Updated: Jan 31
Saturday I woke up overlooking (Location Redacted) in Lake Powell but by the time I got home that night I was frustrated and angry about what I saw and what I foresee will be the future of a land I love. That morning I work up with close to 20 other people at this one overlook 2 hours down a sucky dirt road, 8 miles of open desert and close to 50 miles from the nearest town. While I was there, I saw toilet paper wrapped up in a couple bushes, two sleeping bags and a tent abandoned under a tree six miles from the trail head. I hiked on a social trail that was so good I could have been fooled that the NPS build it. On the drive back I saw packed parking plots for slot canyons barely longer than the apartment I live in. We experienced lines of cars in the middle of the desert and there apparently was a giant toy hauler convention at the mouth of Hole in the rock Road as the often used camping spot was packed as far as the eye could see. I thought to myself, is this the beginning of the end of solitude?
But as I have been fuming, my mind went back to the research I know, the work I have done and the conversations I have had. This is not new, this is no different from the damage that has already been done, just done in a new way. Unlike most photographers and outdoor enthusiasts who complain about this subject, I have a degree in Biology. Currently, I am working on a MS degree, but for the past three years I have also worked for three land and wildlife agencies including state and federal and have seen the damage first hand. I can look at some of the streams in the area and give you an idea if it's healthy or not. I can tell you which fish are native or not and I can identify a few birds too. Even with these basic set of skills, which is not fantastic but good, I am lightyears ahead of most of the general public. So when I say we have a problem, I am only scratching the surface.
But this damage didn’t start with social media and the rise of the internet, it shifted its ugly face to that realm. Now that we look into the seer’s glass, it reveals that the new monster is ourselves.
The First Death- Cows, Creatures, Dams, Farms and the Growth of Civilization
Let me rewind back to the previous two centuries. Most of us learned about the exploration of Lewis and Clark into the great American western frontier in grade school, but few of us have learned about the slow destruction that has since followed. As American expanded west exploring new lands, farming, gold mining, raising families, the environment has taken a beating. Since I don’t have all day to keep your attention, let me begin with a sobering paragraph about the damages that have occurred.
Since the west truly was founded on cattle, let begin there. In the past 100 years cattle have been responsible for damaging upwards of 80% of streams in the west (Belsky et al 1999). This is particularly alarming since streams make up very little of the land but provide the majority of the water out in this part of the country. This degradation has led to western fish species being some of the most imperiled of all fish in the continental United States (Rieman et al 2003). Because water is so vital out here, the animal that reside within it are susceptible to a higher rate of extinction (Ricciardi and Rasmussen 1999). Cattle grazing is also responsible for habitat degradation and destruction of all but the harshest environments of which cows can’t live (Fleischner 1994). To say the land that I love to photograph is pristine is to lie to myself. We all who photograph live in a shadow of what once was, but because we cannot see into the past the present is all we know and thus it is pristine to our eyes.
Creatures are next on my list of the first death. We as humans have been responsible for moving animals globally. Rainbow Trout which are native to the northwestern corner of North America have been spread globally along with a myriad of other fish. This has caused global declines of native fish, amphibians, and invertebrates. Wild pigs have been ravaging many locations including much of the American southeast. Wild horses have been a pestilence on western landscapes, but the biggest invasive that we cultivate, cows, continue to do damage. There are quieter killers thought that we have released globally both intentionally and unintentionally. These include a nasty fungus called white nose which has collapsed bat species across North America, water mites that have altered food webs, quagga and zebra mussels which have restructured nutrient flows in the lakes they invaded, rodents causing birds to go extinct, cane toads consuming all in their path, and much much more. All of these animals have damaged the landscape in unimaginable ways. Most go unnoticed by the majority of us as it is not in our realm of focus. There is still some debate on this subject but the leading cause of extinction in native species is invasive species (Clavero and Garcia-Berthou 2005; Gurevitch and Padilla 2004). And we by far have been the biggest distributor of these purposefully.
The next three topics of dams, farms and growing civilization are interconnected to the first two groups I have spoken about so far. Dams and farms are in some ways a necessary evil to help facilitate people like me living where I do. So, in many ways, I need to be appreciative of their existence, but in other ways, I wish they would die or change or both. But as a civilization grows, more land needs to be consumed to fuel our ever-growing populations and thus the natural landscape will begin to shrink.
I didn’t start this paper to complain about the growth and expansion of civilization, I began this paper to piss and moan about the new face that is making the wilderness less wild and more trashed. That new face is us. Unlike the previous 200 years, most of the damage was human-caused, but indirectly. I mean that we didn’t personally kill the riparian zone, our cows did. We didn’t personally stand in rivers blocking fish from coming up them, our dams did. We didn’t push sage grouse close to extinction by walking in their lekking sights, we built parking lots on top of them. Now that is changing.
Lets begin with a case study.
Kanarraville Falls in southern Utah was a pleasant little secret to many of the locals of the area. On any given weekend you might only find one or two people and possibly a couple from the local college that heard about it from their friends. When I first went, I was there for five hours and never saw anyone. This drastically changed though. In 2017 an estimated 45,000 people visited the three-mile trail. The town only has 300 people in it. This influx of hikers has caused a water line to burst, erosion and constant rescue and much more (Maffly 2018). Ecologically this place is thrashed and photographically this place is dead unless you go in the middle of winter which is becoming harder as well.
But this case study is not isolated. Zion my favorite national park has experienced a drastic increase in visitors. Infact as of 2022 they will introduce a new permit system to hike Angles Landing killing the potential to ever quicky hike up there and catch a sunset again on a whim during the summer. Speaking to the people who work and live in and around zion, they have hated every second of it. Zooming out to a state-level, all Utah national parks as a whole see a similar pattern of increase of visitation. With Arches National Park instituting a permit system to enter. This pattern is even repeated at a national level with total visitation rising to its highest rates ever. This has led to multiple national parks considering permitting systems to even see them. If these permitting systems go through, we could see situations like the Wave in Arizona that has a 2 or 3 percent chance of ever getting drawn to go into them.
We have seen these beautiful places and we have flocked in response.
This drastic increase has put huge immense pressure on the places we love. On every backpacking trip I have been on I see toilet paper stuck to bushes or half-buried. Find any of the sandbars with some seclusion in the Narrows in zion and count the human crap piles. That’s right boys and girls, if you have done this hike, you have waded in human fecal waste. We all saw the disaster of the super bloom this year. Literally, type crisis in our national parks and any state in the west, and you will find an article.
You, Me, He, She, We, They Killed the West
I looked into the crystal sphere this weekend and saw the downfall of the west. (Location Redacted) to me felt like a premonition. For a place as remote as this, I expected very few people to actually be there. Nearly 20 was surprising, particularly since the only camping spots were small barren patching in pot holes and a few flat rock surfaces. Twenty felt surprisingly crowded for such an empty place. With rolling petrified sand dunes pocketed with fragile life forms barely holding on by the crypto soil in which they reside, I see an impending doom on the horizon. With that many people showing up in this area every day you could see 140 people a week and an estimated 7,280 people a year. And we can assume that 1% will probably be bad actors that still allow for 72 people a year doing harm to the area. I experienced that first hand when we came across an abandoned set of sleeping bags and tent tucked under a tree. Mind you this area has a natural barrier of high temperatures that make this hike almost impossible in the summer, but I bet there will be unprepared people who go anyways.
As environmental groups sue to keep mining and grazing at a minimum, we all take advantage of that damaging void and fill it ourselves. Too few of us understand basic biology and ecology to understand the damage we do. Too few of us have had actual formal training on how to explore in the wilderness. Too many of us say we need to educate, but too few actually have the capacity to educate the volume of individuals that actually need to be educated. Too many of us have tagged locations and shared our findings for the world to explore. Too many of us have photographed ourselves naked with only flowers as our raiment. All of us have acted as poor stewards including myself and it has had a negative effect. Far far too many.
So what do we do?
First and foremost, let me share the advice from my dad. Keep your mouth shut. This phrase does not come from a malign moment. It came from a fishing trip where the mayflies had emerged in such high numbers, we couldn’t speak without sucking in a couple. This has stuck with me for years and now I share it with you. Only share general locations and keep the most special to your website with no name at all.
Second, follow the most recent principles outlined by Nature First Photography. (https://www.naturefirstphotography.org/) Be considerate of the landscape and avoid doing damage. Some places don’t recover like you think they would. Sometimes it takes years for footsteps to disappear and even longer for plastic and trash.
Third, learn and internalize the leave no trace principles. These can be found here: https://lnt.org/
This needs to be shared with as many people as we can as it can lead to dramatic improvement of the environment.
Our world we have enjoyed for so long as photographers, a world of isolation, is coming to an end. We contributed to it, we protected it, and we destroyed it. I am struggling with what to do but I guess I can make a few new steps.
What will you do?
Belsky A.J., Matzke A., Uselman S. 1999. Survey of livestock influences on stream and riparian ecosystem in the western united states. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.
Rieman B, Lee D., Burns D., Gresswell R., Young M., Stowell R., Rinne J., Howell P. 2003. Status of native fishes in the western United States and issues for fire and fuels management. Forest Ecology and management.
Ricciardi A. and Rasmussen J.B. 1999.Extinction rates of North American freshwater fauna. Conservation Biology.
Fleischner T.L. 1994. Ecological costs of livestock grazing in western North America. Conservation Biology.
Clavero M. and Garcia-Berthou E. 2005. Invasive species are a leading cause of animal extinctions. Letters (Trends in Ecology and Evolution).
Gurevitch J and Padilla D.K. 2004. Are invasive species a major cause of extinction? Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
Maffly B. 2018. Thanks to social media, crowds keep discovering Utah’s ‘undiscovered’ scenic gems — and they’re laying waste to their beauty. The Salt Lake Tribune