The Devaluation of Nature Photography
Up until about 20 years ago, or so, it was possible for to make a decent living as a nature photographer. Not a lavish life style, but enough to live on comfortably. Direct sales to magazines, and print sales, along with stock sales, allowed an industrious shooter to produce enough high-quality photos to secure a reasonable living. The advent of digital photography, the development of Photoshop and other processing software, along with the rapid expansion of the World Wide Web, impacted photography, especially nature photography, in unforeseen ways. The number of shooters increased, access to markets expanded, and competition, already fierce, turned lethal. Almost everyone with a digital camera or smart phone could produce, with the help of software, marketable imagery. An already saturated marketplace was overwhelmed. Nature photographs, instead of being a limited product produced by skilled photographers, became a commodity. Product far outstripped demand and the value of images plummeted. For some, it was a harsh reality to learn that photography was not immune to the basic precept of the free market, when supply exceeds demand, prices fall.
That trend will continue. Last year an estimated 20 trillion photos were taken around the world. Yes, trillion. Obviously, the vast majority were made with smart phones but many of those were of sufficient quality to be published. A spike in eco-tourism, coupled with the flood of retiring baby boomers who discovered photography as a hobby, expanded the legion of new shooters in the field. The technology that made photography relatively easy, no training necessary, enabled even more people to join the crowd. Anyone who has gone afield to photograph wildlife has experienced the ever-growing legions chasing subjects. The Katmai coast, one of the country’s top spots for brown bear photography, used to be an isolated, lightly-visited locale. No longer. Two years ago a friend counted 99 people on the beach at Hallo Bay but just one bear. A sharp contrast to previous years when a person could see 30 bears at one time and few people. Many parks and reserves are overrun with people intent on capturing wildlife imagery.
Landscape photography also has been impacted. Iconic landmarks, such as Delicate Arch, Bryce Canyon, Old Faithful, Yosemite, Utah’s Wave, Wonder Lake, and other features, have been impacted, and photographed so often that nothing new or original seems possible. Not long ago I was at Utah’s Mesa Arch and was overwhelmed by literally 100 other shooters, many of then intent on selfies, an abomination of the Iphone Age.
The obvious upshot of the surge in nature photography is that many people want to sell their photographs, or at least see their photos in print. Some want the money; others simply the recognition. The advanced technology, coupled with software, makes it possible for almost anyone to produce remarkable imagery. What was publishable in the past, is no longer good enough. It didn’t take long for publishers to exploit the over-abundance of imagery. As collections expanded, and photo submissions soared, many magazines began to hold “contests,” which in reality were rights grabs that allowed them to utilize images without payment, except for maybe a grand prize awarded to one lucky entrant. In fact, one publication sponsors three or four contests a year, largely gathering a year’s worth of illustrations at little, or no cost. Most of the “winners” receive no compensation other than seeing their name in print. Recognition drives some people. I met one shooter who was so desperate to see his bear photos in print that he paid the magazine $1500 to have them published. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work.
Often, we see articles on-line, or in photo magazines, entitled How-to Sell Your Photos, or Careers in Photography, or some such. These articles are almost always written by people who have never been free-lance photographers, or know very little about today’s business of photography. Limiting my comments solely to nature photography, I’d say it’s almost impossible for any newcomer to break into the field and make a decent living. The competition is so brutal that many long-time nature professionals long turned to leading tours and workshops in order to extend their careers. From what I hear, even that field has begun to falter, even before the global pandemic curtailed travel. Somewhere along I read a statement that said that in any field “10% of the people make 90% of the money.” What’s true in high finance, show business or sports, is also true in nature photography. A few always seem to fight their way into a good place, leaving most others by the way side. God or bad, the modern era is a difficult time for any young person to attempt to try and establish a career in nature photography.
Lastly, print sales have also suffered from over-flowing inventory. A few photographers who used to make solid incomes from print sales, have either had to cut prices in order to compete, or gone out of business altogether. Of course, as I said, there are exceptions and a few print photographers do quite well. Still, given the extraordinary cost of equipment and travel, coupled with competition from a vast army of hobbyists, full-time professional nature photographers are a vanishing breed.
I’m one of those who has been affected by all the changes. I’m very grateful to have had the experiences I’ve been afforded, and for the places I’ve visited and the things I’ve seen and photographed. In my view, the expanded interest in nature and wildlife photography is both good and bad. I rue the negative impact on wildlife and wildlands which results in resource damage. On the other hand, an expanded base of people interested in nature and wildlife is a good thing, creating advocates for conservation and preservation.
Alaska Wildlife Photography (Part 2)
The development of digital photography has been revolutionary. Digital capture has replaced film, highly wasteful and toxic in both manufacturing and processing.
For consistent results in the film era, mastery of photographic skills was imperative. Today, the digital world is divided between purists and techies. Purists place emphasis on a well-practiced craft using all their skills and techniques to produce good photographs. Techies obsess over mega pixels, processor speeds and pay far too much attention to their computers to fix fundamental errors. They correct basic photographic mistakes with mouse clicks.
Now, due to computer software, almost anyone can produce quality imagery. Thanks to digital corrections, many images show idealized animals without imperfections of any kind. Wild animals are often wet, muddy, molting, scarred, or covered with insects, in hiding or camouflaged, but you’d never know it from the re-touched pictures favored today. In the film era an eye-popping photograph often provoked a ‘Wow! What a shot.’ Sadly, the response today is often, ‘Wow! I wonder if it’s real?’
Today’s imagery has complicated our ability to separate photographic fact from fiction. A composited image does not capture a true moment but creates one. Digital photo fakery silences the old dogma “that the camera does not lie.”
In truth, a picture is not literal, never has been. Since its invention, the medium has been a subjective rendering of reality. The content of any photograph starts with what the photographer decides to include or exclude from the frame, the timing of the shutter release, or choice of lighting, film, filters, or lens. Reality can be modified by simple elimination of distracting or unwanted elements. Photographers have a history of using darkroom techniques to alter their work but software makes it easy. Ansel Adams created his best imagery not in camera but in the darkroom. “The negative is the score,” he wrote, “[but] the print is the performance.” His prints were absolutely not literal representations but rather interpretations of landscape.
Technology always advances faster than ethics. When does computer manipulation become unethical? Is it OK to remove a branch from in front of a bear’s face? Or digitally clone in an entire bear into a scene? Software allows the technically proficient to re-order nature in spectacular ways, create dramatic, often artistic, imagery at low cost, and at minimal discomfort. No need to get cold, wet, hungry, or bitten by bugs.
Nature photography is booming. Legions of people own telephoto lenses and high end digital cameras. An estimated 1.3 trillion digital photographs were taken in 2017. Sometimes the competition for photographs is so great that many resource managers fear that the sheer numbers and drive “to get the unique shot” poses a serious threat to wildlife. Wildlife harassment is of great concern. (One accepted definition of the term: any human action that causes unusual behavior, or change in behavior.) Each species has a different level of tolerance to human intrusion, with individual variations. Wintering wildlife may not over-react to the approach or passage of a single individual but repeated intrusions create stress and energy drain that may affect the animal’s very survival. I’ve often passed up winter opportunities when I felt my presence might disturb or displace an animal. A nationally recognized ethical standards states: “The welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph.”
The very best wildlife photography today shows an animal within the context of its habitat, no crowding necessary. Such images evoke a sense of place, an emotional and spiritual connection to the natural world.
One of my early role models, photographer Bill McRae, strongly felt that a wildlife photographer carries a responsibility for the well-being of his subjects and that their territory, strengths and weaknesses must be respected. “I think animals have a sixth sense about whether or not you mean them harm,” he once told me, “I don’t just go barging into their world. I ease in and sometimes move in a very meandering route so as to be less threatening.”
The late Charlie Ott, a pioneer in Alaska nature photography, believed patience was the key virtue, coupled with an understanding of “the rights and feelings of the ‘wildfolk.’ I can tell if they don’t want their picture taken, and I won’t,” he said. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, Ott photographed the McKinley (Denali) Park more completely than anyone before him, everything from lichens to wolves. His outspoken activism and staunch support of conservation ranked him as a true zealot protector of the natural world.
Intentional feeding carries risk, both to wildlife and public safety. Resource managers say, “a fed bear is a dead bear,” because a bear hooked on human food or garbage often turns dangerous. No mammal, large or small, should be fed, especially for photos. In Denali, David Rhode once watched a fox hunting in willows and apparently catching numerous voles. Suspicious, Rhode investigated and found a quantity of cocktail sausages skewered on the twigs.
A retired teacher, Charlie Vandergaw, took bear feeding to an unprecedented level. Completely ignoring the conventional wisdom he attracted dozens of bears to his “Bear Haven” cabin in a remote corner of the Sustina Valley. For years he fed both black bears and grizzlies, conditioning them to tolerate human contact. He claimed to have “introduced hundreds of people to life-changing encounters [with bears]”, animals he viewed as misunderstood.
Vandergaw used food to lure bears into scenic locations for photographs and hosted visiting photographers. His obsession was based on a genuine love of bears, not photography. In 20 years he’d never suffered more than minor injuries but admitted in an interview “the odds are mounting” against him. (See Animal Planet’s The Man Who Lives With Bears; the documentary, Stranger among Bears.)
Recreational cabins, and hunter bear bait stations, dot the area around Vandergaw’s “Bear Haven.” (In Alaska, hunters can set up bait stations to lure bears to the gun; otherwise feeding human food or garbage is illegal, an infuriating contradiction.)
Thus food-conditioned animals, without fear of people, visited area cabins or wandered openly into hunter ambushes. Vandergaw dismissed the notion that he was creating a problem. “Bears have been marauding cabins forever,” he said, “it’s a learned behavior.” Right. Vandergaw said he meant no harm but I saw him as a Judas setting up bears for slaughter.
In spring, 2010, Charlie Vandergaw was fined $20,000 and sentenced to 180 days in jail, all suspended, for feeding bears. In the aftermath, in not very covert, official/unofficial actions, an estimated two dozen bears were killed in the area near Vandergaw’s homestead.
Are we wildlife watchers and photographers loving to death the objects of our affection? Certain behaviors have directly, or indirectly, killed or harmed wildlife, intrusions at nests especially egregious. It seems to me there are two areas of broad concern in wildlife viewing and photography. First and foremost is a concern for the welfare of wildlife and habitat and the need to minimize disturbance. Second, is the impact on other park and refuge visitors who are not photographers. Some people, brandishing long lenses and obnoxious behavior, have shouldered aside other viewers in order “to get the shot.” In the autumn of 1979, I spent ten days photographing moose near Mile 9 of the Denali Park Road. Johnny Johnson and the late Bill Ruth were the only other photographers there. Today, in the same location, a single moose will draw dozens of people to the road edge, actually hundreds, if you include the occupants of tour buses. Rude and obnoxious behaviors are often on display.
With a flood of amateur and professional photographs afield it is easy to question the rationale for allowing photography in wildlife sanctuaries. The real justification for wildlife photography should be as a tool for conservation. People who are actively concerned with species and habitat preservation recognize that woefully little can be done without wide public support. The protection and perpetuation of wildlife resources requires the backing of ordinary citizenry. Quality photography involves the public like nothing else.
Biologists like to think they are the cutting edge of wildlife conservation but very few studies and reports ever make it to public consciousness, or make much sense to non-scientists. Nature photography, on the other hand, is a powerful medium that raises environmental awareness and encourages protection of species and habitat. As legendary ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson once said, “We have more of a feeling toward the animal because of the intimacy of the photographs.” Good wildlife photography evokes a passion for animals. According to Michael “Nick” Nichols, a frequent contributor to National Geographic, “images have a unique power to aid conservation efforts because they hit you emotionally.”
I’m inspired by the contributions of exemplary wildlife photographers. Tom Mangelsen is passionate about cougars. He has published two books on cougars and founded The Cougar Fund with the mission of “educating children and adults on their value…and advocating for management based on sound science, to assure a lasting place for these creatures.”
Juneau-based cinematographer Joel Bennett has filmed wildlife throughout Alaska. After filming wildlife in Mongolia, Bennett established a fund for snow leopards that would compensation herders for livestock lost to leopards, a powerful alternative to killing. Flip Nicklen was a founder of Maui, a nonprofit that advances humpback whale conservation and research. “Photographs capture people’s imagination in a way that graphs and data can’t,” said whale researcher Meagan Jones.
The book, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” Seasons of Life and Land: A photographic Journey, the two-year-long project of Subhankar Banarjee, emerged in 2003 as not only the first year-round comprehensive photographic portrait of the refuge but a powerful tool for its protection.
The work of pioneer conservation photographers, like Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson, helped in the establishment of Yosemite and Yellowstone. More recently, Ansel Adams worked for the protection of wild places. The history and value of nature photography is well documented. The imagery often screams: “Look at this. Now take a stand before it’s gone.”
Through my photographs I’ve tried to capture the unique wonder of northern animals and habitat. In comparison to the greats, my success is modest, but if even a few people have paused to take a second look, think deeply, and act, then I’ve accomplished my goal.
Alaska Wildlife Photography
A grizzly killed hiker Richard White, of San Diego, while on a solo backpack trip on the Toklat River in August 2012, the only bear-caused fatality in Denali Park’s now 100-year history. White, 49, apparently first saw the grizzly at a distance of about 75 yards and stopped hiking to take a picture of the unsuspecting bear. The last few images recovered from his camera show the bear closing in. Details of the ensuing tragedy are uncertain. Rangers killed the male bear and recovered White’s remains.
The fatal attack unsettled park staff and visitors alike. Some people blamed the victim for being a photographer who violated the park’s distance rules in order to take pictures. Some people seemed to suggest that the bear’s death was the greater loss. More thoughtful observers mourned the human tragedy. The park’s chief ranger pointed out that White was not a photographer but a backpacker who merely happened to encounter a grizzly, a commonplace event in summer. None of the rhetoric brought any relief or solace to the victim’s family or friends.
If possession of a device that takes pictures makes a person a photographer, nearly every visitor to the park qualifies. White made a simple mistake by not moving immediately away from the bear. But who really knows? Perhaps there was nothing he could have done to save himself once the bear spotted him. The day before, a former park ranger saw the bear fighting with another bear and thinks the bear was starving, suffering from a failed berry crop.
More than once I’ve described a camera as a dangerous weapon. “A camera can quickly get you into trouble in bear country,” I’ve told wannabe professionals. “Through the viewfinder you might get the picture but miss the big picture.” Regardless if a person is a tourist with an iPhone or a professional with a whizbang digital camera, this admonishment applies. It is just too easy to be sucked into the camera and not pay attention to the enfolding event or recognize the hazard.
In my half century as a wildlife photographer I’ve had three close calls with grizzlies, only one as a result of a deliberate attempt for photos. I learned many lessons from that naïve and stupid mistake and to this day avoid undue risk. Through experience and observation I’ve learned that a person is most at risk one-on-one with a bear, but safer with two people, and in groups of five or more, the hazard greatly reduced. Today, bear viewing in Alaska is a booming segment of tourism. Hundreds of people travel to watch bears, usually in guided groups of six to ten people. Countless bear photographs are taken each summer without incident of any kind.
Professional wildlife photographers, I believe, have a special responsibility to be honest and forthcoming in their narrative. All too often, photographers exaggerate their exploits afield, especially when it comes to bears. I recall one Alaskan photographer who boasted of being charged 37 times with one attack resulting in broken ribs. (Most people would’ve learned something after the first or second incident.) A few others routinely tell tall tales but few so ludicrous.
Attempts to emulate published photos have led people into harmful or hazardous situations. I often wonder how many incidents are attributable to novices emulating stories they’ve heard or in pursuit of photographs similar to what they’ve seen?
Wonderful imagery incites people to imitation but rarely do captions reveal the how behind the pictures. Many great close-ups of wildlife are made from vehicles, in zoos, or at wildlife parks such as the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, or today, created on a computer.
People have long desired to make contact with other species, as exemplified by cave art, ceremonial bear burials, and animal effigies. The joy in animal imagery is ages old, embedded deep within. Perhaps today we seek contact with dangerous predators, bears, wolves, and big cats because our earliest human awareness was as a predator, which shaped our view of wildlife and our place in the world. (Conversely, it can be argued that our earliest awareness was as prey.) Our ancestors depended on wildlife for their very survival. Perhaps these primordial roots drive people to make contact, be “up close and personal” no matter how unwise that may be. “I am one with the wolf…I am one with the bear…” A tragic few have become one in the bear.
We are addicted to animal pictures. Wildlife films and magazines tend to be visually powerful but weak in narrative. The urban notion of the nobility of wolves has more to do with beautiful photographs, many taken in captivity, than understanding of the food chain. The human relationship to animals irrevocably changed when we stopped living among them. Some people today exalt animals as equals, often far wiser and more peaceable than humans.
For some of us, photography has become the connecting medium. “Ultimately,” wrote philosopher Susan Sontag, “having an experience becomes identical with taking a picture of it.” Renown photographer Eliot Porter once wrote that his bird portraits were a method of “establishing illusory rapport with the secret lives of wholly unapproachable animals.”
The stereotypical image of a wildlife photographer is of a camouflaged Daniel Boone, possessed of great courage, patience, and exceptional knowledge of wildlife. In reality, few wildlife photographers, except for some bird photographers, wear camouflage or wait long periods for peak action. Most shooting is happenstance, done from the road or in areas where wildlife is habituated to people with no special camouflage or subterfuge necessary.
In fact, full camouflage can get a person into serious trouble. Why on earth would someone want to sneak up on an unsuspecting bear, possibly provoking a defensive attack? For example, McNeil River State Game Sanctuary each summer hosts the world’s largest concentration of brown bears. Back in the 1970’s, prior to the strict rules in place today, a man crawled through tall grass to close range of a mother and cub before popping up for a photo. The startled bear, fearing for her cub, charged. The man shot and killed her, one of only three bears killed in the sanctuary’s 50 year history.
In today’s world, television is our chief way of experiencing nature. Wildlife films in particular suffer from the curse of television: time constraints. Nature does not reveal itself in half-hour or hour blocks, conveniently paused for snack breaks. Real knowledge comes from hours of study and field work. Instead, what is presented on television is often scripted and predictable, with manufactured drama and happy endings. As an example of television’s power, Steep Creek, near Mendenhall Glacier, has become a de-facto black bear viewing site, drawing hordes of tourists. Last summer a small bear drew a crowd accompanied by a Forest Service interpretive ranger. “Hey everyone, look!” she yelled. “A little slice of Disneyland right here near Juneau.” (My God, have we fallen that far? Disneyland emulates nature, not the reverse.)
Even on a casual visit to a national park, or other wildlife reserve, we see people chasing after elk, approaching bison or bears, throwing junk food to lure animals, or attempting to touch or hold small animals or reptiles. (The “selfie” craze has led to dazzlingly stupid behaviors.)
I blame a lot of irresponsible behavior on so-called documentaries and “interactive” reality shows that feature people supposedly working for the conservation of wildlife, but stepping over the line into the lamentable realm of celebrity. The immense popularity of Steve Irwin, “the Crocodile Hunter,” accelerated that trend. Maybe larger-than-life figures are needed to reach a burgeoning human population with zero interest in wildlife, but in almost every episode of Irwin’s program that I saw, in my opinion, he needlessly caught, chased, or handled dangerous animals, merely for the sake of drama. (Notice how it was always Irwin doing the chasing? The animals were just trying to get away.) Many wildlife professionals viewed much of his behavior as outright wildlife harassment.
A stingray killed Irwin in 2006 on a dive over the Great Barrier Reef. “I have no fear of losing my life,” he once said. “If I have to save a koala or a crocodile or a kangaroo or a snake, mate, I will save it.” Sounds a lot like something Timothy Treadwell once said.
As time passes, producers of wildlife “documentaries” —“the pet-and-pester approach”—continue to push the boundaries. Jaded viewers demand ever more unique action. I’ve worked as a consultant and guide on a few films and seen firsthand the pressure the production teams work under to achieve spectacular results. Not long ago I took a call from a producer in London. After outlining plans for a wildlife special to be shot on location in Denali and elsewhere, the producer then asked her key question: “How can we put some sizzle into the program?” When I asked what she meant by “sizzle,” she listed several audacious stagings. After each one, I replied: “Can’t be done, it’s not legal.” After a long pause, she asked: “Well, where can we do these things?” The answer, of course, was nowhere. Federal laws against wildlife harassment apply nationwide. The producer never called back.
On another occasion, at the behest of the park service, I guided a film crew into Denali for the making of an episode of a television series starring a well-known “wildlife expert.” At one point, our shooting along the park road was interrupted by a passing tour bus. I saw recognition cross the faces of many of the passengers and they began to smile and wave to our “star.” He weakly waved back and sotto voce said, “Get a life you #%&*!*. Yes it’s me…now make my day and get lost, you #%&*!* losers.”
Later, we set up at another location. The light rain had stopped and the crew had doffed their raingear. The shot called for the “star” to walk 40 feet out onto the tundra, here covered in short, inches-tall shrubs, and pose as if in the midst of the great alone. After conferring with the producer, and with camera rolling, the “star” strode into the scene. Twenty steps out he suddenly froze and looked down as if he’d stepped on a poisonous snake. “My pant legs are wet,” he flared. “I’ve stayed dry all day. I’m wet now. I can’t work in these conditions.” He stormed passed the crew and back into the van. No one said a word, everyone aware that only his cuffs were damp. After a few awkward moments, the producer climbed into the van for a long chat. Somehow he managed to coax the “star” out for another take, which lasted five minutes.
There is something almost pornographic about the animal “reality” shows and staged “documentaries” on cable. One mercifully short-lived show featured a thirty-something with long hair, tattoos and piercings, dressed much like an extra in a Mad Max film, artlessly harassing wildlife with a camera. Cut-in scenes of animals fighting were featured in at least two episodes. The film makers, for whom the rewards, and costs, are the greatest, had nearly obliterated the ethical line between artifice and cruelty. (The woeful days of Frank Buck should be far behind us.) I have given up hope of finding programs that teach people how to live in harmony with wildlife.
Still photography also has suffered as a result of the demand for high drama and action. Editors demand impact, the ethics behind the imagery of little or no importance. I know a photographer who carries a bag of stones with him to throw if an animal looks drowsy. He’s made a small fortune from pictures of running and jumping deer.
The pioneers of wildlife photography were not purists. In the 1950’s, largely attributable to the limitations of equipment and film, professionals employed baits, decoys, and recorded calls, to lure subjects within camera range. They photographed in zoos and took pictures of captive animals, or family pets, and often published them with fanciful captions. I knew two very successful professionals that placed taxidermied animals in natural settings. One couple situated a stuffed bear in a stream and took turns tossing rocks in front of it to simulate splashing fish.
These practitioners were not solely tricksters but widely traveled photographers with vast libraries of the world’s wildlife. They used these tricks often at the blatant, or tacit, encouragement of editors and art buyers. In their part of the bargain, editors often wrote deceptive captions to accompany the photographs. (Even now some editors have vivid imaginations. Not long ago, Alaska Magazine published a bear picture that I had taken in a zoo twenty years ago and captioned it as taken in “the Kodiak Zoological Park.” Kodiak has no such animal park, the caption a total embarrassment.)
Denali’s Failed Promise
In the early 1970’s many Alaskans were excited that with the completion of the Parks Highway, Mount McKinley National Park (as Denali was then called) would be accessible by private vehicle without the long, torturous drive over the Denali Highway. The National Park Service had other ideas.
The Service viewed the opening of the highway as a threat, bringing unprecedented crowds and ruining the wildlife viewing that made the park unique. A series of meetings were held. The Service told us: “We are going to control access. Give up your private vehicles and we will provide free transportation into the park.”
In 1972 the park bus system was inaugurated. For several years the “shuttle buses” were free, but later accessed for a $3.00 booking fee. Visitors could exit and re-board the bus anywhere along the park road, the system working as a true “shuttle” as promised. Gone are those days.
Under former Superintendent Steve Martin’s regime, the shuttle name was changed to “the VTS,’ or Visitor Transportation System, part of a thinly disguised move to get the public to accept the notion of “through transit” rather than a shuttle. Fees were charged to specific locations rather than the original “every bus goes to the end of the road” concept. Recently the VTS has been renamed the “transit system.”
Today’s transit tickets for adults cost $33.50 to Toklat River, $42.75 to Eielson, and $64 to Kantishna. Tour prices are much higher, for adults ranging from $85.50 to $222. Rangers have long exhorted people “to get off the bus and explore on your own” but when tickets are sold to specific destinations fewer people are willing to exit the bus for exploration. By default the “transit” system, used primarily by independent travelers, has become a transit of the park, and de-facto tour.
Observers point to another serious problem. The Concessioner that operates the two bus systems also sells and books the tickets, an inherent conflict of interest. Sales over the phone and on the Reserve Denali website have been lacking in balance and transparency with people directed toward the higher-priced tour tickets. Infrequent monitoring by park staff supposedly prevents this but it has been a persistent issue.
Over the years park tourism has changed. Where once independent travelers, many of them Alaskans, dominated visitation, today the vast majority of visitors are part of package tours. The Service has often somewhat disingenuously stated that their managers are merely responding to the changing reality, not enabling it. In reality, over the years the Park Service has taken a series of steps that favor package tourism over independent travel. The actions might have been small increments but in the aggregate have had a profound effect.
A few parks in the lower 48, following Denali’s example, also operate bus systems. With nearly five million visitors, Zion’s shuttle buses operate free of charge.
The Park is currently implementing a Vehicle Management Plan (VMP) that, to many observers, will funnel more buses into the park, and judging by past actions, will favor tour buses over transit buses. Despite administrative assurances that the allocations will be fair and appropriate, the historical record is not good. One year the number of tour buses increased by 25% while the shuttle buses increased by only 2.5%. Industrial tourism has incredible leverage with Denali’s management which has often favored the giants over independent travelers.
The VMP limits the time spent and number of vehicles allowed at any wildlife viewing stop. It also designates “viewsheds” where no parking or stopping is allowed. The original plan designated a handful of such “viewsheds” but the current administration seems to have designated the entire road as a viewshed, severely impacting venerable Camp Denali, a lodge that has operated hiking tours in the park since the 1950’s. If the trend continues, no longer will they be able to park their two buses along the road to enable interpretive hikes.
It seems to me a great disservice to set aside a Switzerland-sized piece of Alaska and then funnel visitors into an eight to eleven-hour bus ride. Experiences within the park should be enabled not limited by the needs of industrial tourism.