Travel Preparation: An Interview with Crystal Brindle

Experiencing (and photographing) the great outdoors has become increasingly popular over the years as access and information have both improved.  Many times, people see captivating landscape photography and seek that same experience–that same epic shot.  And who’s to blame them?  Understanding what the experience entails and being sure to “know before you go” is key for any positive and safe venture into the outdoors, but it takes a certain level of understanding to even know what you should know before you go, which is why educational organizations like Nature First are so important.  

We recently got a chance to chat with Crystal Brindle (our Nature First Community Advocate in New Zealand) about her experience and perspective when it comes to overall preparedness and educational opportunities/resources, and impacts from photographers and other visitors to the great outdoors.  Crystal worked three seasons in the Rocky Mountain National Park Backcountry/Wilderness Office, but now works for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) and has spent the last few years working in Abel Tasman, Kahurangi, and Fiordland National Parks.  She is also an incredible landscape photographer and sees all of this through that lens, as well!

Crystal on summit of Conical Hill, Routeburn Track. Credit: Sky Lovill

As a seasoned ranger in both the United States and New Zealand, you have likely seen different types of visitor preparedness when it comes to experiencing public lands /conservation estate, but also the impacts that photographers have on those lands in pursuit of the perfect shot (whatever that means).  Can you expand on the differences or similarities between those visitors?

I certainly have! In the Backcountry Office my job was to issue permits to people of varied experience levels to camp in the further reaches of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). Most of our training centred around being able to ‘size up’ skill levels to suggest the most appropriate and enjoyable trips for people. The role was part trip planner and part resource protector! 

At the Backcountry Office I understood why we had a permitting system in place to manage what would otherwise be an unsustainable demand to camp beside beautiful alpine lakes. Living in New Zealand now, I sometimes can’t believe that we had such a regimented system in place for the whole backcountry of the park but, of course, this was taking into account two notable differences – ease of access and proximity to a population centre. Accessing the backcountry in RMNP vs. in Fiordland, for example, is entirely different. The greater the ease of access, the more management is required to reduce impact, in my opinion. 

Photographers in the USA and NZ in pursuit of the perfect shot can certainly cause impacts in much the same way. By labelling a location as a “must do”(hotspot) for photography, word spreads like wildfire and is reinforced by gorgeous images of the place that start popping up everywhere. In New Zealand, visiting tourists often don’t feel their visit is complete without taking a photo at “that’ place. We’re trying to address this in New Zealand by both steering visitors wider than that one location they’ve heard of and by building tracks, carparks, and other facilities more robustly to handle the demand when a concentrated use can’t be avoided. 

How do educational programs differ between the United States National Park Service (NPS) and New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) when it comes to land ethics and minimum impact recreation? (particularly when it comes to photography). 

In New Zealand I think we rely more on messaging campaigns and collaborating with tourism promoters, regional councils etc. than in-person programs. We often label it as an international visitor problem and forget to take responsibility for the less overt (perhaps) impacts that we have as Kiwis. 

I work partially in the education space for DOC and in my opinion we educate about species a lot more than we educate about how to ‘be’ in nature. I’d love to see more emphasis placed on the latter to help get kids and adults thinking about the recreation and visitor management side of conservation land management. I certainly bear a good degree of responsibility for this in my own community so thanks for reminding me to look at ways to make this happen!

NZ’s summer visitor behaviour campaigns works with airlines, tourism companies, etc. to reach large groups of overseas tourists and tug at a person’s desire to ‘do things right’ by the place they are visiting — “this is how we do things here, if you want to fit in then you need to….” an interesting and effective bit of psychology. Social media geotagging campaigns to promote protection and not erode it and more in-person programs for passing on outdoor skills and Leave No Trace type ethics can all be very helpful in addressing these impacts. I don’t think we have many programs targeting photographers with what they might need to know before heading out in NZ, but perhaps I’m just not in the know! I think we could do with a simple landing page (for photographers) like the US NPS’s website and a few standalone media campaigns highlighting this issue and providing resources.  We could draw attention to the vulnerable native plants you might find under foot when setting up a shot, encourage photographers to think about how they’re getting to a location and to think carefully before advertising a location through their social media following. I think Nature First is an ideal voice to start this conversation. 

In your experience, are photographers who require permits generally knowledgeable about the requirements and process and accepting of the permit requirements as a necessary component for land management and mitigating impacts? 

In NZ, if you are clearly a photographer in a commercial sense or photographing for media it is generally known that you need some sort of permission but smaller groups/individuals seem to fly outside the radar. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has a handy web page as a first point of call for photographers and filmmakers wishing to do their work on conservation land but any photographer outside of what is defined in the table is likely not to seek a permit or talk with anyone about requirements. 

There has been recent outcry from the media industry about the onerous requirements of permitting for their work on conservation land and while I don’t know the details I would say that this is a good sign that the process isn’t largely understood or agreed upon as best practice for mitigating impacts. Additionally, I think that this space will evolve as we all start to understand the impacts and reach of ‘influencer’ photographers on social media who may be doing work for a brand or a company in a non-traditional manner. I don’t think the systems we have in place have caught up with this quickly evolving situation.  

We’ve all seen the extreme impacts that can occur when a particular photo becomes viral and attracts thousands or millions to the same location over time seeking that photo opportunity.  What are your thoughts on the concept of intentional hyper-concentration vs dispersal and what educational opportunities or challenges may exist with either. 

I think that both have an important part to play in the ‘kete’ [Maori word for basket] of land management tools. We have to be able to concentrate people at some easy-to-access sites while encouraging dispersal across wilderness terrain. I don’t see this as a problem that will ever be fully solved but rather something that should be kept front of mind when making management decisions. Perhaps it is too simplistic, but I think it is all about keeping a balance in check. 

I think there are educational opportunities with dispersal that have yet to be fully seized. I wonder if we could upskill people to be more confident in leaving the concentrated places behind would we be encouraging more impact or just dispersing some from the original site? It would seem to be a good thing in some ways, at least. At places that are being loved to death why not take some of the pressure off to give them a chance to recuperate a bit? However, this is underpinned by a need to be extremely careful about where people are encouraged to go instead. 

Perhaps as nature photographers the best we can do is to encourage discussion around what to do and what not to do at both concentrated sites and dispersed. There is a different code of conduct to consider when photographing at either sort of location and we can educate one another through our own practice and our words. 

If this conversation has a single takeaway, it seems to be that there is much to learn from each other across the world.  While the activities, impacts, and landscapes may be similar across the globe, the resources available and strategies to help visitors know before they go vary pretty greatly.  There likely will not ever be a time when every single person seeking to get outside and capture some stunning photographs will fully understand the best practices for that landscape, but Nature First aims to continue sharing perspectives and related resources like this to build an educated community that is empowered to educate their peers and create positive change and minimize impacts on the land!

Links that may prove helpful for more info: