Ethics in our Public Lands
February in Yosemite brings with it the chance at a brilliant display of light and color. If El Cap's "Horsetail Falls" is flowing well and the sky is clear, the sun will be at just the right angle to transform the look of the waterfall into lava. This naturally occurring phenomenon lasts for about 10 days.
The event, called "Firefall," draws people by the thousands into a fairly small area, often causing irreversible damage to delicate areas. In 2017, for example, a riverbank collapsed due to the stress from visitors.
These problems are not unique to special events. We see this type of damage done in other areas, such as protected meadows, where people ignore signs and walk over fences. Visitors often damage vegetation, increase erosion, and leave behind trash and even human waste.
I've been shocked at how often I see human waste, poopy toilet tissue, and baby diapers left on the side of the trail. Besides the complete lack of etiquette and respect for other visitors, this is damaging to the environment and dangerous to wildlife. I think people, for the most part, know better. This behavior, I believe, comes from a sense of entitlement, ill-preparation, and sometimes ignorance. Often, people simply choose to believe that the rules don't apply to them. Much of the damage could be mitigated by people coming prepared, knowing the rules, and following posted signs.
Because of the damage and disrespect I see so frequently, I find myself feeling the tension between the belief that public lands are for all to enjoy, and the desire to protect these special places. The belief that beautiful spaces should be shared, and the knowledge that beautiful places are often fragile.
Before the internet you had to work hard to gain the knowledge to get to some of these hidden gems or infrequent occurrences. Now, all it takes is a beautiful photo and an instagram post and the next thing you know that special place or event requires law enforcement, permits, and regulations. What was once felt like an expansive communion with nature now feels like Wal-Mart on Black Friday.
There is a tragedy to it all. On the one hand you want everyone to be able to have that experience, but on the other hand, bringing everyone into that experience innately changes it. The best case scenario is that the change is limited to the bustle of a crowd drowning out your other sensations; but more often the change is irreversible damage to truly unique places. Because of this, I don't always include all the information about where or when a photo is taken.
Artists and photographers need to take some time to grapple with the role we play in the destruction of special spaces; both in the creation and sharing of our work. I can't tell you where you need to land on this matter, but I can tell you unequivocally that there is an ethic involved and coming to a nuanced and thoughtful understanding of your ethic is important.
In saying all of that, I did not plan on sharing the photos above because they are of a rare "Firefall" event in October of which many people where unaware. I went out with two of my photographer friends (Brittany Colt and Anna Smits) a couple nights in a row, and on the second night we got to experience the splendor that is Horsetail Falls turned gold.It was only the three of us, and a handful of other people. After the waterfall turned a cool grey we began to pack up our things. We all agreed that we would not share our photos until a later time. We would not give information about when the event was, "just let them think it was February." The sentiment, let's not go for the viral social media post, let's protect our land, let's protect the sacredness of this moment, let's live in the magic of now and not the chaotic rush of the digital realm.
And that's what we did... for a couple of days. But before we knew it someone else had posted a photo and it was picked up by news outlets, so it seemed pointless to wait.
There is a sadness to it.
That one moment,
under the trees,
the river flowing steadily.
Greys and blues
turning to gold,
as if the waterfall itself
was creating light.
It may never be again.