About free lunches, or lack thereof

In another recent post I expressed some opinions about what I think are some of the causes of the catastrophic flood of frivolous visitation to most natural, cultural and historic sites throughout the world. I left out my thoughts on another aspect of this problem, as it was not relevant to the issue that originated that commentary. Some recent posts initiated by EBerstein, however, touch on what I left out, and I feel that I need to speak up. I realize that what I am about to write will not go down well, but I will be honest in saying things that I feel must be said.

A random sampling of the members of Nature First shows a multitude of offerings for “workshops” or some other comparable services that consist of taking people to those same places that we wish to protect. Also on offer are guidebooks, ebooks, videos, etc. that fulfill the same basic role: help people discover places that they did not know about. I realize that this may be the livelihood of some (many?) of you, but, no pun intended, there is no free lunch. You cannot have it both ways. When you take people on a “workshop” you are contributing to the abuse that you decry. First because you are physically putting more people there. You may think that the few people who you shepheard do not make a difference, but multiply that by the number of “workshops” operating in the same place. There are places that I used to go to that I have completely given up on, because I have no interest in sharing my space with such groups, and it is impossible to avoid them.

Even worse is the multiplicative effect that running those “workshops” has. I believe that at least some of you tell your customers to be discreet about locations. This is commendable, but do you follow up later to see whether they heeded your advise? Can you enforce something like that? I am a cynic when it comes to the human species. Thirty years as a University professor in the Earth and Planetary Sciences have made me that way. I cannot begin to count the number of times that students have written in their tests well-reasoned explanations about the human origin of climate change, or about the finite nature of non-renewable resources, only to then see them become well-paid employees of some of the worst offenders, such as Exxon-Mobil, or in some cases even writing in their course evaluations that they did not give a hoot about what they had written in their exams, and that they their only interest was to get an A. I suspect that most of the people who go on your workshops just don’t care, they will happily tell their friends about this new “instagrammable” place, and those friends will tell their friends, and so forth. Even if you have only one bad apple in each group that is a problem. Are you familiar with geometric progressions?

If you offer guidebooks or videos about how to photograph such and such place or when and where to go to photograph xyz, then you are unleashing the same chain reaction, but in an even more nefarious way, as it is a lot cheaper to buy an ebook than to go on a “workshop”, and you don’t even have to take a pledge to be well behaved, it is enough to give a credit card number. By signing up to Nature First you take a pledge to be responsible about sharing location information. Commendable but naive - do you really think that this will deter the type of people responsible for the vandalism of natural areas? It is enough that one person who has no qualms about divulging this information gets access to it, and then tells his friends, and so on.

Juana Inés de la Cruz was a seventeenth century Spanish-Mexican nun and poet, who is considered to be among the earliest feminist writers. The opening stanza of her most famous poem goes like this (my translation):

Vacuous men, you who accuse
Women without a cause
And fail to see that you´re to blame
For that which you bemoan

She could have been writing about abuse of the planet, rather than about an even more wretched type of abuse. I don’t expect to change any minds, nor will I change mine. But I thought that it was important to present a very different perspective on this catastrophe. If I were in charge of the National Park Service or of any other agency that manages public lands I would, among many other things, ban ALL commercial activity, including photo “workshops”, and I would institute very high entrance fees, significantly higher, for example, than those for Disneyworld or those for taking some vapid 3 days cruise in a floating hotel. Of course, the U.S. is only a small fraction of planet Earth, so this would have to be a global initiative. And of course I’m just daydreaming.

Is this an elitist point of view? Without a doubt, but the problem is so serious and urgent that we cannot afford not to do whatever it takes to stop the cataclism. Although I’m afraid it is too late already. As I often tell my friends, hardly a day goes by that I don’t wish that I had been born 50 years before I was. Fighting against evil in the 1940’s was a noble cause, fighting against selfie sticks is not.

1 Like

One thing about it, a heavy fee for commercial activities including photo workshops would help the Park Service budget while passing the burden through the commercial operators to clients who might be better able to pay than a young family with several kids. Heck, whack em $100 a head for the day, and the workshop companies could pass it right along.

More than an idle thought. While in Valley of Fire we entered early before the fee station opened and used the adjacent self-pay station. There were 4 workshop vehicles there too, either garishly painted or wearing magnetic door signs. On the drive to our destination we counted 5 more, and over the course of the day saw even more. Clients counts ranged from 2 to 8. Call it an average of 5 (conservative) for 10 workshop businesses (even more conservative), that’s 50 per day. Math sezz that would be $5k per day additional to the park coffers. You do the math for a year.

The more I think about photo workshops in the park, the more I think “Whack Em!” If it cuts down on workshops, is that a good thing or a bad thing?


An interesting couple of topics.

I have a lot of friends who lead workshops and do it in a very mindful way. Do they have the right to do so? Absolutely. Does it impact the locations where they guide? In my opinion, most definitely. It does increase traffic both during and later from revisits, friends, social media posts, etc. It all adds to the traffic.

Do I like it when I run into a workshop when I am out in the field. Not at all. I have had more than one peaceful area suddenly overrun by a small horde of quite nice and friendly and environmentally considerate people. It is far different than having one or two people show up. If I am heading to a locale and see a workshop there already, I generally keep moving on. For me, it has an impact on the serenity and mood. My friends who lead workshops will admit to having the same feelings and tend to cringe a bit about the impact of their own groups.

It is not a black and white issue, I find it touches a lot of shades of gray.

After seeing this video I never want to attend this type of workshop. I feel there is nothing of value to be learned from this type of workshop leader. Their approach to photography is alien to me and will remain so. This type of photography is for grown up boys, whose adolescent awareness they still retain.

1 Like


One could call your suggestion the “free-market approach”, certainly more feasible than my utopian “command economy” viewpoint. But wilderness,

that Harley mentions and that are also a chief concern of mine, and most important of all, the inalienable rights of the non-human inhabitants of the place not to be disturbed, are hard to “monetize”, to use a fashionable word. So there would still have to be some “command” decision, the key to which would be your question:

I would argue that it depends. If your prime interest is to increase funding for our abysmally funded federal lands, then I’d go with your $ 100 a head suggestion. That amount will have no appreciable effect on the number of people attending “workshops” and as you point out it would raise lots of money. If I were managing, though, my overarching goal would be to drastically cut down on visitation, so I would set the fee at $ 1000 a head. Many (most?, all?) operators would go out of business. Regrettably, there is no free lunch.

Yes, there are shades of grey, but ultimately it is a zero-sum game. Why? Because the planet has a finite size and present day human population is already beyond its carrying capacity. As I tell my students (even if not all pay much attention), scientific understanding is simple, it deals with data and math and the answers are black or white. What we decide to do or not to do about a mathematical result as obvious as the fact that a finite planet cannot sustain indefinite population and economic growths is no longer science, and thus way more complicated - intractable if you ask me.

Hey Alberto,

May I ask for some details about the scope of your concern?

There’s no doubt that some areas are more senesitive than others and some locations are so well known I doubt that workshops make an impact.

For instance place like Zion and Death Vallwy receive hundreds of thousands or millions of visitors per year. Surely Zabriesky point can handle a few more car loads? However there are remote desert landscapes that can not sustain much traffic at all.

If a workshop leader only takes their group to well known “hardened “ locations I’m not sure that it’s a risky endeavour. If they lead people into the sensitive back country then I tend to agree with you


To put it simply

(i) In my view, places that receive millions of visitors a year are already “over-abused”, so my point is not that they can take additional visitors with little additional impact, but rather that they should be taking a lot less visitors than they already are.

(ii) It is a moving target. Once a “new” place is discovered it becomes overcrowded much faster than there is time to impose any sort of controls. So my point of view is that one should be strongly proactive, rather than ineffectually reactive.

Perhaps something that I should stress is that I am not talking just about the US, nor just about natural areas. The same problems exist in historical sites, museums, the great cities of the world, etc., not to mention natural areas just about anywhere in the world. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, while at University, I spent several summers and a few winters driving all over Argentina, alone in an old Jeep. I got to Fitz Roy when there was no road. I camped on Lago Argentino next to Perito Moreno glacier at a time when the closest human was probably some 60 km away, in Calafate (which only had a primitive airstrip and no commercial flights). I got to know Patagonia like the palm of my hand. I drove around the Puna (Andean high plateau) at a time when you had to carry a couple of hundred liters of gas and plenty of water with you. Now I see “workshops” that have forever ruined these places by taking thousands of people there, who in turn “instagram” their experiences and make more people go, and on and on. The places that I knew no longer exist. The last time I visited Argentina, about ten years ago, I was so revolted by what I saw that I decided never to go back. And that was way before Instagram, I can’t even imagine what it is like now. I have my fading slides from half a century ago and want to die with those memories.

I tell you all this to explain why I feel so strongly about the issue: I have seen it happen. I never identified with Argentinian culture, as I was raised by European parents who just happened to be living there for professional reasons, but I fell deeply in love with a land that no longer exists. When I moved to the US more than thirty years ago I fell equally in love with “the West”, but over the years much of the land that I knew back then has been overrun by the masses. I can give you other examples of how fast I have seen places get trashed because some of us never thought that it could happen so fast, whereas others saw a way of making money. From my first visit to New Zealand (as recently as 2002) to what it is today, or Northern Norway (1997), or Iceland (2010). The list goes on, and the time lapses are terrifyingly short.

Please understand that, as I stated somewhere else in some of these threads, my intention is not to start an argument, nor to ask anybody to change their minds. I just feel that I have to speak up about a topic that I feel very strongly about.


When I go out to photograph, or just chill at a place, the mood and be able to relax is very important to me. I have had experiences eerily similar to what Harley mentioned–a group of folks show up, setting up as if I was not even there, yakking away, and trampling the area. I left.

One morning after photographing fall color in the Sierra, I was driving back to camp on a rather narrow, curvy road with no real shoulder. I was going downhill, traveling at 20 mph. I came around a bend in the road, and there, not fifty feet away was a car parked in the traveled way. In front of the car was about 15 people, all with tripods in the road shooting the backlit aspens!

I hit the brakes and managed to stop before I hit the car. If I had hit it, the car would have been pushed into the workshop leader who was leaning on the hood, and possibly into a couple of folks a short distance away. They had absolutely no idea I was even there.

I sat there for a couple of minutes to allow my blood pressure to calm down and then slowly pulled around into the opposing lane. I tuned on my flashers, and stopped to speak with the leader. I told him his actions were not only illegal, but extraordinarily dangerous; not only for him, but for his group and other travelers.

Fortunately, I had a borrowed CB radio, so I called my friends, who were a few minutes behind to be on the lookout.

The reason I bring this up is that it is very easy to become engrossed in our activity, that we do not realize the danger of our position. If you lead workshops, it is up to you to stress situational awareness, and be as safe as possible.

This incident’s outcome was OK, but it could have been disastrous.

I have had many experiences where workshops have set up, taking the prime spots to the exclusion of solo photographers. I just moved on.

A similar crowding issue has happened in the climbing world. (I was an active climber for nearly 40 years). Places that saw few climbers in the 60’s 70’s are now overrun. The reason for this is guidebooks, and lately, people publishing detailed route info on social media.

A few old-hand Sierra climbers tried to start a movement to not publish first ascents in the range. It didn’t work, unfortunately. A few of us took the advice to heart and did not publish our climbs. I have made first ascents in the Sierra and Yosemite that I never mentioned to anyone, in the hope they would discover those routes for themselves.

Regarding photography, I have subscribed to the same thinking: Not giving away specific locations because of their sensitivity to damage.

As far as workshops are concerned, I have no issue with someone who has chosen leading them as a way of life. I ask only that they be acutely aware of the immediate, and future impacts, and the safety considerations for themselves and others.


I can’t help it in spite of the serious situation, but that made me smile. We live an hour’s drive from town on a winding mountain road, and you come around blind curves to some really funny sights as well as dangerous. People get “out in the hills” and seem to assume that they’re all alone. For gentility sake I won’t go into the details, but several times a year we embarrass folks at awkward moments in the middle of the road.

On the more dangerous side, I came around a bend with foot on brake because it concealed a narrow bridge over a creek that often hosts brown bears. At least the folks had their car off the bridge, but they were assembled on the bridge photographing a bear. One woman stepped back for more artistic framing with her cell phone and I stomped, skidding all the way til my bumper was inches from her. She turned her head, looked at me, flipped me off and continued shooting! If I’d not been riding the brake, she’d have been a bloody hood ornament.

1 Like

Hank how much would you charge per head to the Gray Line tours of the world when their tour buses disgorge hordes of tourists at viewpoints in the national parks? Photographers and photo workshops are only one relatively small part of the problem. Tour buses add hundreds if not thousands of visitors to a park in a day, if you charge photo workshop operators $100/head, you should be charging tour bus operators as much if not more, given the impact they have. I think many of us photographers view overcrowding in the parks as seeing an increasing number of other tripods during the golden hour. Yet visit Old Faithful at noon and watch the tour buses descend…

1 Like

Absolutely!! I would charge them even more. I should emphasize that my thinking about photo workshops also applies to every other type of organized commercial activities in public lands, be it bus tours, bicycle tours, helicopter flights, jeep rentals, etc. In every case I would set fees that are high enough to force a drastic decrease in visitation. Utopian, of course.

1 Like

Hi Alberto,

I appreciate your point of view. I don’t think there are any simple answers. Perhaps a starting point is recognition from governments that national parks aren’t the top tier of protection for natural sites. For example, NSW in Australia where I come from there is a clear delineation between national parks and a nature reserve. A national park has protection as a priority but also balances this with access for recreation. There are other sites which are designated as a nature reserve and these sites are usually off limits for human visitation - or at least an access permit is required. No amount of workshops or instagram posts should put these places at risk as they are reserved for native flora and fauna.

With that mechanism in place I think it’s a good thing that people visit and enjoy national parks.

1 Like

Hi Igor. I’mm obviously late to the party. What video are you referring to, and where it it located? Just want to check it out.

Take care,

I’m not sure any more. As you can see I’m responding to EBernstein and there is no Bernstein post. There’s been a lot of censorship on this thread so it’s hard to make sense of anything. Even when I came upon it the thread was fragmented and some of it you had to guess at what was said. The bottom line, as I understand it, is the Mr Bernstein’s sin was not what he said, but how he said it.

The video itself was one of a photo workshop leader showing the gathering of a crowd of a photographers at a Utah site at the magic moment where nobody but the 4 or 5 in the front row could really get a picture. To me it looked like a battle of paparazzis jostling for position to snap a picture of Princess Di. The intended message by Mr Bernstein, however, had less to do with this scene and more to do with the damage these photographers were doing to the environment. Things went back and forth on this theme with Mr Bernstein arguing more forcefully each time. His point of view received tepid to no support by members and was eventually muzzled for breaking the rules of respectful communication.

That’s my take on the matter as an objective bystander.


I believe this was the video he was referring to.

1 Like

Thank you Igor. Respectful communication seems to be a lost art these days.

1 Like

To be very clear… It is not censorship. This site has a code of conduct and is known for civility and helpful positive communication. EBernstein chose not to adhere to that code of conduct and I am the person who deleted many of his posts as they were offensive to members and disrespectful. You are correct in stating it wasn’t what he had to say, it was how he said it. There’s always a civil way to disagree.

Also, if you watch the video (which I had seen long before this thread), it has nothing to do with the main argument here. It was about not understanding the light that causes Mesa Arch to light up. It was an overcast day and the Youtube author was making that point and encouraged his group to move to a different location because the famous light wasn’t happening on that day.


That’s what it’s all about for me. I won’t pretend to speak for anyone else, but if that’s lost I’m gone. Your cuts were appropriate and timely Keith. Thanks!


Bill, I don’t think I was really fair to Mr Bernstein in what I wrote.

I saw Mr Bernstein as one of those strident environmentalists that we grew up with in the late 60’s and 70’s. The ones that gave us the Wilderness Act. The one’s that chained themselves to a rock to keep New Melones reservoir from being filled. Those that camped in the Redwoods to keep them from being cut. Individuals who annoyed many but were devoted to a cause.

Well, Mr Bernstein’s cause were landscape photographers and that didn’t sit well with many here.

He really never used foul language nor did he really verbally abuse anyone in my opinion. He had an interesting strategy. He would respond to a member with their quote and tell them how much he agreed with them. But then he would point out how it contradicted what they had said earlier and were still poor stewards of the land. This went through several iterations. Each seeming to make certain photographers angrier than the previous one. The response to Mr Bernstein, at least, initially was that yes there are photographers that abuse the environment but not our group, we have higher ethics. But Mr Bernstein would have none of that. In his downward spiral he continued, quite politely, to accuse. I felt that Mr Bernstein felt he was on a mission, a higher calling, and nothing but the total absence of landscape photographers from public lands was acceptable. We were in his gunsight. I felt the man was an idealist, in a way, that was incapable of any compromise. In the end he made many angry, for there are several workshop leaders here, but that seemed to make little difference to Mr Bernstein because his cause was noble.

That was my more detailed view of the whole Bernstein affair.


Well said, Igor, and probably pretty accurate. I understand completely where Mr. Bernstein is coming from for I share many of his feelings. Fortunately, I live in the south and I love shooting the swamps and marshes. Only once in the past 20-25 years have I had to share a spot with another photographer, and since she was a pretty young lady, I didn’t move along or complain. We struck up a conversation while we both waited for the sun to set. Here, even on some of the prettiest beaches in the world, we don’t have crowds of photographers (Thank God). Seeing the crowd of folks in the referenced video made me shake my head. That’s one reason I dislike iconic images and why I prefer to shoot more intimate scenes usually. I do shoot a few wider scenes at the beach to sell to tourists, but nothing specifically iconic. I love National Parks, but I don’t particularly like people, or at least don’t like sharing my time in nature with people. I hate to see anyone, but especially photographers, assist in the destruction of our natural world, even unintentionally or unknowingly. This is not meant to condemn Workshop Leaders, but I do believe if they take their students to these iconic locations, they are being part of the problem. I tend to view that in the same light as I do trophy hunting. IMHO, nature photography shouldn’t be about capturing this icon or that icon (e.g., the biggest elephant or the biggest lion), it should be just as much about being in the wild, re-energizing your soul, and respecting nature. I strongly feel workshop leaders should push that agenda and THEN instruct their students how to actually become CREATIVE instead of just shooting fish in a barrel (icons). Anyone, on a good day with good conditions, can shoot a beautiful shot of an icon. That only takes a modicum of talent. the point of a workshop, IMHO, should be to teach shooters to see what others do not see, to be creative in how they see beauty in nature, and most importantly, to respect nature and never take it for granted. The prettiest picture in the world is not worth a damn (excuse my French) if capturing it causes undue damage to the area. Just my two cents on the situation.