut funding for the management of public lands are likely. The current federal hiring freeze is also preventing national parks from completing much needed annual maintenance and hiring seasonal rangers.
This remote viewpoint is near Canyonlands National Park in Utah. On our trip out to this spot a few years ago, the dirt access road was flanked by drilling camps and industrial equipment. Should energy development be allowed to take place so close to such special places? The answer is a resounding yes from some members of the United States Congress.

This remote viewpoint is near Canyonlands National Park in Utah. On our trip out to this spot a few years ago, the dirt access road was flanked by drilling camps and industrial equipment. Should energy development be allowed to take place so close to such special places? The answer is a resounding yes from some members of the United States Congress.

Ways to Advocate for Protecting Your Public Lands

All of the examples listed above are in progress and given the early days of the current administration, some of these things could actually become law. So, if these policy proposals are concerning to you, here are some ways you can respond.

1. Learn More About the Principles of Land Conservation & Pending Legislation

With social media, it is easy to keep up on legislative proposals related to protecting public land. For example, I follow many of the organizations listed below on both Facebook and Twitter. Since we have donated to some of these groups, we also receive their newsletters and legislative alerts which are helpful tools for staying informed. These groups do all of the difficult research, analysis, and policy tracking for you.

If you are just getting started in learning about these issues, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Wilderness Society are two good places to start. If you want to dive in to some issues more deeply, the Center for Western Priorities and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance both have good information briefs on their respective websites. Links for all of these organizations and their social media pages are at the end of this post.

You can also read the following blog posts and articles to become more familiar with some of the issues facing public lands today and see how a few photographers are using their voice to amplify these issues:

2. Contact Your Representatives

Your voice matters. While it is not always possible to sway the vote of your elected representative and state’s senators, hearing from many constituents can make a big difference in some cases - like yesterday's withdrawal of a proposal to sell 3.3 million acres of public lands. Many advocacy organizations, like those listed below, offer background papers and talking points to help make contacting your representatives easier. If you need help finding the contact information for your representative, you can find it here.

Advocacy guides usually say that calling has the most impact but some voters have been having a hard time getting through to congressional offices due to such heavy call volume. You should also be able to find an email address or constituent feedback form on the website for your representative or senator if that contact method is easier for you. A good old fashioned paper letter or in-person visit to your congressional office will work, as well.

My own immediate actions: I am contacting my representatives about the Stream Protection Rule (passed by the US House, pending in the US Senate), rules for energy extraction in national parks (HJ Resolution 46), and HR 622 (eliminating BLM and US Forest Service law enforcement authority). I am also emailing the BLM about the oil and gas leases near Zion National Park. These pieces of legislation are moving quickly, so if you care about these issues, ACT TODAY.

Such messages are easy to pull together. I usually follow this simple template: Remind the person if I am a constituent or why the issue is important to me if I am not. Ask the representative, senator, or federal agency to support or oppose the specific legislation or activity (like opening up land for an oil drilling lease), including the number associated with the legislation if applicable (example: HR 622). I also include one or two sentences explaining my reason. Be respectful and concise, and use issue briefs from advocacy organizations to help with talking points if necessary.

3. Donate Money or Photographs

Almost all of the advocacy organizations listed below are nonprofit organizations and depend on charitable donations to operate their programs. If you can, make a cash donation or join as a member to help these organizations advance their mission. These groups often have skilled lobbyists and communication teams that can help mobilize opposition or support for legislation and policies in a way that we as individuals cannot.

While I know some photographers will disagree with this advice, I have also reached out to some nonprofit conservation groups that I support to offer a donation of my photographs for use in social media, publications, and as silent auction items. While some larger nonprofit organizations have the budget to pay for photography, many smaller groups do not have the ability to afford top-quality photographs (I know this well since I worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 10 years). While I would never allow a for-profit corporation to use one of my photographs for free, I am happy to donate my work to help advance a nonprofit’s mission that supports my own personal goals and values.

You can also use your photography to raise funds for organizations you care about. For example, Floris van Breugel is offering a print sale to help raise donations for conservation organizations.

4. Use Your Photography to Share Your Support for Public Lands

Each time you share a photo taken on public lands, tell the story of that place. Remind your audience that such places are under a variety of pressures and need our protection and support. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of talking about politics online, this is probably the easiest way to share a message of support for public lands without engaging in direct advocacy.

5. Speak Up, Amplify Information, and Get Involved in Advocacy

Amplifying the message that public lands deserve to be protected is essential in helping create a sustainable movement and constituency to fight the kinds of proposals discussed above. You can help in these efforts by learning about the issues facing public lands and then asking those in your network to act. Share information and requests for action on social media, with your photography club, in your newsletter if you have one, and in the stories you tell about your photos. Share a blog post like this or encourage those in your network to donate to conservation organizations.

Some conservation groups are also organizing protests at state capitols to help show the size and enthusiasm of the pro-public lands constituency (here is an example of a recent rally in Montana). Other groups, like the Sierra Club, frequently circulate petitions or develop letter/email-writing campaigns to help advance their policy objectives. If you want to be involved in this kind of collective action, become members of these organizations to receive alerts about their activities.

This is the kind of scenery you can find at Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona. This park's southern border is our border with Mexico.

This is the kind of scenery you can find at Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona. This park's southern border is our border with Mexico.

Organizations Working on Protecting Public Lands

These are the organizations that I follow, learn from, and sometimes support with cash and my photography. This is not a comprehensive list, just a place to start if you are looking for a way to become more engaged in protecting public lands.

The Wilderness Society: "Our mission is to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places."

National Parks Conservation Association: "Since our founding in 1919, the National Parks Conservation Association has been the independent, nonpartisan voice working to strengthen and protect America's favorite places. With more than a million members and supporters beside us, we are the voice of America’s national parks, working to protect and preserve our nation’s most iconic and inspirational places for present and future generations."

Center for Western Priorities: "The Center for Western Priorities is a nonpartisan conservation and advocacy organization that serves as a source of accurate information, promotes responsible policies and practices, and ensures accountability at all levels to protect land, water, and communities in the American West." If you would like to learn about a wide range of issues facing public lands, the Center for Western Priorities offers a lot of excellent publications and research.

The Trust for Public Land: "Our mission is to create parks and protect land for people, ensuring healthy, livable communities for generations to come." The Trust for Public Land has offices all over the US. Local land trusts also offer good opportunities to support local conservation projects.

Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: "The sportsmen's voice for our wild public lands, waters and wildlife." I am not a hunter or angler, but some conservation-minded photographers have recommended this organization as a strong ally on many of the public lands issues relevant to photographers.

Sierra Club: "Founded by legendary conservationist John Muir in 1892, the Sierra Club is now the nation's largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. Our successes range from protecting millions of acres of wilderness to helping pass the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act."

Selected Regionally-Focused Organizations

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance: "Since 1983, SUWA has been the only independent organization working full-time to defend America’s redrock wilderness from oil and gas development, unnecessary road construction, rampant off-road vehicle use, and other threats to Utah’s wilderness-quality lands." If you care about the preservation of Bears Ears National Monument or any of the many other issues facing Utah's public lands, be sure to learn more about SUWA.

Conservation Northwest: ""Keeping the Northwest wild since 1989, we protect old-growth forests and other wildlands, connect large landscapes and vital habitats, and restore native wildlife."

Basin & Range Watch: "Working to conserve the deserts of Nevada and California and to educate the public about the diversity of life, culture, and history of the ecosystems and wild lands of the desert."

Grand Canyon Trust: "The mission of the Grand Canyon Trust is to protect and restore the Colorado Plateau — its spectacular landscapes, flowing rivers, clean air, diversity of plants and animals, and areas of beauty and solitude."

Western Resource Advocates: "Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates is dedicated to protecting the West’s land, air, and water. We use law, science, and economics to craft innovative solutions to the most pressing conservation issues in the region."

Conservation Colorado: "Our mission is to protect Colorado’s environment and quality of life by mobilizing people and electing conservation-minded policymakers."

News/Information Sources:

Wrap-Up: Take One Action Today

If you support other organizations doing good work to protect public lands, please share more information in the comments so others can learn from your experience. Also, if you are using your voice or photography to advocate for these issues, please share what you are doing to help inspire others to get involved in these important efforts. And again, please share this information and your views on protecting public lands. Now is the time to act to help save America's wild places.

This is an Ancestral Puebloan ruin that is now protected as part of the new Bears Ears National Monument. I took this photo in my early days of nature photography and the experience visiting this place and others like it helped form my love for Utah's wild places.

This is an Ancestral Puebloan ruin that is now protected as part of the new Bears Ears National Monument. I took this photo in my early days of nature photography and the experience visiting this place and others like it helped form my love for Utah's wild places.