The Earth is over 4.5 billion years old with over 8 billion human inhabitants. Despite how long our planet has been around and the thousands of years it’s sustained human life, it’s still the only known planet in our universe that can support life this way. Yep, it’s a pretty big deal. We should not take it for granted and we should work hard to preserve it. Even though you might see on the latest Netflix sci-fi where we just load up the rockets and start moving people to planet Cerberus where life is only marginally different than earth, that is simply not an option now or anytime soon enough for anyone reading this.

For those that don’t know Earth Day has been around since 1970 during a time that the general public was starting to become aware of what we humans were doing to our planet. I won’t go into the history here but it’s worth reading about it if you are not familiar.

Here we are on Earth Day 2019 and I feel like I cannot spend more than a few minutes reading the news or scrolling through social media to see what we as humans are doing that is detrimental to the planet, and photographers have a part in this as well. Yes stories of what is being done that is having a positive impact are sprinkled in, yet a lot of it is reminding us that we can be like little kids that should lose our toys because we cannot take care of nice things. We have touched on this topic with a few of our prior blog posts from my article around vandalism of our treasured locations to David Cobb’s very recent post on why we need to exercise caution on sharing locations where photos are taken. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture on the state of nature today yet I do see this as a tipping point where enough visibility is starting to happen that we will see positive change.

Given it’s Earth Day I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the good and the bad of what is going on and how we each can make a difference. I have chosen to share these stories in the form of tips on what we all can do, myself included, to be a better stewards of our planet whether you are a photographer or not.

Tip 1 – Speak Up

The last few years I have witnessed this lack of respect for our outdoor wonders first hand, to a level I don’t recall seeing before. It really is just as bad as I see online. Just last month I was with my family at Arches National Park taking a hike to one of the arches. Shortly after arriving I see a couple people setting up to play music instruments with the arch in the background. I thought that was interesting that they might serenade the visitors hiking through. As much as I love music, I don’t know about you but I normally prefer to listen to nature when out hiking but it didn’t bother me unless they had plans to crank up a Peavey amp to 10. A few minutes later I see a drone go up in the air above and I realize these people are pretending to rock out with their instruments. I could not hear any music, only the sound of the drone. Yes you read right they weren’t even playing for real. It must have been simply to get a “cool” shot of them looking like they were playing music in this amazing place. I look around and I see about 15 to 20 people in the area of the arch. No one seems to care that drones have been banned in National Parks since 2014. Well, the quiet person that I am, I wasted little time to yell out “NO DRONES IN NATIONAL PARKS” as they were about 100 to 200 feet from me up on a rock pedestal. They turned around looking at me like they were on the set of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure about to air guitar again. I yelled it a second time and that is when they said “oh, okay” and began to pack up their things and leave. My family was both glad I said something and a little embarrassed for my relative ease of drawing attention to us among a busy national park. The point is to not be a afraid to say something. If no one does then everyone standing around watching is simply perpetuating the activity in question.

Tip 2 –  Tread Lightly

I am not pretending that I haven’t been part of the problem in this area, yet I think about this differently now knowing the impact it has along with it likely indirectly saying it’s okay for others when that may not be the case. What I am talking about is the locations that ask visitors to stay in a specified area, normally on a trail or viewing spot, to avoid excessive impact that relates to everything from erosion concerns to impact on plant life. While many of us prefer the option to roam freely it’s something we should avoid in certain places if we want it to be around for others to enjoy. Recently, I was at a state park in Utah and I happen to notice when I was walking this trail that there was a photographer in an area off trail that had multiple signs that said to stay on the trail in this area. As I was coming by this photographer was making his way back to the trail. I started a conversation with him and let him know that area was closed to hikers, in a friendly non-confrontational way. I don’t believe delivering this message in a rude or I am-better-than-you tone is something that will help the problem. We are all in this together. He said he realized that after the fact when walking back and would avoid doing it again. We had a short pleasant conversation and since he asked I gave him a suggestion of where he could go off trail in this park that wasn’t off limits that involved mostly hiking over rock. I thought to myself that I hope if I make a mistake that someone is willing to call me out on it in friendly way. We are all human and even those with the best of intentions may make honest mistakes. We can all help keep each other in check to change this tide for the better.

Tip 3 – Don’t Destroy

My family and I traveled to Goblin Valley State Park on a recent trip. I had never been before and didn’t know much about it other than I had seen some photos of the park and the many unique goblins (aka hoodoos) across it’s landscape. Before we arrived to the main scenic part of the park with the valley of goblins, I had simply assumed it was an area we would be able to view from above only. Much to my surprise after I stepped out of the van I realized there was clear access to the valley and others roaming around. My first thought was “this is great!” we can wander among the goblins. Yet after we started walking around I started to see quite a few people climbing on the goblins, standing or jumping on them for photos. My kids being kids wanted to climb them too. I said no much to their frustration. I thought these people must be ignoring the rules. Nope. I read the signs on the way out and they simply said “do not recommend” people climb on them due to safety hazard. If you have not read my prior post about restricting areas because of safety concerns, check it out. My stance is different than restricting areas due to impact. Anyway, here we are among these amazing hoodoos that have been around for millions of years and we are running around on them like it’s a playground. These other worldly creations will only take so much punishment before it takes its toll. I would love for us to continue to have access to hike in Goblin Valley to see these hoodoos up close yet I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we get our toys taken away because we can’t take care of them.

Tip 4 – Teach Youth

Some of you may not have kids and think this doesn’t really apply to you but in reality you might need to help “parent” out in nature if one is not there to provide guidance or is simply oblivious to what constitutes civilized decision making. As a parent I had to do this at Zion National Park last year for someone else’s kids. They were throwing large rocks over a cliff down in an area where hikers might be. I won’t go into the whole story but the mother sat there not saying a word and the throwing only stopped because of me and another person speaking up. I admit I was quite frustrated for the complete and total disregard here yet I did my best to not let it get the better of me when I communicated what they were doing was very wrong. My kids were with us and knew that what they were doing was wrong without me saying much. Not to mention from an environmental standpoint there were few large move-able rocks in this area and they were basically throwing over what little there was.

That all said, kids are kids and even what they see as something that appears to them as having no impact may in reality require education on what the impact is. That is how we learn after all… right. The biggest one I have gone over the last couple years with my kids relates to rocks in the regard of taking them. How can I blame them? What kid doesn’t like to collect rocks from places they go. I certainly did that and see the allure from time to time even as an adult. There are places I don’t have concerns with this but when we are at special designated parks and monuments that receive hundreds of thousands to millions of visitors annually we need to leave the rocks where they are. One park we visited on our recent trip had a good sign to illustrate this that I showed to my kids that drove the point across. It said the following:

One little rock weighs about ½ a pound, if each of the 500,000 yearly visitors takes one home, the park would lose 125 tons of rock annually!

Tip 5 – Pick It Up

Most of the time I head into the outdoors sadly I find some amount of garbage. I am sure some is accidental yet I know most is from people intentionally discarding their garbage due. It’s good to always carry a small bag to collect garbage you find. There are a number of recent stories where I have collected garbage yet one that sticks out is from last November. My wife and I were traveling through a fairly remote part of Oregon. We stopped along the “highway”, that felt anything like a highway as you can go a long time between passing cars in these parts. I wanted to show the area to my wife and scout for photos. I could not believe the amount of trash I found at more than one stop along the road. Fortunately, I had a bag so I took it from the car and wasted no time collecting everything from beer cans to empty bags of various snack foods. I am sure anyone reading this is not one of these people littering but if you are, the first step in this process is to simply not litter. Think LNT (Leave No Trace). For the rest of us take a minute to pickup a few items next time you are out in nature and come across it. Think of what I mentioned earlier about each person taking a small rock and what that accumulates to in mass and weight. It’s a lot and would only take each of us picking up a few items to make a monumental difference.

These are a few stories of my experience and how I have worked through them. Despite what feels like nothing but challenges noted above, on this Earth Day we have a lot to be thankful for. It’s a gift to be able to wander freely and explore, and as photographers capture the amazing beauty all around us. As such we need to treat this gift with the respect. I am an optimist and as such I truly have to believe we will get this right to leave this planet for others to enjoy like we are able to do today.

One suggestion for photographers is to check out Nature First that just launched. It talks about topics I covered here and more, all geared towards photographers. It’s a chance as photographers to be informed and help inform others along the way. To celebrate Earth Day a couple days ago I spent an afternoon helping clean up a local park from invasive species, a park I get to enjoy for hiking, running and photography. What did you do to celebrate Earth Day this year?

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