Brooks Range Aurora and Autumn Photo Tour

September 28th, 2014
Brooks Range Aurora and Autumn Photo Tour

Brooks Range: Aurora and Autumn Photo Tour 
August 27-31, 2015

This is a unique 4-day Photography Tour

An exclusive field workshop with one of Alaska’s most award-winning landscape photographers, based out of a classic Alaskan town in the Arctic

This workshop is opened to all photographers regardless of camera format or level of experience

Open to 10 photographers maximum

Fee $2,750, all-inclusive

Announcing an exciting, photographic-instruction oriented, remote Alaskan photo tour with professional photographer and instructor Carl Johnson, located at the Boreal Lodge in Wiseman, Alaska!

I am pleased to announce some very exciting news: I will be offering an autumn and aurora borealis photo tour that is feature packed, filled with several exceptional photographic opportunities and designed to help improve your photography in a short time! This workshop will take you to some of the most beautiful landscape scenery that is accessible from the Alaskan road system. Based in the subject of Robert Marshall’s “Arctic Village,” the village of Wiseman will provide quick access to dramatic mountain and river landscapes, and place us at the heart of Alaska’s aurora activity. The autumn landscapes will include golden aspens as well as the red and orange colors of alpine tundra, and possibly even fresh dustings of snow. The aurora landscapes will include river, stream and pond reflections, mountain passes, wide open tundra, and close mountain scenes.

What’s Included in your Excursion

  • One night stay in Fairbanks
  • Transportation from Fairbanks to Wiseman
  • Lodging in Wiseman
  • All meals and snacks during your excursion
  • One-on-one photographic instruction in the field

Your itinerary:
This four-night tour will be based out of the Boreal Lodge in Wiseman, Alaska, in the heart of the magnificent Brooks Range. I designed the photography workshop with two goals in mind: capturing the mysterious aurora borealis and creating stunning images of magnificent mountain autumn landscapes. Throughout the tour, the plan will be to shoot evening light after dinner, chase and photograph the aurora, and capture sunrise, followed by breakfast back at the lodge. Some nights we may not stay out all night, we will stay out as late as the conditions permit and the group desires. Daytime will be for resting, and food will be available during the day for snacks or do-it-yourself lunches. Snacks and hot drinks will be available at night as we chase the aurora.

Here is a detailed account of our planned itinerary. It may be modified depending on weather conditions and light:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015
This is not actually the first day of the workshop, but the day you should arrive in Alaska. You should fly into the Fairbanks International Airport (FAI), and take the courtesy shuttle to the River’s Edge Resort in Fairbanks, where a room has been provided for you. Enjoy a comfortable stay and get plenty of rest – you will need it!

Thursday, August 27, 2015
Meet in the hotel lobby at 7:30 a.m., where I will pick you up for the ride to Wiseman. Along the way, we will stop at various locations on the Dalton Highway to start practicing some tips. After arriving at the Boreal Lodge, you will be provided the opportunity to settle into your accommodations, which consist of rooms at the main lodge or in a cabin. Rooms at the lodge will be either single or double occupancy, depending on the number of registrants. We will then meet in the main lodge kitchen and dining area for a short video presentation, and then dinner. Then, we will head out to capture evening light on a nearby trio of mountains, aspens, and a pair of rivers. After dark, we will proceed to a nearby lake to wait for the aurora to come out, and capture it over the nearby peaks of Mt. Dillon and Mt. Sukakpak.

August 28-30
Each day, we will transit to various locations in the Dalton Highway corridor north and south of Wiseman, depending on the weather. Sunrise is approximately 6:00 a.m. and sunset is around 10:00 p.m. After twilight and before dawn, we will have about 5-6 hours of nighttime shooting to work on aurora and other night sky techniques. Most instruction will be in the field. We will be experiencing full moon during the trip, so that will provide additional elements.

Most of our field photography will occur between evening light and after sunrise. Depending on conditions, success, and the interest of the group, we may be out in the field all night for some nights, and other nights get some sleep. However, plan to get most of your sleep during the day between breakfast and dinner. This sort of schedule is necessary to take advantage of the autumn landscapes and the aurora. And staying out all night is the very sort of schedule that aurora chasers have to endure!

August 31
After breakfast, we will conduct a short photo critique of images you have captured during the trip. We will depart the Boreal Lodge in Wiseman no later than 10:00 a.m. for our return drive to Fairbanks. Plan to arrive back in Fairbanks no earlier than 5:00 p.m.

This photographic workshop is designed to help you learn new skills and build on existing ones, the sort of trip from which you will return with a great collection of images to add to your portfolio!

Tour focus and Photographic Skill Exercises
The focus of this tour is Light and Composition for the daytime landscapes, then Exposure for the aurora borealis. You will be practicing photographic skills exercises daily to strengthen your knowledge of light and composition. You will receive handouts with a description of each exercise and we will go over the exercises with you, explaining to you both the theory and the practical side of each exercise. You will then be asked to conduct these exercises on your own. Make sure to bring a folder where you can store your handouts, a notepad to take notes during the workshop, and several pens and pencils.

Don’t let this unique opportunity pass you by!
Seats in this unique workshop are in high demand. To be fair, reservations are taken on a first come first served basis.

If you have been thinking about building up your portfolio, if you have been thinking about becoming more serious about your photography, if you want to photograph some of the most beautiful photographic locations while receiving photographic instruction, don’t hesitate another second: sign up now. This is truly an incredible opportunity, something that many people would even consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

You may register for this workshop by calling Carl at (907) 748-7040 or completing our Registration Form. To secure your spot, a deposit of 50% will be required. The remaining balance is due no later than 60 days prior to the workshop.

Read our General Terms and Conditions, which are a part of your registration. If you have any other questions, check out our Workshop FAQ.

Click here to see examples of Carl’s aurora borealis photography.




What, Forest Service Gutting the First Amendment? Relax Already.

September 25th, 2014
What, Forest Service Gutting the First Amendment? Relax Already.

There’s a lot of outrage on the Internets these days about proposed plans by the U.S. Forest Service to gut the First Amendment by requiring permits for news media or nature photographers in Federally-designated wilderness areas on Forest Service lands. After reading a lot of the outrage, there are two things that come abundantly clear: None of the outraged have actually read the applicable Federal Register notice, and none of them are aware that this has been the status quo on Federal public lands for decades. Nothing on the face of the notice actually applies to the media. So, you have to look at the applicable proposed regulation in order to see how “unfairly” the media is “targeted.”

What the Federal Register Notice Actually Says

It’s always important when analyzing a law to go back to the original language, not how it has been interpreted. So, in this case, let’s go to the actual notice as printed in the Federal Register. The notice published by the U.S. Forest Service proposes changes to 36 C.F.R. 251, which currently requires a special use permit for any activity on Forest Service lands other than noncommercial uses and other exempted activities.  The proposal at issue is to take interim guidance that has been in effect for four years and develop “permanent guidance for the evaluation of proposals for still photography and commercial filming on National Forest System Lands.” Noting the need for consistent, national criteria for evaluating applications for special use permits for such activities, the ultimate goal to develop “the criteria used to evaluate request for special use permits related to still photography and commercial filming in congressionally designated wilderness areas.” Most importantly, the Federal Register notice does not even propose new restrictions on activities at all – it merely proposes creating more evaluation criteria so that the Forest Service can consistently evaluate applications for special use permits.  Let me make this clear – it does not propose any changes to what activities already require a special use permit under existing U.S. Forest Service regulations.  The proposed evaluation criteria would allow the U.S. Forest Service to issue a special use permit for “commercial filming” and “still photography” if the application

[m]eets the screening criteria in 36 CFR 251.54(e); [w]ould not cause unacceptable resource damage; [w]ould not unreasonably disrupt the public’s use and enjoyment of the site where the activity would occur; [w]ould not pose a public health and safety risk; and [m]eets the following additional criteria, if the proposed activity, other than noncommercial still photography (36 CFR 251.51), would be in a congressionally designated wilderness area: a. Has a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value (16 U.S.C. 1131(a) and (b)); b. Would preserve the wilderness character of the area proposed for use, for example, would leave it untrammeled, natural, and undeveloped and would preserve opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation (16 U.S.C. 1131(a)); c. Is wilderness-dependent, for example, a location within a wilderness area is identified for the proposed activity and there are no suitablelocations outside of a wilderness area (16 U.S.C. 1133(d)(6)); d. Would not involve use of a motor vehicle, motorboat, or motorized equipment, including landing of aircraft, unless authorized by the enabling legislation for the wilderness area (36 CFR 261.18(a) and (c)); e. Would not involve the use of mechanical transport, such as a hang glider or bicycle, unless authorized by the enabling legislation for the wilderness area (36 CFR 261.18(b)); f. Would not violate any applicable order (36 CFR 261.57); and g. Would not advertise any product or service.

In short, the permit application may be granted if the activity will not disrupt others’ enjoyment of the forest or cause any safety risks, and, for permits in wilderness areas, does not violate the Congressional mandates of the Wilderness Act of 1964. That is it – there are no new restrictions being considered, merely clarified guidelines as to how the agency will evaluate your permit application. Quite frankly, as a member of the public, I’d rather there be clear, specific guidelines rather than allowing the agency to exercise its own unfettered discretion.

Permitting for “Commercial Filming” and “Still Photography” on Federal Public Lands

The key terms in the Federal Register notice are “still photography” and “commercial filming, ” so, the smart place to go next is how those terms are defined in existing regulations. Currently, any use of Forest Service lands is considered a special use except “noncommercial recreational activities, such as camping, picnicking, hiking, fishing, boating, hunting, and horseback riding, or for noncommercial activities involving the expression of views, such as assemblies, meetings, demonstrations, and parades, unless … the proposed use is still photography as defined in [this regulation].” Additionally, the regulations note that travel on the Forest Service road system shall not require a special use permit unless the activity is “commercial filming, or still photography, as defined in [this regulation].”

So, how do the Forest Service regulations currently define “commercial filming” and “still photography”? That is the question that no one is asking. “Commercial filming” is defined as “use of motion picture, videotaping, sound recording, or any other moving image or audio recording equipment on National Forest System lands that involves the advertisement of a product or service, the creation of a product for sale, or the use of models, actors, sets, or props, but not including activities associated with broadcasting breaking news, as defined in FSH 2709.11, chapter 40.” The other key term, “still photography,” is defined as “use of still photographic equipment on National Forest System lands that takes place at a location where members of the public generally are not allowed or where additional administrative costs are likely, or uses models, sets, or props that are not a part of the site’s natural or cultural resources or administrative facilities.”

By their plain language, neither definition would apply to someone who was going in with a regular DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera or iPhone to take wildlife, nature or landscape photos, unless models or props were needed. It also would not apply to any media reporter using still photography – DSLR or iPhone – to simply capture images for editorial purposes. It would require, however, a special use permit if a media organization wanted to bring in a film crew to work on a documentary or series. But in this case, what is being regulated is conduct – the type of activity and the number of people involved – not the speech of the press. And courts have routinely held that the government can regulate conduct without violating the First Amendment. Public land managers have an obligation to ensure that the organic acts governing those agencies, and where applicable, the Wilderness Act, are being followed. A large film crew – regardless of the intent of that crew (feature film or news organization) – can have an impact on public resources. 

This approach is not unique, and is reflected in existing regulations on all other Federal public lands. The Department of the Interior also requires a permit for “commercial filming” and “still photography” for National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lands. Under 36 C.F.R. §5.5, “commercial filming” and “still photography” activities require a permit, as stated in 43 C.F.R. Part 5. Under those regulations, all “commercial filming” requires a permit, and “still photography” requires a permit when “[i]t uses a model, set, or prop as defined in §5.12; or … [t]he agency determines a permit is necessary because … [i]t takes place at a location where or when members of the public are not allowed; or .. [t]he agency would incur costs for providing on-site management and oversight to protect agency resources or minimize visitor use conflicts.”  “Commercial filming is defined as “the film, electronic, magnetic, digital, or other recording of a moving image by a person, business, or other entity for a market audience with the intent of generating income. Examples include, but are not limited to, feature film, videography, television broadcast, or documentary, or other similar projects. Commercial filming activities may include the advertisement of a product or service, or the use of actors, models, sets, or props.” Under these regulations, “still photography” is defined as “the capturing of a still image on film or in a digital format.”

Thus, existing regulations for NPS, BLM and USFWS lands incorporate pretty much the same elements as those under current Forest Service regulations.  In both instances, the regulations recognize the special role of the media. The Interior regulations do not require a permit for any news-gathering activities – filming or still photography – unless it is determined that a “permit is necessary to protect natural and cultural resources, to avoid visitor use conflicts, to ensure public safety or authorize entrance into a closed area; and [o]btaining a permit will not interfere with the ability to gather the news.” The Interior regulation also exempts the news media from any applicable fees. The definition of “commercial filming” under the Forest Service regulations excludes “activities associated with broadcasting breaking news.” However, the Forest Service does not appear to exempt news-gathering from a special use fee. 

Neither the Interior nor the Forest Service regulations set a specific fee for a special use permit application. In the Forest Service regulations, it notes a possible “rental fee” of $100 annually, plus “cost recovery” fees of an unspecified amount to “recover the agency’s processing costs for special use applications and monitoring costs for special use authorizations” and an unspecified “processing fee,” which varies based on numerous factors. Nowhere do the regulations provide for a $1,500 application fee as the various media accounts claim.  Similarly vague, the Interior regulations require a “reasonable location fee that provides a fair return to the United States” and a “cost recovery fee”  that covers “direct and indirect expenses including, but not limited to, administrative costs for application processing, preproduction meetings and other activities, on-site monitoring of permitted activities, and any site restoration.” In all cases, such fees are not set nationally, but by the regional land manager. For example, the Denali National Park Professional Photographer Special Road Travel permit requires an application fee of $100, plus $150 for the actual permit if awarded. The park’s commercial filming permit application fee is $200, with the permit fee itself varying from $150 to $750 per day, depending on how many people are involved in the shoot.

In short, the Forest Service is not proposing any new regulations that would require any additional types of activities to get a special use permit, and its regulations are consistent with the regulations that govern National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands. You will not have to pay a special use permit fee to take nature or wildlife photos using a DSLR in Forest Service lands, wilderness or otherwise, unless you are using props and models like a commercial stock photographer would use. If you are a reporter, the same applies.

Getting to the Real Problem

Now, this discussion does highlight two problems, neither of which are related to the proposed Forest Service regulation. First, the existing regulations that define “commercial filming” are woefully out-of-touch with modern technology. You don’t need a massive film crew with lots of equipment and motorized transportation to do filming these days, whether with a HD digital video camera or a DSLR. It can be done with one person traveling on foot or non-motorized power. Anyone who has ever seen Survivorman knows this. Second, while the national regulations themselves are not terribly confusing, how they are often enforced or interpreted by local land managers has led to actions that are inconsistent with and contradictory to the plain language of the regulations. When local land managers stretch and abuse the regulations to enforce their own vision of how lands should be used, they violate public trust and create a serious Constitutional problem; that is, that we are supposed to be on notice of what the government expects of us. When their actions violate the plain language of that notice, then we have a real problem.


July 29th, 2014

Mountains are places of wonder; Katharine Lee Bates appropriately referred to them as “majesty” in her song “America the Beautiful.” Throughout time, they have been a place where humans went to find spiritual guidance, to even find themselves, from Moses to the vision quests of the Lakota Sioux. They tell stories by merely existing, relaying the works of pressure and heat over time through a geological tale that provides any observer the opportunity to understand their history.

I am one of those people who looks out upon a sea of overlapping peaks and ranges and thinks of exploration, of adventure. I try to imagine what is happening along those ridges, atop those peaks, among the valleys in between.

While I don’t have the time to explore all of them on the ground, I take incredible delight in exploring them from air with my camera, especially at that time of day where one ridge or peak casts its shadow across the next, creating an ever-weaving pattern of texture and darkness, ruggedness and light.

I have photographed six of Alaska’s mountain ranges from the air: Chugach, Kenai, Talkeetna, Alaska, Aleutian and Brooks. In reviewing photos for this piece, I came to realize that my two favorite ranges for this narrative – of the overlapping layers of shadow and light – are the Aleutian and Brooks Ranges.

When seeking to capture images like this, it is important to remember that they can only be captured in early or late light. Not only is that the time of day that creates the longer shadows, but in general it is the time of day that causes the other shadows necessary to highlight the texture in the mountains themselves. And then for those winter months when the mountains are covered in snow, the really early or late light also causes “alpenglow,” the glorious bathing of the mountains in a pastel pink hue with the rich blue shadows.

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EPA Proposes Limiting Size, but not Stopping, Pebble Mine

July 18th, 2014
EPA Proposes Limiting Size, but not Stopping, Pebble Mine

The EPA has released a “Proposed Determination” as to how it plans to exercise its authority under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c), regarding the development of the Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska. Le’t be clear – the EPA is not proposing that construction of the Pebble Mine be prohibited. It is merely proposing that it be limited in scope.

As with its prior documents, the newly-released Proposed Determination has a lot of background information that you have to wade through before you get to the meat of the document. As they say in the journalism business, the EPA seriously buries the lead. This background information details the geographic features of the region, the sockeye salmon habitat and population (as well as other salmon species), the source documents for the EPA assessment, the anticipated size of the Pebble Mine as proposed by Northern Dynasty Minerals, and the final watershed assessment. The EPA also details its legal authority under the Clean Water Act to take the proposed action, and the steps it has followed pursuant to that authority.

The EPA then notes that the “proposed geographic boundaries of the potential disposal site are the waters within the mine claims held by [Northern Dynasty Minerals] subsidiaries, including [Pebble Limited Partnership], that fall within the SFK, NFK, and UTC watersheds.” Those initials stand for South Fork Koktuli, North Fork Koktuli (both of which feed into the Koktuli River, which feeds into the Mulchatna River, which feeds into the Nushagak River and Bristol Bay), and Upper Talarik Creek (which feeds into Lake Iliamna, then the Kvichak River then Bristol Bay). In the executive summary, the EPA notes, “To protect important fishery areas in the SFK, NFK, and UTC watersheds from unacceptable adverse effects, EPA Region 10 recognizes that losses of streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds and alterations of streamflow each provide a basis to issue this Section 404(c) proposed determination.”

But the scope of the proposed protection is very narrow in that it is only directed at the construction of the mine, not the operation of the mine. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act deals with wetlands and physical impacts to waterways, not with contamination to waterways. Contamination is governed by the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES. The EPA has transferred NPDES permitting authority to the State of Alaska, which hasn’t met a large-scale mine it didn’t like. But it is the likelihood of contamination to the watershed that presents the greatest, most long-lasting threat to Bristol Bay as a result of developing the Pebble Mine. And such contamination would be controlled by the terms of a NPDES permit. Yet addressing that threat is not part of the EPA’s proposed action, and is left to state control.

As the EPA notes in the executive summary,

This evaluation does not include footprint impacts associated with all of the components necessary to construct and operate such a mine (e.g., a major transportation corridor, pipelines, a power-generating station, wastewater treatment plants, housing and support services for workers, administrative offices, and other infrastructure). It also does not rely upon impacts resulting from potential accidents and failures as a basis for its findings. There is a high likelihood that wastewater treatment plant failures would occur, given the long management horizon expected for the mine (i.e., decades). There is also real uncertainty as to whether severe accidents or failures, such as a complete wastewater treatment plant failure or a tailings dam failure, could be adequately prevented over a management horizon of centuries, or even in perpetuity, particularly in such a geographically remote area subject to climate extremes. If such events were to occur, they would have profound ecological ramifications. By not relying on potential accidents and failures, EPA Region 10 has employed a conservative analysis of adverse effects.

So, what does the EPA propose? A smaller Pebble Mine. Again, from the executive summary:

Accordingly, the Regional Administrator proposes that EPA restrict the discharge of dredged or fill
material related to mining the Pebble deposit into waters of the United States within the potential
disposal site that would, individually or collectively, result in any of the following.

1. Loss of streams
a. The loss of 5 or more linear miles of streams with documented anadromous fish5 occurrence; or
b. The loss of 19 or more linear miles of streams where anadromous fish are not currently
documented, but that are tributaries of streams with documented anadromous fish occurrence;
2. Loss of wetlands, lakes, and ponds. The loss of 1,100 or more acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds
contiguous with either streams with documented anadromous fish occurrence or tributaries of
those streams; or
3. Streamflow alterations. Streamflow alterations greater than 20% of daily flow in 9 or more linear
miles of streams with documented anadromous fish occurrence.

Thus, the EPA proposes that it will not authorize Section 404 (wetlands discharge, dredge or fill) permits for a mine whose initial construction size and operation would cause damage greater than these restrictions. Can a Pebble Mine be built that can conform to these parameters? I am sure that the folks at the Pebble Limited Partnership will find a way to say that they can. If, as one person I spoke to suggested, the Pebble Mine did not use a tailings impoundment but instead shipped all waste out via the road corridor to waiting barges at a deep water port in Cook Inlet, then the Pebble Mine would be even less restricted in scope as it would not need a “disposal site” within the defined geographic area. It could also avoid the defined geographic area by constructing the tailings facility somewhere else nearby that was not within the SFK, NFK or UTC areas. Additionally, this determination affects primarily the proposed open pit, not the underground portion of the mine design. Pebble could start with a smaller open pit, mine it completely, remediate it, and then start another pit to continue mining in a scaled approach.

And that’s the real crux of the proposed action by the EPA. Unlike what so many people were hoping for, the EPA is not proposing scuttling the Pebble Mine development, just making it smaller or changing its design. It could still be built and ultimately contaminate the sensitive watershed that produces half of the world’s sockeye salmon supply.


Let’s be honest, Park Service

June 24th, 2014
Let's be honest, Park Service

When I worked as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) about 20 years ago, I came to realize that the concept of “wilderness” was a subjective one. Everyone experiences wilderness and wildness in different ways, and their perspective of what constitutes wilderness is often connected to noise level. For example, certain border lakes in the BWCAW allow for the operation of 25 hp or less motors (while almost all of the 2,000 or so lakes prohibit any motorized craft). For some people, even that was too much; but for others, 25hp or less meant no jet skis would be disturbing the serenity of a wilderness experience that involved fishing for walleye using a small trolling motor.

So I understand the desire to not have noise disturb the wilderness experience. But there is a right way to regulate that, and a wrong way.

On May 2, 2014, the National Park Service chose the wrong way in Yosemite National Park. We have all seen the increased use of drones to capture images from unique perspectives. I know of at least one professional nature photographer that has been increasingly using it in his landscape work. In response to such increased uses in one of its most-visited parks, the National Park Service issued a directive that any use of drones in Yosemite National Park was illegal. In doing so, the NPS cited to 36 C.F.R. §2.17(a)(3), which prohibits the use of aircraft in national parks for “Delivering or retrieving a person or object by parachute, helicopter, or other airborne means, except in emergencies involving public safety or serious property loss, or pursuant to the terms and conditions of a permit.”

Subsequent to Yosemite’s decision, the Director of the National Park Service issued a directive on June 20, 2014 in the form of a policy memorandum, which is not available publicly, that “directs superintendents nationwide to prohibit launching, landing, or operating unmanned aircraft on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service.” That includes all national parks, monuments, wild and scenic rivers, national seashores, national lakeshores, national historic sites, and others, for a total of 85 million acres and 401 units of Federal public land. In addition to the Yosemite reasons for banning the use of unmanned aircraft, the new system-wide prohibition cited “noise and nuisance complaints from park visitors, an incident in which park wildlife were harassed, and park visitor safety concerns.” The news release about the new policy cautions that this is a temporary measure until the Park Service can adopt regulations through a formal rule making process that addresses the use of drones in parks.

There are just a few problems with the National Park Service’s rationale to currently prohibit the use of drones. Anyone who knows how drones are used commonly knows that they are not used to deliver a person or an object, as cited in the Yosemite example. You may have someone do a backcountry drop of food supplies for you using a parachute, but you sure as heck wouldn’t using a drone. And if all a drone is doing is flying around or taking pictures, it is not delivering anything unless you can stretch the imagination to suggest that it is “delivering” photos to a compact flash card. But no, the NPS has stretched the imagination even further, claiming it is the “drone itself” that is the object being delivered. Apparently, the NPS thinks the egg can exist without the chicken. If the drone itself is the object being carried, then what is the aircraft carrying it? Perhaps it’s Wonder Woman’s invisible jet?

The agency that actually regulates drones – the Federal Aviation Administration – is split on the use of drones. The FAA lumps all types of unmanned aerial vehicles together under the term “Unmanned Aircraft” or UA (this includes Unmanned Aircraft (UA), a Remotely Operated Aircraft (ROA), a Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV), and an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). The FAA has also has a series of questions and answers governing the use of drones or UAs, as they do not obviously fit into standard aircraft regulations. Current FAA regulations indicate that only two UA models (the Scan Eagle and Aerovironment’s Puma) have been certified for commercial use, and they are only authorized to fly in the Arctic. That means most professional photographers using drones for aerial imagery are breaking the law.

But the FAA does allow for the recreational use of airspace by hobbyists with small, radio-controlled, model aircraft for personal use so long as flights are below 400 feet above the ground and away from airports and air traffic. Thus, if you are a professional photographer, you may not take pictures using a drone under FAA rules, but there is no prohibition to a hobbyist photographer doing the same.  Thus, the FAA does not consider UAs and “aircraft” to be synonymous and subject to the same regulation, further undermining the NPS treatment of them as the same under their regulations. But you don’t have to look to FAA regulations to see that drones and “aircraft” are not the same. All you have to do is look at the Park Service’s own regulations, which define “aircraft” as “a device that is used or intended to be used for human flight in the air, including powerless flight.” See 36 C.F.R. §1.4(a).

But if you look at the full rationale behind Yosemite’s drone prohibition, and the new system-wide directive issued on June 20, you get back to the concept of spoiling the wilderness experience. You also possibly find a legal basis for the NPS to exclude the use of drones within any national park: The park has experienced an increase in visitors using drones within park boundaries over the last few years. Drones have been witnessed filming climbers ascending climbing routes, filming views above tree-tops, and filming aerial footage of the park. Drones can be extremely noisy, and can impact the natural soundscape. Drones can also impact the wilderness experience for other visitors creating an environment that is not conducive to wilderness travel…  Additionally, drones can have negative impacts on wildlife nearby the area of use, especially sensitive nesting peregrine falcons on cliff walls. 

There are regulations in place already that address a noise nuisance impairing the use and enjoyment of the park by visitors. Under 36 C.F.R. §2.12, the Park Service presently prohibits “[o]perating motorized equipment or machinery” that “exceeds a noise level of 60 decibels measured on the A-weighted scale of 50 feet” or, if lower than that, “makes noise which is unreasonable, considering the nature and purpose of the actor’s conduct, location, time of day or night, purpose for which the area was established, impact on park users, and other factors that would govern the conduct of a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances.” Drones are reputed to be loud, so either provision could prohibit their use around other people. But if the goal is to prohibit the use of drones so that it does not disturb the wilderness experience of other visitors, then someone could still use a drone so long as they are in a location where no other people are present under this regulation. This provision could not serve as the basis for an absolute prohibition. It also shows that there are currently regulations on the books that address the use of drones, so the current excuse to have a temporary ban in order to have time to craft new regulations is erroneous.

Yet relying on the provision that actually legally applies creates more work for the NPS. I can easily tell you that they probably looked at Section 2.12 and concluded not to push that provision to manage use of drones because it would be difficult to enforce. For the same reason that I stated that the concept of a wilderness experience is subjective, so too is what constitutes “unreasonable” noise “under the circumstances.” One little mosquito of a drone dwarfs in comparison to the white noise of background traffic for the 3.7 million visitors that Yosemite received in 2013. Mount Rushmore, which is cited in the June 20 news release for the new system-wide policy, enjoyed over 2 million visitors in 2012 and sits next to the major roadway through that portion of the Black Hills. Certainly that much traffic noise would be unreasonable to a person’s park experience. Or how about that annoying gaggle of children yelling and screaming at the top of their lungs for the entire length of a hike – certainly that would be unreasonable to some person’s enjoyment of the park. If the park really wanted to reduce the impact on the park experience by noise, it would cut down on vehicular traffic. But, obviously it lacks the fortitude to do that so it goes for the easier picking – drones.

The June 20 news release also cites as justification for the absolute ban a single incident of wildlife harassment due to drone activity. The incident involved a drone in Zion National Park that allegedly caused some youth to separate from adult Bighorn Sheep in the spring. According to local reporting, a Park Service volunteer confronted the drone operator and warned them of the potential consequences for harassment, but there was no mention in the article of a citation issued. Under 36 C.F.R. §2.2(a)(2), it is prohibited to engage in the “feeding, touching, teasing, frightening or intentional disturbing of wildlife nesting, breeding or other activities.” This is a very broad prohibition, and covers any activity that would lead to frightening or disturbing wildlife. If someone frightens or disturbs wildlife using a drone, the Park Service currently has the tools in regulation to engage in an enforcement action. There is no need to develop new regulations. 

So, Yosemite’s claim that drones somehow fit into regulations related to “delivering or retrieving a person or object” is completely baseless. The broader National Park Service concerns about drones causing noise disturbances is covered by existing regulations related to noise caused by mechanized objects. Concerns over drones harassing wildlife are covered by existing regulations. There is nothing that drones do that is not already covered by regulations. There is nothing in those regulations that would prevent a person from using a drone in a park if (1) they operated nowhere near anyone else to cause a noise disturbance or (2) nowhere near wildlife to cause any harassment. The Park Service simply has realized that applying those existing regulations to drones creates enforcement challenges that they don’t want to face. Saying “no” to drones is an easy bright line and easy to enforce. But it’s not an honest interpretation or application of existing regulations, and it’s not a good excuse to take a “time out” to create new regulations that are not needed.

For some of my photographs taken on the ground in national parks or from legally-operated manned aircraft, check out my National Parks collection.

The Making of a Photo: Aurora Over Wrangell Mountains

June 12th, 2014
The Making of a Photo: Aurora Over Wrangell Mountains

Michelle and I decided to spend a long weekend at the end of March to get away and scout for locations to shoot for a future workshop, and to find a base of operations for that workshop. Unfortunately, the bed and breakfast we stayed at did not pan out as a potential workshop location – it lacked a central meeting space, had far too few rooms, and was too comingled with family spaces within the structure.

But along the way, we found a few good vantage points to capture the aurora borealis along the Richardson Highway north and south out of Glennallen. The weather forecast looked good for providing us clear skies during the trip, but the question remained as to whether the space weather would cooperate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of my more reliable forecast sources, did not have a good forecast for the time period. So, the only thing to do was to watch the real time data on and see if conditions would develop that were favorable to aurora photography.

When we went to bed, I set my alarm to go off once an hour so I could get up and check the Spaceweather data. In each instance, the data did not look conducive to producing an aurora borealis that would be worth shooting. But at 1:00 a.m., which is when the aurora had been “going off” recently, I decided to add a visual check in addition to my look online. I went to the front porch, went outside, and looked north – to see the aurora dancing in the sky. It was a dim display, but I went inside, grabbed the gear, and headed out to a pullout I had scouted earlier.

When I arrived, I set up the camera and took several test shots to check for focus and exposure. Even though the display was dim, I kept taking pictures occasionally to watch for increased activity. In many cases, the aurora can be doing things that are not visible to the naked eye, but will show up on a long exposure. After a while, it built enough to where it was dancing over the St. Elias Range, and spiking with peaks of reds. And while it was a moonless night, the aurora produced enough light to show silhouettes of the trees in the foreground and the mountains in the background.

Nikon D800E, Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, Gitzo tripod, Arca Swiss ballhead, ISO 3200, f/2.8, 10 seconds.


When Composites are Necessary

June 12th, 2014
When Composites are Necessary

I am not generally opposed to composite photographs, although I have on occasion railed against them. My main problems with composites are (1) when they are not identified in the caption as a composite and (2) when they are used to create an image that could not be seen with the naked eye.

There are many times when composites are necessary. Stitched panoramic photos are technically a composite – they merge several images together into one in order to render a scene using a specific format (the panorama) and also allow the photographer to create a larger file for rendering larger prints. The HDR (high dynamic range) photo is also a composite – merging several images of the same scene but captured at different exposures – in order to render the full dynamic range of a scene. Our eyes can see that dynamic range but cameras cannot. (With the Nikon D800E, I find myself hardly using this technique because of that camera’s dynamic range and my steadfast loyalty to using graduated neutral density filters.)

But there are times when the exposure dynamics of the scene also require a composition in order to capture the image you want. A recent instance involved capturing the eclipsed full moon hovering over a peak in the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage. When you know how to photograph the moon, you know that the moon is a much brighter light source than you think. In order to expose it, you need to have a much shorter exposure to avoid blowing it out. But when you want to capture details in the nighttime landscape, even during an eclipsed full moon, you need a much larger exposure. Thus, to render this scene, I took two exposures – one for the moon and one for the mountain. This is not a HDR composite, because I am not trying to capture a dynamic range of several exposures; rather, I am seeking to balance two specific points in the scene.

Here, when I captured the moon, you could only see a few stars and the mountain lacked detail. When capturing the mountain, the moon is a blown-out, glowing orb with no detail. Separately, they do not work; but together, they capture a scene that I could see with my own eyes. While composites are often abused, this, for me, is a use of the technique that is not only appropriate, but was done regularly in the “old days” of the wet darkroom.

A Tale of Two Senators

June 12th, 2014
A Tale of Two Senators

In May 2011, I had the pleasure of traveling to Washington, D.C. with my wife Michelle in order to attend the opening reception for the 2010 Windland Smith Rice International Awards Photo Exhibition, on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. In advance of that trip, I made sure to schedule visits with both of my U.S. Senators – Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski. As part of the scheduling process, I explained to them why I was going to be in the District of Columbia – my winning image in the “Environmental Issues” category of a set of snow-impacted wolf prints on the frozen North Fork of the Koyukuk River in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, a piece entitled “Wolf Tracks on Ice.” I did not tell them the story of why this image was submitted in the Environmental Issues category – that these wolf tracks were a metaphor for disappearing wolf populations as a result of aggressive predator control measures – because I thought it would be too political for either of their comfort.

As the timing turned out, my visits with both Senators were scheduled for the same day – the day of the reception. I met first with Senator Begich in the late morning. When I arrived, at least three of the staff engaged me and Michelle, asking questions about my award and talking about Alaska. They offered us some coffee and invited us to a tour of the Capitol building following the meeting with Senator Begich. And while we had to wait a little while  – the Senator was off voting on something – they made us feel welcome and continued to engage us. When the Senator arrived, we went into his conference room and sat down with another Alaskan and her family who were visiting. We all sat around the table and chatted a while about why each of us was in D.C. After a while, we each took turns taking photos with the Senator. Following the meeting, as promised, one of the staff took us on a tour of the Capitol building. He even gave us tickets so that we could sit in the galley of the Senate and watch the proceedings. Later, staff visited the Smithsonian to see my photo on display there and even posted it to the Senator’s Facebook page (and they were cognizant and considerate enough to ask my permission to post an image of my photo).

Our meeting with Senator Murkowski was later in the afternoon. We arrived at her office, I identified myself and that I had an appointment with the Senator, and then we sat down in the reception area. We looked at the art on the walls, we looked at what kind of books were on the shelves, what sort of magazines were on the table. Occasionally the receptionist looked up at us, then back to what she was doing. No one asked us questions. No one engaged us. No one offered us something to drink. No one explained to us why we were waiting well past the appointment time with the Senator. As it turned out, she was meeting with a gaggle of lobbyists. After waiting for a while, the door to the inner sanctum opened and out poured a group of five or six lobbyists in suits, chuckling and chatting away with Senator Murkowski as she emerged with them. Parting words and sentiments were shared and they were on their way. Michelle and I were then invited back to join the Senator, we had a brief chat (with little or no discussion of my photo), and took pictures – one set with just me and one with me and Michelle. They only took one shot of each – and the one with Michelle is no good because her eyes were closed. We were then sent on our way. The only follow up to the meeting was delivery of the prints of the photos.

These two experiences understandably left me with a very different perspective on the values, interests and concerns of these two Senators.

These personal interactions highlighting differences between the Senators have also been replicated in a key Alaskan policy issue that is important to me: the fate of the Bristol Bay region. Bristol Bay is an amazing watershed that provides 50% of the world’s sockeye salmon and has been a focus of mine for the last three years, where I have been doing fieldwork for my upcoming book Where Water is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. When several regional Tribes petitioned the EPA to protect the area under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c), the people of Alaska waited to see how its U.S. Senators would respond. People pushed Senator Begich to take a stand to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from the development of the Pebble Mine. He delayed, noting that he wanted to wait for the results of the EPA’s scientific watershed assessment (which began in 2011) before taking a position. But once that final watershed assessment was published in January 2014, he came out in opposition to the development of the mine. In contrast, when the final watershed assessment was released, Senator Lisa Murkowski issued a statement asserting that the EPA’s involvement was a “preemptive veto” that would set a “terrible precedent.”

To be clear, however you phrase it, a “preemptive veto” is precisely what the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c) authorizes. Here is Section 404(c) in full:

The Administrator is authorized to prohibit the specification (including the withdrawal of specification) of any defined area as a disposal site, and he is authorized to deny or restrict the use of any defined area for specification (including the withdrawal of specification) as a disposal site, whenever he determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearings, that the discharge of such materials into such area will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas. Before making such determination, the Administrator shall consult with the Secretary. The Administrator shall set forth in writing and make public his findings and his reasons for making any determination under this subsection.

So, the key phrases to notice are “authorized to prohibit” and “deny or restrict” using an area as a disposal site … when the “discharge of such materials” would have an “unacceptable adverse effect on … fishery areas.” The law also requires notice and opportunity for public hearings. The EPA conducted numerous public hearings in 2012 and 2013, and has even given additional notice to the Pebble Limited Partnership of additional public hearings following the release of the final watershed assessment.

Sometime after Senator Murkowski complained that it would be improper for the EPA to issue a “preemptive veto” of the Pebble Mine, someone on her staff must have actually read Section 404(c) and realized that, yes, Congress did authorize the EPA to do such a thing. Well, if Congress has authorized an agency to do a specific thing, how do you stop the agency from doing what Congress has authorized? You get Congress to de-authorize it. Hence, Senator Murkowksi became a co-sponsor of the Orwellian “Regulatory Fairness Act of 2014.” The bill, if passed, would strip the EPA of the specific authority granted in Section 404(c). From 1980 to 2010, the EPA has invoked Section 404(c) only 13 times – 11 times during Republican administrations (Carter’s EPA invoked it once and Obama’s EPA invoked it in 2010). Given that no effort was made to strip the EPA of its Section 404(c) power in its prior uses, it’s clear that the purpose of the “Regulatory Fairness Act” is to ensure the development of the Pebble Mine.

But these are just my own observations, based on personal experience and reflecting on a specific policy choice where I have invested time and energy. Don’t just take my opinion that these two Senators have vastly different world views, take it also from the League of Conservation Voters. On their National Environmental Scorecard, the LCV viewed votes on 13 different bills in the Senate and gave the two Senators very divergent scores. For Senator Begich, both his 2013 score and his lifetime score are 77% – that’s consistency. But for Senator Murkowski, her most recent score was 38%, a dramatic improvement from her lifetime 21% score. In either case, it’s still a failing grade and her votes went against several issues that impact Alaskans – climate change, clean water (no-show on the vote), the confirmation of the EPA Administrator, and subsidizing the oil industry.

And some people say that all Senators are alike.

Correcting yet another inaccurate piece about Alaska

May 6th, 2014
Correcting yet another inaccurate piece about Alaska

It’s in all-to-common phenomenon to see articles written about Alaska by people who are not from here. Or, at least, with this one in particular I have to assume the author is not from here because she got so many things wrong.

The piece I am referring to was published in a real estate blog called “Movoto,” and claimed to detail “22 Things You Need to Know About Anchorage Before You Move There.” Setting aside the grammatically challenged approach to capitalizing every word in the headline, as I read the piece, I started seeing some errors. I was going to rebut some of them on a Facebook post where I first learned of the piece, but after further review, found too many to put in a simple Facebook response. Hence, this blog post was born. I will respond only to those specific assertions that were either incomplete, misleading or completely inaccurate.

1. “To State the Obvious, Winter is Really Cold.” Well, duh, Alaska has its cold spots, but it’s all relative. The winters in Anchorage are actually warmer than the winters in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Here, the author also claims you need Carharts and Bunny Boots to get around in the Anchorage winters. But Carharts are not specifically a winter, insulating outdoor wear, they happened to be worn by people who do heavy, dirty work in the winter time. And the temperatures never really get cold enough in Anchorage to warrant wearing Bunny Boots – that is more for the Interior or Brooks Range areas.

2. “Icebergs, Right Ahead! And Left, And Right, And Behind You.” This is hyperbole at its best. There is not a single glacier that is visible with the naked eye from the heart of Anchorage, where the actual city is located (what we call the “Anchorage bowl”). You have to drive about a half an hour south of Anchorage to see them on the Turnagain Arm, or head northeast of town and do some hiking or flying to see any. She also mentions the “massive” Portage Glacier. It has retreated so much it is no longer in contact with Portage Lake, so it’s not massive anymore.  (The photo associated with this part of the article is clearly from Prince William Sound, not anywhere near Anchorage, or even within the massive municipal boundaries.)

3. “You Don’t Need To Know How To Pronounce The Aurora Borealis To Fall In Love.” I do not disagree with this sentiment, but spring temperatures in Anchorage are not “sub zero.” Recent Spring aurora chasing has involved temperatures in the upper 30s, low 40s.

4. “The Parks In Anchorage Are Just A Little Different Than Yours.” In this part, she talks about Kenai Fjords, but fails to mention that access to Kenai Fjords National Park is a two-hour drive south of Anchorage and not even close to its municipal boundaries. Additionally, she asserts that “mountains like Prospect Heights tower up to 8,000 feet high.” There is no mountain called “Prospect Heights” in Alaska. Rather, Prospect Heights is the name of a trailhead connecting with several trails in the Chugach Mountains as part of a fantastic trail system in Chugach State Park in the Anchorage hillside. Additionally, there are no peaks of 8,000 feet elevation in the Anchorage area.  The tallest nearby peaks are  Pioneer Peak (6,398) and Eagle Peak (6,955).

16. “Snowmobiling Means Something Different In Anchorage.” The top thing she should have done here is to advise newcomers that we call it “snowmachining” in Anchorage, not “snowmobiling.” (Out in the Bush, many people call it going out on a “SnowGo” not a snowmachine.)

19. “Moby Dick Is Waiting For You.” Here, the author claims you can whale-watch from the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail or out in Kenai Fjords National Park. There is not a single location along the coastal trail that is suitable for whale-watching. Beluga whales are known to come up to the mouth of Ship Creek in the summer as they chase salmon. The starting point to the coastal trail is immediately south of that area, but does not provide a vantage point for watching beluga whales. You may have some chance encounters from the trail near Earthquake Park, but if you are going just for whale watching, it is not a reliable spot. Rather, your best bet is to head south of Anchorage and drive along the Turnagain Arm on the Seward Highway to look for the tell-tale flash of white flesh out in the water with an incoming tide as they chase hooligan in the Spring or salmon in the summer. But rather than taking the two-hour drive to Seward to catch a whale-watching cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park (which I reiterate is not in Anchorage), taking the 45-minute drive to Whittier and catching a whale cruise in Prince William Sound is a much closer option.

A little basic Internet research could have corrected the errors in this piece. I know that I did a lot of research about Anchorage before moving here. I certainly would do as much if I were writing about a place where I didn’t live. And clearly, either the author does not live here or she has not been paying attention.

Wild Anchorage Gallery

Urban Anchorage Gallery

Rediscover your Photos

April 3rd, 2014
Rediscover your Photos

In 2001 and 2002, when people around me started buying the new DSLR cameras, I was reluctant. I was incredibly satisfied with the quality of color that my Fuji Velvia or Kodak Ektachrome E100VS provided me. When I saw the results of what my photo colleagues were getting with their digital cameras, I did not think it matched in quality of color. I also knew that the file resolution was not even close to what I could get even from a Tango drum scan of a 35mm slide. In 2004, I reluctantly purchased my first DSLR, a Nikon D100. I still primarily used film because of the color and resolution issues, but also knew that I needed to start getting familiar with the digital world. When I upgraded to a Nikon D200 in 2006, I still kept shooting film – digital had not yet caught up.

Jump eight years ahead to now, and my Nikon D800E far surpasses the resolution of a 35mm slide. I still occasionally shoot film, but only 220 medium format film with my Hasselblad 503CX.

During that same time, photo processing software has similarly jumped ahead in quality and capability. And along with it, my skills in processing photo files has also increased dramatically. And even though I can never recapture the images I shot eight years ago with my Nikon D200, I can improve them in the digital darkroom because it is now better equipped than it was in 2006. Since I have always shot my images in RAW mode, even those Nikon D200 or D300 image still contain the maximum amount of data available, thus making it possible to bring out the best of color, hue, saturation, and contrast.

So, I have started the slow process of reexamining my older images, even those as recent as 2011, and exploring how I can improve them now that I have a better digital darkroom and am a better artist. The key is to take a look at how you processed that image previously, think of how you could enhance it and make it “pop” a little more, and then go back to the original RAW file and start over.

For my two examples in this blog, I took an image captured on a Nikon D200 in Glacier National Park, Montana, in 2006 (above) and one captured on a Nikon D700 in Denali National Park, Alaska, in 2011 (below). For the Glacier photo, it was clear to me that the old image looked drab and flat, lacking contrast or color – much unlike how the image looked to me with the naked eye. Working in layers in Photoshop, I made four principle enhancements. First, I increased the contrast in the foreground and mountains by adjusting levels and selectively brushing out the levels adjustment where it was not needed. I then took a similar approach with the sky. Third, I focused on adjusting the contrast of the tree, as I felt it blended too much with the background of the original image. I did this using both Levels and Brightness/Contrast while working in layers. Finally, using Selective Color in layers, I brought out the gold and orange hues more and enhanced the blue/cyan tones in the sky.

For the Denali image, I had much less work to do, as the Nikon D700 sensor and software I originally used to process it could better render the tones and contrast on their own. But, I still wanted to balance out the exposure better between the sky and reflection, which I did by using Levels in layers, brushing out the reflection so it was not affected. I then selectively increased the contrast of just the mountain and its reflection (also in layers) to bring out more detail.  Finally, I wanted the slight hint of alpenglow to stand out more, so I improved the magenta channels in Selective Color while working in layers.

And these are just a couple of examples of how some modest changes to old images can bring existing work back to life, and more in line with the incredible colors we can see in the natural world with our own eyes. I encourage you to revisit some of your own classics and see what you can to do them as well.