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Photography and the Future of Trails

Photography has played an important role in protecting the wild landscapes and trails so beloved by those who live in and visit Washington state.

By Doug Diekema 

Photography has played an important role in protecting the wild landscapes and trails so beloved by those who live in and visit Washington state. As lawmakers debated wilderness protection, “The Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland,” a large format book consisting primarily of photographs, was published and distributed to every member of Congress in 1965 as part of an effort to increase wilderness protections. In 1984, The Mountaineers published a similar book entitled “Washington Wilderness: The Unfinished Work.” “Washington Wilderness” was a celebration of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the land that it protected, but also made the case that wilderness protection in Washington state was unfinished and proposed a host of new areas for protection under the Wilderness Act including some, like Indian Heaven, Glacier View, Lake Chelan-Sawtooth and Tatoosh that were later granted wilderness status. Others, like Nason Ridge and the Dark Divide, remain unprotected.

A narrow dirt path heads out through a patch of golden larches and toward a rocky outcropping.
Sharing photos that model responsible behavior, such as staying on trail and having dogs on leash, is one way photographers can help care for trails. Photo by Doug Diekema.

The role of photography in wilderness protection and trail funding

A lot has changed since those two influential books were published. Heavy medium- and large-format film cameras have been largely replaced by phones that take digital images and fit into a pocket. Images that required a book or magazine to be seen can now be “published” on countless social media sites where they receive far more views than any book or magazine would achieve. Professionals now share the photographic realm with thousands of amateur photographers. What has not changed is the important role of photography in raising awareness about wilderness protection, increasing public support for trails and trail maintenance, and making the case for additional funding of both. Ironically, as trail use has increased significantly over the past several years, the number of trails available to hikers has decreased. Some trails have become all but unusable for lack of attention, pushing more people onto fewer trails. Recreation budgets have decreased at a time when outdoor recreation is more popular than ever. The protection of wilderness areas and the preservation of trails cannot be taken for granted and remains an ongoing battle in which photographers must continue to play a role.

The social media conundrum

There is no question that easy access to information, peer recommendations, and spectacular photographs that appear every day on dozens of web pages and social media sites have increased the popularity of hiking and backpacking on Washington’s trails. But that enthusiasm has unwittingly created a dilemma: Many of these information sources tend to push people toward a small handful of trails, which may not be designed to hold up to that level of visitation. And, if photos show behaviors like tents placed on sensitive meadows, dogs off leash, hiking off trail or other activities that violate Leave No Trace principles, they may unwittingly encourage others to do the same. 

Fall colors burst along the sides of a dirt trail. The trail overlooks a a deep valley of evergreen, with rows of peaks raising above in the background.
Photo by Doug Diekema.

Hope for the future: Advocating responsibly through photography

Photography remains an essential ingredient in the protection of Washington wilderness and the trails that allow entry into those special places. Beautiful images posted on social media and internet sites have engaged thousands of new trail users who wish to see these lovely places. Responsible photographers can help protect these fragile landscapes. That starts with behaving as good stewards of these national treasures, including staying on the trail and not operating drones in wilderness areas. Photographers should think carefully about tagging locations of their photos, particularly for popular trails that see a lot of use, or for trails that aren’t designed for heavy use. And whenever you can, use your images to advocate for increased funding and maintenance of trails that have all but disappeared. 

Washington is blessed with miles of wonderful trails, but the maintenance and expansion of trail access remains an unfinished work. My hope is that the army of photographers that populate social media can use their craft for trail and wilderness advocacy.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.