The photo above is from Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa and was posted on the Death Valley Facebook page. It’s a popular photo spot in Death Valley and thousands of photographers flock there each year to photograph the mysterious “Sailing Stones”. Well, a Facebook friend, Jeff Simmons, turned me on to this post the other day. I read it and immediately thought just about everyone else who commented on it must be a photographer. Why? Because they were totally slamming the people that walked on the playa.
But who’s really wrong here? The people who left the footprints, or the photographers who are slamming them? I know I’m probably being too kind here, and I could be totally wrong – but I don’t think the people walking on the playa actually meant to ruin photographs for years to come. They may not be the smartest people in the world, but the comments on the post throw around words like “awful”, “stupid”, “idiot”, “saddening” and even “desecration”. Desecration? Really? It’s mud for God’s sake! And before you read on and post a thought, remember this. The sailing stones aren’t part of a key ecological system that, if disrupted, will have ripples throughout the ecosystem of Death Valley. Even the very post on Death Valley’s Facebook page only cites that the prints “will ruin photos for years”. So my point in this discussion is not whether it’s okay to harm nature. It’s not. I don’t think anyone reading this thinks it is. But that’s not what this is about. This is about photographers getting ticked off at tourists for leaving footprints in a place where they like to take photos.
Here’s my thoughts. First, it probably wasn’t a photographer that did this to get a photo. Thousands of people visit this place. Also, when in national parks (and generally, out in nature), there’s a “leave no trace” motto and I’m TOTALLY in agreement. When I camp with my kids we follow this rule every time. However, to some one that doesn’t know that the Racetrack is a popular photography spot, walking on mud would be similar to some one walking over a sand dune, or walking on fresh snow. I don’t think most people think of footprints as violating the “leave no trace” motto. Again, I do not in any way support anyone hurting, vandalizing or ruining nature in any way. I just don’t think this is an example of it.
Anyway…So put yourself in the place of a tourist… in fact, I saw many international tourists when I was there. You’ve flown thousands of miles… you’ve driven 2 hours to get there. You pull up and it’s muddy. But you really want to see those rocks up close and check it out for yourself. You look on the ground and what do you see? Mud? It’s not a coral reef, where it’s pretty well known that the effects of a human touch can ruin hundreds of years of growth. It’s not a sacred ground or monument either. It’s mud. Oh, and you have no idea that this is a popular photography spot? Why? Because the other 99.9999999% of the world doesn’t know the places photographers like to go to. So what do you do? You walk out on it and check out the rocks. Sure, I know it looks like they trampled all over and it’s excessive. But the rocks are kinda cool, and I know I walked all around them when I was there, so my guess is that a tourist would do the same.
While we’re on the tourist topic, here’s another example that I encountered in Death Valley while visiting the sand dunes. Photographers of course, want the pristine photo of the dunes. But, everyone else, besides photographers (which make up the majority of people that visit them), like to venture out and walk to the top of the dunes to see the panoramic scene around them, and even have their photo taken. So are those people idiots? They just trampled the dunes so that any photographer that shows up after them has a photo with a bunch of footprints in it. I was lucky. I visited on a Wednesday when the foot traffic was less since it was mid-week. So I was able to get the pristine untouched dune photos. But I also went back on a weekend and the dunes were trampled to death. A group of people ventured out along the highest peaks of the highest dunes, and left footprints all the way behind them. Anyone that went out after them to take a photo was screwed. If the winds died down there for a while, who knows how long it would take for those footprints to go away. I consider the footprint in the mud to be a very similar situation. Sure it may take longer to go away, but to the photographer that only visited the dunes that weekend (and maybe can’t get back for several years), does it matter that the footprints would wash away in a few days or a few years? Regular people (non-photographers), walk around these places because they want to experience them. They have no idea, that they may be ruining a photograph for a photographer. They’re just as entitled to walk out on the dunes as I am right? They paid the entrance fee to the park just like I did and they’re not violating the park rules.
Look, I get it. It sucks as a photographer who went out there after this. Just like it would suck to be the photographer that went out the day after a large group walked on the sand dunes. But to say that the people who did it were idiots and desecrated the land I think is a bit dramatic. If you go to the National Park’s webpage today it shows the photo here, and mentions not to walk on the playa if it’s wet. But just out of curiosity I did a Web.Archive search and found a snapshot of the website in Dec. 2013 and it has no mention of it. So this is indeed something the park system hadn’t even warned people of on their own website before now.
At the end of the day, hopefully the photo posted on the website and their Facebook page raises awareness for the area. One of the principles of “Leave No Trace” includes being considerate of other visitors. I don’t think these people knowingly thought they were being inconsiderate. If you were to walk through a wet forest to a campground, most would never worry about leaving tracks in the mud behind them. But hopefully, this helps raise awareness that the playa is different, and affected more by foot traffic.
It’s the whole considerate thing that gets me, though. I’ve been to many places where angry photographers yell at tourists before they ever politely ask them to move, assuming the tourist is purposely trying to ruin their photo. It gives photographers a bad name everywhere when you do that. All of Death Valley, including the Racetrack, is an absolutely gorgeous place to visit. As a photographer it’s a wonderful place to photograph. As a tourist, there’s so many cool places to hike around and explore scenery that you’d never see anywhere else. But sometimes, being part of one of those groups means that you could grow to resent the other. So here’s to hoping that each group can figure out how to help the other, and everyone can enjoy all the beauty that Death Valley has to offer.