I spent a few days in the Utah badlands attempting to capture the unique beauty the area has to offer, and I can confidently say it is unlike anywhere else in the world. While being there, I was surprised how much of the area did not look like what I expected.
Southwestern America is filled with off-road and OHV (off-highway vehicles) areas for recreational use, so it's not uncommon to see sand dunes, forested roads, or scenic mountain vistas filled with all types of vehicles. Many of these places have designated areas that are controlled by local, state, or federal land management to help facilitate a balance of nature and human recreation. As someone who enjoys off-roading from time to time, I'm glad places like these exist but also realize how restrictions and rules are necessary to maintain the environment around us.
Many times, that balance is difficult, and everyone will have differing opinions on how an environment should be used by our ever-growing population. As a landscape photographer, it might be obvious that I believe our environment is precious and the impact we have on it grows at alarming rates. So what exactly happened while I was there, and what does any of this have to do with photography?
I only spent a couple of nights in this area, and I'll gladly admit I barely scratched the surface (pun intended). It is a place I cannot wait to return to and wish I had more time when I was there. This was a photography trip after all and I still came away with a few photos worth sharing, maybe even one for the portfolio.
With such little time in the area, I wasn't able to explore nearly as much as I wanted to. This exacerbated the issues I kept having in the main areas I was photographing. Landscapes were filled with OHV tracks; in many places, I couldn't even keep them out of my shots. At the time, I didn't think much of it, other than being frustrated they were so prominent in the areas I was trying to shoot.
It wasn't until I got home and started reviewing my images that I realized just how bad it was. Considering I had such little time in the area to scout specific locations, many of the places I was shooting were inspired by other photographers. Yet, when I look back at their images, they certainly were not having the same issues I was with tracks running through their photos. At first, I thought maybe they were able to remove them in Photoshop, which would have been insanely impressive considering how prominent they are in certain locations. It wasn't until I messaged a fellow photographer to find out what happened.
My eureka moment was when I figured out many of the photos I found from other photographers were all taken a year prior to my visit. I started to do some digging and discovered that the entire area I had been focusing on was recently opened up to recreational OHV.
In 2006, the Factory Butte area was closed off by the Bureau of Land Management to try to restore the land, protect endangered plant life, and preserve the unique landscape. This happened because of the slow destruction of the landscape throughout the '90s and early 2000s. After 12 years of restoration, in May of 2019, the area was opened back up to OHV use without any advance notice to the public or environmental reviews on what reopening the area will do. This may remind you of the controversial decision made a few years prior to shrink two major national monuments in Utah for gas and oil drilling. Thankfully, to my knowledge, those changes never fully took place and are being reversed in the upcoming administration.
I'll admit those two situations are vastly different. One change completely reshaped designated national monument land to be used for corporate profit, while the other is simply letting other humans use the land in the way they want to. However different they are, they both have some environmental impact on areas that are already struggling because of the ever-growing pressure humans put on our lands. We should always consider what these changes will do and not tread lightly in regards to protecting such unique places.
I think it's completely fair that areas be designated to use dirt bikes, ATVs, and off-road vehicles. Just like camping or hunting, it can be a fun recreational thing to do, and as someone who enjoys the challenges of a little off-roading, I completely understand the appeal. I'm also completely aware that photographers don't get the ultimate rights to locations and that all areas should be shared with each other. This is, after all, public land intended to be used by everyone — no one has priority over anyone else.
With all of that said, it has to be considered what impact each activity has on not only the environment but also those using the public lands. If I'm hiking through the woods or across a desert landscape, I'm unlikely to disturb much wildlife or those around me. The opposite can be said for dirt bikes and ATVs, which tend to be loud and clearly more destructive to the environment. After my research, I've learned these landscapes don't simply fix themselves after rain, and heavy use of OHV vehicles has a serious impact on the shale soil that makes up the area. This is much different than something like a sand dune where vehicles can use it far more often without having a permanent impact on the land.
I'll be the first to admit and reiterate that there is a massive and almost endless landscape to photograph that I didn't have time to find. No one was forcing me to photograph Factory Butte with all of its imperfections. I just can't help but wonder why a decision was made to reverse the progress of the last 12 years in restoring the area to have it completely ruined all over again. The Bureau of Land Management claims this is one of the most scenic and unique geological areas it maintains, yet it's allowing the beauty and nature of the area to be ruined. If you go camping, you should always leave no trace and do your absolute best to upkeep the health of the environment around you. Hunting is regulated by season to control the impact on populations of wildlife. Fishing has restrictions based on the area to maintain health in the ecosystem.
What exists to protect this fragile landscape from what is happening to it?