|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!)
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!
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.
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?
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
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