As the red light of sunset reached the waterfall, applause erupted across the Yosemite Valley. Normally I work in quiet solitude, but this is a special waterfall and it drew an energetic audience of hundreds.
The question is, is that a good thing?
Years ago, Horsetail Fall had a much smaller following. It was only serious nature photographers who knew that every year, right around President’s Day, it had the potential to put on a wondrous light show. If the conditions are just right, the falling water — and only the falling water — catches the fiery light of sunset, standing out as a streak of lava-like light against a dark granite wall.
Horsetail Fall is the only waterfall in the world that’s known to do this. Coincidentally, Yosemite is also the national park where the staff of the Glacier Point Hotel used to shove burning embers to drop 3,000 feet off a cliff, creating a strikingly similar visual effect. (The Yosemite Firefall was stopped in 1968 because of problems resulting from its popularity.)
Some years, Horsetail Fall looks more like a “fire fall” for around 5 to 10 minutes on just a handful of nights. Some years, the phenomenon doesn’t happen at all. It only happens if there’s been enough rain and snow over the course of the winter. If it’s warm enough to melt some of the snow pack. If the western skies are clear to let the sunset light through. If the winds are calm enough to let the water plunge in a straight line.
Legendary nature photographer Galen Rowell captured the first widely published image of Horsetail Fall in 1973 and for much of the subsequent decades, the waterfall slowly attracted a following. Within the past few years, however, it’s safe to say the waterfall has gone viral. Every major publication has done a story on it. Sites like BuzzFeed have made it bucket-list material.
So naturally, the small following has turned into quite the crowd. I mean, you have to see it before you die, right?
There’s no question there’s a downside to this attention. The park has struggled to deal with the demand. Lines to get in the park are long. There are traffic jams in and out. Parking is scarce; some people park where they shouldn’t.
Also, tempers can flare. There are two main vantage points to witness the show. A small area on the Southside Drive attracts especially hardcore photographers. Even though the lighting doesn’t occur until about 5:30 p.m., they have set up their tripods to mark their territory by 8 a.m. I’ve never worked from that vantage point — that experience just isn’t my style — but photographers who've been there told me that they’ve nearly witnessed fist fights break out in the cramped space.
But my experience in the El Capitan picnic area — the other main vantage point — has taught me there may be some good to all the attention. The feeling here is almost celebratory. The audience is decidedly different. There are almost as many iPhones as there are Canons and Nikons.
Many of the people I met had never been to Yosemite before. They came from as far as Los Angeles after seeing pictures and reading the story of Horsetail Fall online. It was just something that they had to experience for themselves.
It was at this point that I realized that the very nature of conservation photography may be changing. For more than a hundred years, artists worked to inspire people to protect the land by helping people experience it vicariously. Yellowstone National Park, our country’s first, was established by lawmakers who had experienced it only through Thomas Moran’s paintings. In my home state of Washington, gorgeous stretches of the North Cascades were set aside thanks to the work of nature photographers like Philip Hyde.
I think the art worked because, to the people who were inspired by it, nature wasn’t an abstract concept. Before pictures of the American Southwest inspired me to go out and explore the world, I had already spent a great deal of time in the national parks of Washington state. I already valued nature because of the experiences my parents gave me.
For a surprisingly large number of the people I talked to, however, Horsetail Fall was their first outdoor experience. That’s cause for both concern and celebration.
One of the key principles of economics is that we’re motivated by our own self-interest. Even when we donate money or time, we do so because those activities make us feel good. My concern is, if people don’t have an interest in the wilderness then they likely won’t take a stand to protect it.
What’s worth celebrating is that there are natural wonders in this world — and Horsetail Fall is apparently one of them — that can attract people who have never cared to experience nature before. Nobody had to drag them out there; they came enthusiastically on their own. Viewing the BuzzFeed photo gallery wasn’t enough; they needed to see it for themselves.
I understand that many of my fellow photographers don’t see this as cause for celebration. What was once a place of quiet awe is now effectively a tailgate party. But I also can’t help but think that a fair number of those party-goers now have a greater appreciation for nature.
And I think building that appreciation is critical. Just last month, Congress planned to dispose of 3 million acres of “worthless” public land. One of those worthless areas was a stretch of land in Arizona that’s home to the threatened desert tortoise, a reptile that has seen population declines of up to 90 percent in some of its areas over the past 30 years. Loud outcry put those plans on hold.
To get to Horsetail Falls, audience members had to travel past some crown jewels of the natural world. Half Dome. El Capitan. Yosemite Falls, which is one of the tallest in the world. And there are indications they appreciated that. In fact, one group was even busy snapping pictures of squirrels.
Conservation photography may be evolving from art exhibits and books to something that’s much more interactive. It may be less about experiencing the world through someone else’s lens to snapping your own pictures with a smartphone.
And if these new-found nature lovers become advocates, then collectively we’ve gained much more than the peace and quiet we’ve lost at one waterfall.
(Learn more about Kevin Ebi's newest book, Our Land, celebration of the land protected during the first 100 years of the U.S. National Park Service. Follow his photography on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.)