Tiptoe Through the Tulips, or Be Careful Where You Step Out There
Shooting from a different position can yield radically different results. But don't let your enthusiasm get the better of you.
It's easy to wonder why alpine meadows look so beautiful. A lot of it has to do with the short growing season. Once the snows finally melt for the season, mountain wildflowers may only have a few months to bloom, produce seeds to propagate the species and die before the weather turns cold again. It's a case of survival of the fittest. Flowers are well evolved to fill their particular environmental niche, and large numbers of brightly colored blossoms attract bees and other pollinators.
Alpine soils though tend to be quite fragile. Without year-round plant cover to dig extensive root structures, most wildflowers barely cling to the shallow soil where they grow.
Above timberline, the soil may be even more fragile. Few seeds ever find a sheltered place sufficiently out of the wind to settle, and even if they did, temperatures generally stay too cold for them to easily germinate. Those plants that do grow are likely to have very shallow roots that can be easily disturbed. In some areas, only lichens can survive. Stepping on or otherwise disturbing such fragile soils can have a severe impact on the surrounding ecosystem. With the soil thus compacted, it becomes ever more difficult for plants to take root. And without the plants for food, native fauna also has a more difficult time of it.
This past week marked the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. Hopefully, some of you were able to visit one to help celebrate. Heavily trafficked areas in the National Park System that are fragile are sometimes roped off to prevent damage. Park employees and volunteers work to restore damaged areas to give the area a chance to recover. If you have visited such areas yourself, no doubt you have seen signs posted to this effect.
But not everyone realizes this same concern for the native plant life should extend even to areas not signed that can be equally susceptible to damage from we photographers and other park visitors. Even if all the trails surrounding the visitor center may be lined with ropes strung between fence posts, such barriers will likely be left behind as you head out on an afternoon hike that begins on one of those trails. There's just no way for people to cordon off every fragile area. Even if manpower does exist to address the most heavily trafficked areas, meadows further down the trail will almost certainly be less protected if at all. Walk far enough away from the popular trail areas, and the protection of these delicate areas will be solely in your hands. The soil in some alpine regions can be so fragile that even one person carelessly walking on it can take mother nature years to repair.
Sometimes I can be out on a trail and come across a family with kids who think mountain flowers are there for them to pick. Sometimes such kids are simply frolicking and trampling on the flowers rather than picking them outright. The net effect can be the same in both cases. Sometimes people simply don't realize the damage that can happen.
But sometimes I instead come across fellow photographers who are the ones doing the trampling in their quest to get a better vantage point from which to take a shot. They are there, enjoying and trying to record the beauty of nature, while simultaneously doing harm to that same beautiful landscape. If I point this out, some appreciate the reminder, while others become annoyed with my interruption, arguing that there aren't any signs so it must be OK. But just as my asking them about the situation, any signs that may or may not exist are simply reminders. In the end, each of us needs to be responsible for our actions and the consequence of those actions on the landscape we so love.
So long as you are in an area with established trails, your best option is to stay on those trails. Clearly, trails exist to allow visitors to travel through an area while minimizing the impact of their passing. The soil on a trail is intentionally compacted already.
But there are other options if you are careful. Areas near timberline are often fairly rocky. I have often made good use of such boulders and rocks to hopscotch my way closer to a mountain stream or meadow to get a better view. If you try this while carrying your camera and tripod though, watch out that you don't lose your balance and fall. Not only would doing so likely damage surrounding soils, you could easily hurt yourself or your camera lens if you slip. But a bit of careful assessment of the terrain can go a long way to letting you get a better vantage point without hurting either yourself or the world around you.
Dandelions seem to love growing in my yard, but most flowers have a harder time of it, especially at higher elevations where the ground isn't use to suburban foot traffic. Don't make it any harder for such wildflowers than you have to. Be careful where you step.