This is a follow-up to the recent series on photography in national parks. For these mini-series, they just seem to naturally make up the nice round number of three parts.
Closures & Budget
In one of those posts I listed some of my likes and dislikes on shooting in national parks. Here is one more pair:
Like: National parks are open all the time. Unlike state parks and some other protected areas, which are often closed from dusk to dawn, national parks are generally open 24/7/365. That means you can go out with your flashlight and hike down a trail to an overlook to gaze at stars (and photograph them). There are some exceptions, and because of the near universality of this always-open policy, it can be a rude surprise to learn after you’ve arrived to a park that it doesn’t really apply there. Make sure to check their website before heading out. A few of these exceptions are described below.
Dislike: The Park Service has an extremely limited budget and yet in many cases does not seem to know how to spend it wisely. They are constantly under threat of either being shut down or privatized. Politically it’s the right-wingers & anti-government tea party types who push this agenda. While I believe strongly that parks should remain public and that they’re too commercial as it is, I do notice the NPS wasting their limited funding.
For example, I think too much money is spent at Yellowstone and other popular parks on a police force that seems much more well-staffed than it needs to be. A law-enforcement ranger in an SUV costs a lot of money, much more than an educational ranger who spends a lot of time outside, on foot.
Several decades back the NPS committed strongly to ramping up their law enforcement, replacing real rangers with police in ranger outfits. I believe strongly that this was wrong, primarily because it took resources away from education and interpretation, the traditional role of a ranger. It’s not that I disagree with having cops around; crime takes place in parks just like it does anywhere. It’s just that in most cases the numbers of police is overkill. There are neighborhoods in many cities that would love to have half the police presence that Yellowstone has.
Exception 1: Chaco Canyon.
This former center of the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) culture in New Mexico has a scenic loop road that is the only way to access most of the ruins and trails in this national historic park. In order to control potential poaching of archaeological resources, the park closes that road at dusk. I can personally attest to their strict enforcement at Chaco; they want you out before the sun disappears below the horizon. I had to talk to the superintendent to get a (spendy!) ticket dismissed because I was shooting at sunset and assumed a small grace period.
Exception 2: Mesa Verde.
Mesa Verde in Colorado is similar to Chaco. That is, there is no access to the cliff dwellings after sunset. The reason, as always, is to protect resources. While that is certainly understandable, resources need protection all the time. The real reason is the usual lack of staffing, a budget issue.
Exception 3: White Sands National Monument.
This place in New Mexico has an unusual policy where they close the entrance gate from about dusk to dawn, with hours varying by season. It’s very much like a state park or wildlife refuge. The reason given is the adjacent missile range, so it’s a safety issue. But it’s also because they don’t have money to patrol at night. They are happy to open early for sunrise or stay late if you pay them $50 per extra hour, which is actually a pretty good deal if you have a group. But really: the military doesn’t have money to patrol their own boundaries?
DUSK TO DAWN CLOSURES
When protected areas are closed at night it can create a problem for landscape & nature photographers, even those who don’t want to shoot the stars. Because of the need to concentrate our shooting at dawn and dusk, it can be quite difficult to properly shoot at sunset and get out by nightfall. No good photographer packs up right after the sun dips below the horizon, for one thing. The best light often comes after that.
I’ve found that many state parks will give you a decent grace period; you’re okay until it is fully dark. Even so, when you hike a fair distance to a sunset spot, it’s well and truly dark when you return to the car. A grace period won’t help in that case.
Although (some) state and other parks may show some flexibility, things are different at national and state wildlife refuges. These sites are managed for wildlife not people, so don’t expect much if any consideration. Some areas, in fact, are closed to entry day and night. And it’s common to close areas seasonally for breeding birds. I’ve heard of people being jailed for entering wildlife refuges, even those without firearms. Poaching is a big problem at many refuges, so it’s perfectly understandable.
But I often wish for a world without so many rules. Most are made and enforced because of a very small minority of people who can’t seem to figure out how to behave. But it’s all of us who have to suffer for it. I suppose it’s one of those things that can’t be helped, so why stress about it?
That’s it for this week. I may have come off as a bit of a grump, but that’s not really me at all. I’m actually very happy having all these fantastic places to shoot and play. But the main reason for my appreciation is that it’s unlike so much of what humans do, which is the result of rather selfish, short-term thinking. But parks and preserves are set aside for future generations and thus arise from more enlightened long-term thinking. Have a great weekend and happy shooting!