Sunday, May 12, 2019

Nature First - an excellent new initiative

Most of you will by now have seen some mention of Nature First. As soon as I heard about this initiative I signed up for it. The initiative codifies a set of principles that are designed to protect natural places across the world. In my travels throughout the American West and beautiful places in the rest of the world I come across a lot of evidence of careless use and entitled behavior that slowly destroys places. We have also all seen the result of popularization of places through instagram and other such social web services. The famous bend in the river at Horseshoe Bend for example is now completely overrun. Places in Yosemite now have a line of people waiting for their turn to take that perfect selfie. Go to Maroon lake to photograph the Maroon Bells at sunrise and there will be over 100 tripods lined up. Some of these places have even had folks fall to their deaths in the search of the perfect selfie. This is a very hard thing for me to think about. On the one hand I want more and a more diverse set of people to enjoy these places but they also need protection. This is why I like that the Nature First initiative codifies both a "think before you share" approach and an approach of educating others.
The gaggle 2
Mesa Arch at a time when you could still find a spot. This has now become impossible
Think before you share refers to both GPS coordinates and if a place is specifically fragile, perhaps not sharing online at all. A now famous place in Canyonlands for example - False Kiva, has now become discovered and the way to get to it has become a virtual highway. The last time I was there it shockingly had several cigarette butts in the middle of it. I also found fresh charcoal spread around. The handprints are now almost invisible. This increased visitation would not be an issue if people would respect the place but alas that is not a shared expectation.
False Kiva in winter
False Kiva used to be a fairly unknown place and is now common knowledge. Shockingly, people leave trash in it
All of this is why I signed onto Nature First and I encourage you all to do the same.

The 7 principles are:

  1. Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography. 
  2. Educate yourself about the places you photograph. 
  3. Reflect on the possible impact of your actions. 
  4. Use discretion if sharing locations.
  5. Know and follow rules and regulations.
  6. Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
  7. Actively promote and educate others about these principles.

I'll reflect a bit on each:

Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography. This should be obvious but what it means in practice is that your photograph is not worth trampling the fragile biotic crust, crossing a boundary put there for safety or to protect fragile natural or cultural resources. I was shocked when I got to the Moon House at Cedar Mesa, a beautiful site protected by a permit system, to find that the very sensitive moon room had been entered by many people judging by all the footprints contrary to the warnings by the rangers at the place where you have to get your permit and the signs left there to not do this. As a consequence, the moon phases drawn inside the moon room are no longer really visible!

Moon House panorama
The Moon House in Cedar Mesa houses several intact rooms. You can enter the gallery but not the individual rooms which have very fragile drawings.

Educate yourself about the places you photograph. Make sure you know about the particular sensitivities of a place you visit for photography. Does it have sensitive plants? Is there a danger of erosion? Are there any particular dangers to you inherent to the place? I always research a place extensively before I visit it and this is both to understand how to have minimal impact and how to protect myself and others.

Turret Arch as seen from one of the windows. This is a top photography location in Arches National Park. At sunrise there will be a long line of photographers waiting for their turn to get the shot from the perch. Arches also has very sensitive biotic crusts that are destroyed by even a single person walking over them. Be aware!

Reflect on the possible impact of your actions. This is of course a corollary to the previous principle but it goes beyond it. Think for example about what happens when you cross a boundary at a popular site to get a slightly better vantage point? It is highly likely that a stream of others will follow you. While your own action might have been not enormous impact, 10's of people following you might be another question!

Use discretion if sharing locations. Note that this does NOT say to not share locations. It really means that you should think before you share GPS locations or precise directions. Will this place perhaps become the next instagram sensation? If so should you really enable that? Instagram sensations have a few defining characteristics. One is that it has to be trivially reachable. Most instagrammers will not walk for more than 15 minutes to get to a point so if your location is hard to reach it is probably relatively safe but still think hard about it. Second it has to be super photogenic and lend itself well to selfies. If the image is only obtainable using specialized lenses and you can't really do selfies there that will work well on instagram, probably not much of an issue. Still think deeply about this!

Know and follow rules and regulations. Please do! The many footprints inside the moon room are testament to folks ignoring the rules and really causing a combined impact. Many of us have seen the scarred tracks in the moss at the gorgeous iceland waterfalls past the forbidden signs. Not OK.

Please follow the rules. The consequences could be severe. Kirkjufell is one of those places where many ignore the ropes and signs

Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them. Leave no trace is a very useful set of rules to live by when in nature. Pack out what you brought in. It is way too often I come across litter like granola bar wrappers, soda cans, and yes, cigarette butts. Just carry a waste bag in your backpack and carry it out. If you are in a place that requires you to carry out your own bodily waste, do so. It is not that hard to do.

Actively promote and educate others about these principles. What I am doing here. I have always and will continue to make sure people know how to enjoy the wilderness and nature without harming it. Please do so too. Promote the 7 principles and encourage others to become members of the alliance. Promote responsible outdoor citizenship!

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