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Our Public Lands
by B. Moose Peterson

Many years ago I was in Yosemite National Park on the edge of Superintendent Meadow, waiting for the sunset to light the granite walls. There was a small group of Mule Deer, feeding a little behind me. They were molting does in shade, between two paths. Basically nothing about the scene was even close to picture perfect so I ignored them. (And they were Yosemite deer, which have to be some of the friendliest and easiest deer to photograph on the planet so it wasn't like another better opportunity wouldn't come along in the future!).  

A photographer came up and zoomed in on the deer, which I'm sure was because I was standing there, looking like I was shooting. They were perhaps twenty or twenty five feet away but because he only had a 50mm lens, he felt he needed to throw out pieces of bread to get the deer closer. I could only take this and the "come here" call for a brief moment before I had to say something. (Anyone who knows me would find it hard to believe I could even wait a moment to say something!)

My comment was something like, "You know deer don't eat bread." I got no response, he continued on. I then said, "You realize feeding wildlife especially in a National Park is not wise." Again, no response. I was getting agitated and the sunset I was waiting for was screaming for me to shoot it. I then said, "Yo, doofus, stop feeding the wildlife! If you want to get a bigger image get a bigger lens!" At this the guy said something like, "What are you some #%$&* ranger?!" I said, "No, my name is Moose Peterson and I hate ignorant photographers!" The guy's eyes got really big and as he picked up his jaw he said he was sorry and crawled back into whatever film canister he came from. What really bothered me is that he wasn't willing to learn the right way, just run away!

Picture this scenario: The elk are bugling in the open alpine meadow, the mass of herons and egrets are feasting in the shallows, the clouds are rolling over the mountain vistas and there are thousands of other tourists crowding the roads. What impact, positive or negative, can one photographer make? Probably more to the point to you the reader, how can you capture that magnificent image you've seen other photographers capture in this same setting? 

Nikon F5, 20mm f2.8AF on Agfa RSX 100

Glacier View - Glacier National Park

There's no question that some of the best wildlife photography can be found on our public lands. National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Monuments and State Parks and Recreational Areas provide access to lands that belong to you, to us all! 

These lands were set aside for a variety of reasons, to preserve a unique geological formation, a piece of historical importance, necessary habitat for a migrating species or the sheer magnificence of the place.  Whatever the reason this is land the US and State governments have decided should be preserved for current and future generations (Until recently, the public has had a big hand in this decision-making process).  When you enter these areas there is no passport required, no permit to fill out, often just a minimal entrance fee. But more and more it seems an IQ test should be administered upon entrance, and sorry to say it should be administered to photographers! 

Whether you're shooting on your own lands, private lands or public lands, there is an ethical and biological approach you should incorporate for the lands' sake as well as photographic success. 

You might be saying, "When I was at such and such a place, I saw so and so out doing this so I thought it was alright." Or you might be saying, "I saw so and so's photograph and when I went to that spot to capture the image, I realized he did this or that which I thought was wrong but since he did it, I thought I could too." I hear this all too often and it points out just how important one photographer can be in making a difference.

Nikon F5, 80-200mm f2.8AF on Agfa RSX 100
Bear jam, Yellowstone Nat'l Park

There is the saying, "we're loving a place to death." This needs not be the case if we just use our heads and not be so caught up in capturing "the" image all the time.  One of my favorite places to visit, enjoy, hike and photograph, is Yellowstone National Park. The vastness, the grandeur and the knowledge that it looks the same as when ole' Jim Bridger came through brings an incredible romance to the park for me. It's hard for me to keep that in mind at times when the road in Hayden Valley becomes a parking lot for a bear jam. I realize probably better than most just how special seeing a Grizzly Bear can be in Yellowstone. But as a photographer in this scenario it is by far better not to try to photograph the bear. 

Why? You can look at it two ways. Dearer to my heart is the safety of the bear, the habitat, and the impression left to others. Every encounter that a bear has with humans in Yellowstone puts it more at risk of someday losing its life because of an encounter with humans. There simply aren't enough bears left in the Yellowstone ecosystem to afford that loss, especially if it's a female. 

The scene of a bear "jam" after folks have left shows a marked impression on the habitat. Plants are trampled, trash is floating about, and I always find at least one film canister. 

What about photographically? What kind of image are you really going to capture when you have all those folks around, either causing the bear to move or getting in your way or my all time favorite, asking to look through your lens? Is this really the photographic experience you traveled to the fabled Yellowstone to capture?

Nikon F5, 20mm f2.8AF on Agfa RSX 100

Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park

The best way to experience Yellowstone is by getting out of your car and walking! Nobody walks in Yellowstone except for the few who know the secret (best way I know of finding a Great Gray owl to photograph). Do some homework on the Yellowstone ecosystem and learn what to see, when, and where - because if you can see it you can photograph it.  Lastly, learn to be out real early and real late when the "tourists" have gone back in and take advantage of not only the empty park, but also the great light!

Our National Wildlife Refuges offer incredible photography, and I'm not thinking of Ding Darling or Bosque del Apache when I say that (even though these are quite cool places to shoot). Our NWR system is vast and the wildlife that finds refuge in them, quite diverse. Some are right in the middle of major cities; some are out where no one ever travels. The smart photographer can capture once-in-a-lifetime images by visiting them. 

Nikon F5, 600mm f4 AFI on Agfa RSX 100
Bald Eagle, Tule Lake National 
Wildlife Reserve

One that comes to my mind is Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge tucked away on the California- Oregon border. In the winter, this refuge has the largest congregation of Bald Eagles in the lower 48! The waterfowl are spectacular and at dusk, the Great Horned and Short-eared Owls seem to be on every telephone perch in the basin! And this is just in the wintertime! You should see it in the spring when the vast marsh becomes a giant nursery! Yet with all of this grandeur I bet hardly a handful of photographers visit this refuge. This is partly because of its locale, as you can't fly right to it. It might also be because in the winter you have to deal with cold and in the summer, the water. But if you know how to deal with snow or have a canoe, some of the best images you might imagine are waiting for you!

This leads me to talk about the camera equipment for a moment. Probably more than any other locale, the long lens is essential for wildlife photography on our public lands. Why is this especially important when the wildlife is so close and habituated? First and foremost, it's because everyone is watching you, the wildlife photographer. You are setting the example for others to follow, which means you can really make a positive difference by just your actions. Shooting with a long lens, you keep a maximum distance from the wildlife. This is essential! Let me explain with a story (and you might be just like my boys saying, "not another story dad"). 

Nikon F5, 300mm f2.8AF on Agfa RSX 100

Mountain Goat, 
Glacier National 

Knowing basic biology has been my marching tune since day one and it really pertains to our public lands. A great example is the Mountain Goats at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. (The area has changed since the time of this story and rules have been set in place partly because of a couple of photographers.) I was there with my family on vacation. We're not your basic vacationers in that we had pulled out our chairs, set up the camera and had our books out as we sat and watched life go by with the million dollar view. When the light got good, I would watch with a photographic eye any possible image I might be able to capture of the Mountain Goats.  

Nikon F5, 300mm f2.8AF on Agfa RSX 100

Mountain Goat, Glacier Nat'l Park

I felt sorry for the Mountain Goats as they were chased back and forth by tourists and wildlife photographers. They had a definite path of travel that they would take to get from point to point so I set myself up on the path and waited. When the goats felt they were "alone" and wanted to move to a little meadow to munch Alpine Lilies, off they would go down this path. When the light was right, I would lean up from my chair, grab the shots and then sit back and relax. The great images truly came from no more than that. No effort really on my part, no harassment of the goats and they were just doing their thing, and for other photographers who came by and asked why I was sitting there by the road with my 300mm and not shooting, I provided them with a little education. Understanding basic biology is a marvelous thing!

In the opening I make it quite clear that these are public lands open to all. Yet some National Parks and refuges seem to be "closed" to wildlife photographers. A wildlife photographer might arrive at a certain point at the Grand Canyon and find a fence now keeping anyone from getting to "the" spot for a shot. Or photographers might find a certain stretch of road in Denali National Park closed and a ranger actually posted to make sure it stays that way. And the photographer simply assumes that the "feds" are out to get them for no good reason! This I regret to say is becoming more and more common.

What the photographer newly arriving to these closures doesn't realize is that there was a photographer before him/her who burnt the bridge for all of us. In the Grand Canyon for example, a photographer went to the edge to get "the" shot literally on the edge of the canyon after walking past a sign, asking the public not to do so (before the fence was put up) and was seen by a class of visiting elementary kids who asked the ranger "why was that photographer over there?" Similarly, the big bull moose in Denali that had been harassed so severely by a group of photographers that they had to move from the area, were prevented from mating, literally changing their breeding for that year!  

Nikon F5, 300mm f2.8AF on Agfa RSX 100
Elk, Yellowstone National Park

I could go on and on and on about stories of photographers who have ruined incredible opportunities for the rest of us. But that's really only depressing and that's not my goal. I want to rev up your imaginations to explore these lands with your camera, but I want to do it so you have the knowledge of the great loss potential if not done wisely!

I haven't laid out a recipe here for successful photography on our public lands and you might be asking yourself, why not? Well, I have but you might have missed it because it's so damn simple! Understand basic biology and use your longest lens is all it really takes. I can say that I've been doing it successfully for over two decades, capturing the great images while not being part of the problem but rather part of the solution. These two simple shooting "tips" lead not only to great images, but also ethical wildlife photography! Since I've been telling so many stories, let me close with one last one. (Don't fret though, as I have more stories for future pieces!)

A few years ago I was in Yellowstone with a group of shooters. It was late afternoon and we had stopped where a number of elk had congregated. It wasn't the photo op of the century but it soon turned into one. A big bull arrived and really stirred everything and everyone up. Well, you can only imagine the "jam" we caused by first, being there with all of our long lenses out on tripods and then by the elk and all of their antics. Cars and people started to pile up and the elk started to bugle in the last rays of the day. It was great! I had given my folks the talk so they knew they were not going to leave the parking area and to use their long lenses. The shooting was hot and furious, great images were happening faster than any of us could react and even with my "rules" no one was missing anything! 

Nikon F5, 600mm f4 AFI on Agfa RSX 100

Elk Rut, Yellowstone 
National Park

Forty minutes into the fun a ranger pulled up and started to get folks to move on. He also chased some other photographers out of the meadow and gave a lecture or two to a couple of photographers who were just asking to get gutted by one of the bugling elk. 

He was walking over towards where we were when he looked at me and waved at me to come over. After all the bull (pun intended) he had put up with in the last few minutes with the public, I was figuring I was going to get a lecture for something. 

When I got up to the ranger he stuck his hand out, introduced himself and said he wanted to say thanks. He must have known the effect that had on me as my jaw was bouncing off the ground for the third time when he went on. He told me that some of the folks there had said that because we didn't go out to the elk, they hadn't. He said that one photographer who had gone out on the meadow thought he shouldn't have because "those other photographers hadn't." The ranger told him he should have stuck with his first instinct!

Public lands belong to us all! They do not just belong to the lucky few who can visit them, the politicians, or photographers. These lands belong to us all to enjoy, to cherish, to visit, to respect and to protect for all future citizens of the world! 

The grizzly bear that comes over the rise in Denali to inspect the landscape; the sunrise that first hits North America at Acadia National Park; the vast beauty of the Great Basin National Park and the towering majesty of Yosemite's granite walls, were all set aside by citizens, individuals in many cases, with the foresight to save what they had then for future generations to enjoy. 

It is now up to us to be good stewards and not only protect these national treasures but also capture their magic with our cameras and inspire all those not fortunate enough to visit them, the reason why they need to be preserved for future citizens of the globe. Take the power you have with your vision and your camera and celebrate the magic of our public lands!

Nikon F5, 20mm f2.8AF on Agfa RSX 100

Tule Lake, Tule Lake National Wildlife Reserve


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The best way to experience Yellowstone is by getting out of your car and walking!





























The ranger  stuck his hand out and said he wanted to say thanks






text and photography copyright 2001 Vivid Light Publishing