The Biggest Threat to Protected Lands

In June of 1906 the first area of protected land was established in what is known as Yellowstone National Park. As the patriarch of the national park system in the United States, Yellowstone paved the way for what are now 413 sites that are under federal protection. The first national parks in the United States were set apart to protect and preserve wildlife, landscapes, and historical features that occupied them.

Currently, our protected lands are under significant attack. The most significant barrage of devastating effects to our protected lands don’t come from war or from harmful results of global warming. Instead, the biggest threat to protected lands is lack of education to patrons of the parks.

The fragile ecosystem of old growth forest in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The fragile ecosystem of old growth forest in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

As a landscape photographer and someone who dearly loves our national parks, I want to believe that everyone who crosses a park border wants to experience that place because of its unique beauty. However, I’ve hesitated writing this blog post because I was afraid that a simple Google search would prove my hypothesis incorrect.

That very fear came to fruition when I got up the courage to search, “vandalism in.” Without even finishing my full search term, I was slapped with numerous articles of people vandalizing our fragile landscapes for fame, a moment of fun, or for seemingly no reason at all.

The first article that appeared was a post by the National Park Service documenting examples of vandalism in various national parks and how to contact authorities to report them. Photos of graffiti, scarring of historic petroglyphs, and the mutilation of cacti peppered the screen. I applaud the National Park Service for addressing vandalism, however the fact of the matter is that they are understaffed and underfunded. There is no possible way to monitor every section of a national park constantly. The largest national park alone, Death Valley, is 5,262 square miles.

Speaking of Death Valley National Park, it has quickly become one of the most popular locations for social media influencers. The arid desert landscape pairs beautifully with their patented floppy hat and red jacket posts.

The attention that Death Valley has received has also made it a prime target for vandalism. I easily found two examples of people driving onto the delicate Badwater Basin Salt Flat and vandals enjoying a joy ride on the extremely fragile Racetrack Playa.

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park during a historic flood.

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park during a historic flood.

The Racetrack is one of only two kinds of Playa where rocks move and carve tracks into the dry earth crust. When the Racetrack is wet, traveler’s footprints can remain on the surface for years before the landscape has a chance to reset. In the case describe in the article, it documents tire tracks. If you think about the impact that a human footprint has, it’s not difficult to conclude how detrimental the force of a tire can be and how long they might remain on the playa.

Joshua Tree National Park was also hit recently. During the government shutdown, individuals trashed the park causing it to temporarily close. Instead of respecting the closure to ensure the protection of the unique Joshua Tree landscape, people ignored the closure, cut chains to access points, and even cut down Joshua Trees to create illegal roads through the wilderness. To give you an idea of how devastating cutting down a Joshua Tree is, one takes about 60 years to become a mature tree, can live over 500 years, and the oldest Joshua Tree in the park system is thought to be around 1,000 years old. That would mean the oldest Joshua Tree began its life around the year 1,019.

These are just a hand-full of examples of damaging vandalism to our protected lands. You can easily find several more examples just by doing a quick Google search.

There comes a time when we need to realize this threat isn’t going away and neither is the driving force that is social media. I’m not saying social media is a bad thing. In fact, I spend way too much of my time enjoying posts and carefully crafting my own photo descriptions to compliment my photos.

However, nature photographers need to start speaking up and educating the public on principles for enjoying protected lands responsibly. There need to be less posts about, “look at this beautiful photo and what a great job I did,” and more posts about, “look at how fragile this place is, here’s how you can visit responsibly.” Whether you like it or not, if you’re a nature photographer (even if you post nature photos from your iPhone) you are a front-line ambassador to the places you love. It’s time to start shouting about how to protect lands.

One way you can do this is to join Nature First, the alliance for responsible nature photography. The Nature First principles correctly teach actions of putting nature above self desire and then directing that knowledge to the public. Study the principles below:


  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

Nature First - The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography

Nature First - The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography

Whenever you are visiting, posting, or just talking with your friends about protected, fragile lands, educate on the principles of Nature First. It's time to take intentional steps to protect the places we love to shoot. It's time to stop talking and start acting. Nature photographers are ambassadors to the places we love and it's time to preserve them.