Did American Politics Ruin My Shots?

I spent a few days in the Utah badlands attempting to capture the unique beauty the area has to offer, and I can confidently say it is unlike anywhere else in the world. While being there, I was surprised how much of the area did not look like what I expected.

Southwestern America is filled with off-road and OHV (off-highway vehicles) areas for recreational use, so it's not uncommon to see sand dunes, forested roads, or scenic mountain vistas filled with all types of vehicles. Many of these places have designated areas that are controlled by local, state, or federal land management to help facilitate a balance of nature and human recreation. As someone who enjoys off-roading from time to time, I'm glad places like these exist but also realize how restrictions and rules are necessary to maintain the environment around us. 

Many times, that balance is difficult, and everyone will have differing opinions on how an environment should be used by our ever-growing population. As a landscape photographer, it might be obvious that I believe our environment is precious and the impact we have on it grows at alarming rates. So what exactly happened while I was there, and what does any of this have to do with photography?

The Good

I only spent a couple of nights in this area, and I'll gladly admit I barely scratched the surface (pun intended). It is a place I cannot wait to return to and wish I had more time when I was there. This was a photography trip after all and I still came away with a few photos worth sharing, maybe even one for the portfolio. 

Butte Moonrise

With such little time in the area, I wasn't able to explore nearly as much as I wanted to. This exacerbated the issues I kept having in the main areas I was photographing. Landscapes were filled with OHV tracks; in many places, I couldn't even keep them out of my shots. At the time, I didn't think much of it, other than being frustrated they were so prominent in the areas I was trying to shoot. 

It wasn't until I got home and started reviewing my images that I realized just how bad it was. Considering I had such little time in the area to scout specific locations, many of the places I was shooting were inspired by other photographers. Yet, when I look back at their images, they certainly were not having the same issues I was with tracks running through their photos. At first, I thought maybe they were able to remove them in Photoshop, which would have been insanely impressive considering how prominent they are in certain locations. It wasn't until I messaged a fellow photographer to find out what happened.

The Bad

Notice the tracks in the bottom right

My eureka moment was when I figured out many of the photos I found from other photographers were all taken a year prior to my visit. I started to do some digging and discovered that the entire area I had been focusing on was recently opened up to recreational OHV. 

In 2006, the Factory Butte area was closed off by the Bureau of Land Management to try to restore the land, protect endangered plant life, and preserve the unique landscape. This happened because of the slow destruction of the landscape throughout the '90s and early 2000s. After 12 years of restoration, in May of 2019, the area was opened back up to OHV use without any advance notice to the public or environmental reviews on what reopening the area will do. This may remind you of the controversial decision made a few years prior to shrink two major national monuments in Utah for gas and oil drilling. Thankfully, to my knowledge, those changes never fully took place and are being reversed in the upcoming administration. 

The Ugly

I'll admit those two situations are vastly different. One change completely reshaped designated national monument land to be used for corporate profit, while the other is simply letting other humans use the land in the way they want to. However different they are, they both have some environmental impact on areas that are already struggling because of the ever-growing pressure humans put on our lands. We should always consider what these changes will do and not tread lightly in regards to protecting such unique places.

Imagine this photo without the tracks

I tried to hide most of the tracks by cropping and converting to black and white

Some areas look better than others

This one almost works

I think it's completely fair that areas be designated to use dirt bikes, ATVs, and off-road vehicles. Just like camping or hunting, it can be a fun recreational thing to do, and as someone who enjoys the challenges of a little off-roading, I completely understand the appeal. I'm also completely aware that photographers don't get the ultimate rights to locations and that all areas should be shared with each other. This is, after all, public land intended to be used by everyone — no one has priority over anyone else.

With all of that said, it has to be considered what impact each activity has on not only the environment but also those using the public lands. If I'm hiking through the woods or across a desert landscape, I'm unlikely to disturb much wildlife or those around me. The opposite can be said for dirt bikes and ATVs, which tend to be loud and clearly more destructive to the environment. After my research, I've learned these landscapes don't simply fix themselves after rain, and heavy use of OHV vehicles has a serious impact on the shale soil that makes up the area. This is much different than something like a sand dune where vehicles can use it far more often without having a permanent impact on the land.

Conclusion

I'll be the first to admit and reiterate that there is a massive and almost endless landscape to photograph that I didn't have time to find. No one was forcing me to photograph Factory Butte with all of its imperfections. I just can't help but wonder why a decision was made to reverse the progress of the last 12 years in restoring the area to have it completely ruined all over again. The Bureau of Land Management claims this is one of the most scenic and unique geological areas it maintains, yet it's allowing the beauty and nature of the area to be ruined. If you go camping, you should always leave no trace and do your absolute best to upkeep the health of the environment around you. Hunting is regulated by season to control the impact on populations of wildlife. Fishing has restrictions based on the area to maintain health in the ecosystem.

What exists to protect this fragile landscape from what is happening to it?

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43 Comments

Aras Aziz's picture

Those are some great looking shots!

It's sad that some of these famous locations (national treasures!) aren't more protected.

lee arthur's picture

Mistake 1 Going in with expectations on what you will see. That in it's self is a set up for disappointment. Been there done that. Even with out outside influences the weather could be uncooperative, positioning not what you were hoping for many things could change you preconceived picture.
Mistake 2 Waiting until you were on location to scout locations. There are many online tools available to assist you in pre scouting locations all over the globe. I don't know what tools you might have used, but they should have helped you in planning your trip. All politics aside.

Alex Armitage's picture

Are you suggesting if I had planned my shots more I could have avoided the tracks? I spend quite a lot of time researching locations when I don't have time to scout. I'm unsure what that would have solved in regards to the issues I wrote about. Unless of course you mean just don't photograph it and find somewhere else.

Franklin Newton's picture

Pretty sure what he's saying is planning ahead of time could have prevented you from going there without knowledge of the current state of the area was. Obviously, everyone knows and understands that you can't avoid the tracks.

Unsubscribe Me's picture

Let’s see photos of your own tracks next. Or photos of people who went camping hoping for solitude and were surprised to find you there.

Eric Mazzone's picture

Tu Quoque arguments are immediately discarded as they are formal fallacies and have zero merit.

Nice try though.

No Information's picture

This is precisely why Leave No Trace principles exist, they're designed to minimize the impact humans have on the landscape. Part of that is minimizing your tracks, but also your sound, and your visual impact on the landscape. My hammock tarp is dark grey to blend in, and my tent is a sage green. Others take it further with full camo. There's a whole community dedicated to these ideas.

Larry Fasnacht's picture

I feel your pain. But I can’t help but ask, are these drone photos? Hum... An interesting perspective for sure.

Alex Armitage's picture

Some of these are drone shots! I think 4 of them are from a drone and the other 3 are from ground level.

Alex Armitage's picture

I'm now realizing based on this other persons comment that when you said "an interesting perspective" you might not have meant the perspective of the images haha.

If I ever fly a drone with anyone else around I always ask them if it's okay and insist they can say no if it would bother them. Majority of the time I'm the only one around though.

RU KiddingMe's picture

I would think you buzzing your drone around people trying to enjoy nature was just as annoying.

Alex Armitage's picture

I was the only one there :) If I wasn't I'd also ask nicely if it's okay to take off/land the drone without bothering anyone. -12C before the sun comes up helps avoid crowds for sure!

The best part about this place is it's so large/tall you have to fly the drone high enough to where you just can't hear it anymore for the majority of the time it's in flight.

Mike Ditz's picture

There may have been buzzing, Alex says he was the only one there. I am no expert, but I don't think there were any tracks left by the drone :)

Or avoid OHV parks.

edit to fix typo

Aras Aziz's picture

Pretty sure he's a dude! lol!

RU KiddingMe's picture

This is 2021. You don't have the right to question my gender based off an avatar you are apparently familiar with.

Aras Aziz's picture

Say what? Pretty sure it's clear I'm neither talking TO you or ABOUT you.

RU KiddingMe's picture

Ok slim. It's obvious who you were talking about. There were only three of us in the conversation at the time.

RU KiddingMe's picture

The point is his presence might have been just as bothersome to others trying to enjoy the same place. We all have to respect the rights of others to use public land. I enjoy fishing but many areas in MI are recreational lakes. I would prefer that they were not so I could enjoy my sport, but they have the same right to use the lake as I do. Same case here.

Ed C's picture

"We all have to respect the rights of others to use public land." Which means you have to respect the rights of people legally flying drones. The FAA controls airspace, not individual people's idea if it is OK or not.

No Information's picture

One of the nice things about newer drones is the focus on quieter and smaller. I'm probably going to get a DJI Mini 2 drone because it's one of the smallest and quietest out there. I don't want to make an impact and I would certainly ask others if they were comfortable with me flying it before I took off.

Jeff Bennion's picture

I hiked Delicate arches 55 years ago as a child. No one else was there in the early spring. Now it is over run. Much of Utah has become too popular and thoughtlessness is causing damage even where protections are in place. Yet the entire Staircase and Escalante are hiking only off road. Not even mountain bikes are allowed. The best access roads are unpaved. You could spend your entire life photographing the region, one of the most beautiful, with limited human contact. I can list place after place after place that require you to travel by foot or horseback in Utah. With over 80 percent of the state under control of the Federal Government, there are plenty of multi use areas, as you found out. But there are also multiple areas, some of the most spectacular, that are accessible only under your own power either hiking, riding a horse or rowing a boat/raft.

Alex Armitage's picture

Would love to find any of those spots myself some day :) Thanks for the story Jeff!

Jeff Bennion's picture

Some of my favorite spots are associated with white water rafting. Gates of Lodore on the Green River is a very nice starting point, It’s where the Powell expedition lost its first dories. Desolation, Westwater and Cataract Canyon aren’t bad either. Any trail beyond 10 miles in the Unitas, Canyonlands, Arches or Escalante/Staircase National Monument is usually wonderful. Mount Naomi wildlife area hiking from Tony Grove down towards Cub River in Idaho is the northern most area. Bullet Canyon trail or the trail to the Citadel are high points in the Southeastern part of the state. For 4 wheelers and mountain bikes, there are excellent areas throughout the state. Best wishes on your journeys and may your lens always carry the slightest bit of dust. Oh, and I over stated, Utah is 65% owned by the federal government, which in my opinion is a probably a little too much.

Lauren Anderson's picture

Yeah, it's so great that only a handful of intrepid or determined people can use that land. The rest can just feel happy, or something, that it's out there somewhere, virtually inaccessible and unusable except by the handful who feel the call of nature and want to get in touch with their inner Wild Thing, and have the means to do so.

Timothy Roper's picture

Even the Escalante area is getting a little crowded. I drove down Hole in the Rock Road last October, and the parking lot for Spooky Gulch was full. But I was on my way to Hurricane Wash (just stopped to use the bathroom), so it all worked out. And I realize there are many other places to explore, but I was a little surprised.

Charles Mercier's picture

With covid, more people are going camping, using off-road vehicles, etc. because city activities are restricted.

Chase Wilson's picture

I think the tracks make the images more interesting. The tracks demand your attention and force you to form an opinion. The proof is in the pudding with this article. It could have been just another "This is how I got this shot that you've seen before - only slightly different" article, but instead it's a much more thoughtful and considered argument about how humans impact and reshape their environment.

Alex Armitage's picture

So that brings up the question then, you'd prefer an image with or without tracks on your wall?

Chase Wilson's picture

With. I wouldn't consider putting it on my wall without the tracks. With the tracks - for whatever reason, I enjoy it.

The tracks on the "the bad" section shot, even add an "illustrated" ingredient to the image. And it's only on the second inspection that you notice that they're there on the ground, and tracks from vehicles.

It may be an unpopular opinion (especially amongst the landscape folk), but I think these tracks make the images. In so much that If I were you (a shooter of landscapes) I'd seek out such environments, and build a series. Finding the perfect balance of "life and nature" will be very difficult. And maybe this environment is the only one of its kind being so freshly opened. All the OHV locations I know about are more tracks than nature.

I think you stumbled into something fantastic – and it sounds like it was very much against your will. I'd lean into it. And I hope you do.

Alex Armitage's picture

Very interesting perspective. I think if my goal was to represent our impact on landscapes as a series, this would fit right in but I think I focus too much on perfecting an image even though I leave flaws in from time to time. Maybe one day i'll focus more on looking at things under a different light and trying to capture things I don't typically snap.

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