Category Archives: Assignments

Fragile Landscapes and US Bureau of Land Management Solutions

As a photographer, I am interested in unusual landscapes and recently visited the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, a 280,000-acre property administered by The Bureau of Land Management (BLM). One hot spot for photographers is “The Wave”, a mesmerizing set of sandstone formations in northern Arizona eroded by water and wind.

The Wave

The Wave at Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

The expansion of the Internet has publicized The Wave – specifically thorough the proliferation of images and video available on the web. In addition, an article on the Vermillion Cliffs in the February 2012 issue of the National Geographic Magazine sparked the interest in The Wave and other nearby formations for millions of their readers.

Given this publicity, the challenge is how to keep too many visitors from spoiling the place.



The BLM is a federal agency that is responsible for the stewardship of 245 million acres of public land in the United States. The agency employs 10,000 individuals full time, but doing the math, this is about 2,500 acres of land per employee. And like the US Forest Service, a great percentage of BLM land is designated “multipurpose”.

The tag line for the Forest Service is “Land of Many Uses”, which has been tweaked by environmentalists to “Land of Many Abuses”. In many of their operations, the BLM is a contender for this title.

However, in June of 2000, The National Landscape Conservation System was set up. It consists of 27 million acres of the most pristine landscapes and ecosystems that are under the purveyance of the BLM, including the Vermillion Cliffs. These areas are primarily in the Western and Southwestern US. After the formation of these Conservation Lands, the BLM incorporated many of the tenants of responsible tourism with their administration of these remarkable resources.

Several methods are used to minimize wear and tear from tourists traveling to sensitive/fragile areas.

• Education (stay on trails, don’t litter, etc.)

• High fees (high entry fees limit people to those who can afford to go)

• Limit official access (establish restricted areas where permits are needed)

• Limit publicity (difficult for potential visitors to discover location)

• Difficult terrain (hard location to get to, need to hike in or have special vehicle)

In view of this list of ways to mitigate visitor traffic, how could the BLM respond to the high demand for visits to The Wave? Not by regulating publicity (out of their control) or high fees. The monument is a national treasure, and as such the government is reluctant to charge high fees to visit it. $7.00 is the cost for a one-day permit.


Required pack tag to be in restricted area

So, to their credit, the BLM limits the number of visitors to The Wave to 20 per day and has instituted a lottery – ten from their website and ten from applicants that arrive in person for the next day’s allotment. If you are interested in the details for applying you can go here.

Competition is fierce. For instance, the number of online applicants for April 19, 2014 is 257 and the maximum number of people allowed is six per applicant. So far 975 people are listed who want to go (an applicant can have from one to six people in their application – 10 total will go). For reference, individuals attempting to obtain a permit for April-June and September-November, the odds were about 4-5% for 2013. The $5.00 application fee is non-refundable.

Another of the responsible-tourism tenants is education, and part of the Vermillion Cliffs application is a professionally-done17 minute video that deals with safety, trails, protection of the environment, etc. You cannot continue the application without checking a box that confirms you watched the video.

Two Peaks at Sunset 9344

Sunset at White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona

Lastly, the difficulty of the terrain plays a part here. The Wave is a three-mile hike from the road with a large portion of it marked only by cairns. At the southern end of the Vermillion Cliffs Monument, the roads are sand, and every time a vehicle gets stuck (hundreds of times) that area becomes a sand pit. You can’t believe what the advertisements say about your four-wheeled drive vehicle – many of them won’t make this trip.

Rock fins

Fragile Rock Fins

Once you have won the lottery and are at these locations, you’ll see how fragile these formations are. Most have Navaho sandstone rock “fins” which are easy to snap off. Hundreds of years in the making – gone in a second.

The BLM will receive a $6 million increase from the federal government for the National Landscape Conservation System in 2014. If the BLM continues policies that promote responsible tourism, this is good news.




How I Survive Long Flights and Avoid Some Nasty Jet Lag

Note: I was in Africa for five weeks and did not have my computer with me. I will report on the trip in my next blog, but this one gives some tips on getting there.

If you are a transcontinental traveler and are making connections to a final destination, your travel times can be lengthy – sometimes up to 24 hours or more. My friend and I experience this half dozen times a year and have developed a strategy on these long flights to lessen the physical effects on our bodies.

When I Book

I secure my seat assignments ASAP. I use (a Trip Advisor company) to look up the airline and airplane that I am flying. Seat Guru gives you information about the airline — website, frequent flyer program, lounges (clubs), check in (on line?), the number and sizes of bags etc. When I choose the airplane (equipment) it shows me the seats, their sizes, legroom, etc. and points out desirable and undesirable seats. Only then do I go to the airline seating chart and pick a seat. A bad seat makes for an ultra-long flight.

If connecting in Europe, many airlines will not give out seat assignments until the passenger arrives on the continent. I find out as soon as I can and get my desired seat.

I look for aisle seats, as they have more legroom and I do not have to climb over people to get to the aisle. Lately airlines are designating “premium seating” and try to collect a little more money from the passenger for those seats. Sometimes, if not filled, these seats revert to regular seats; other times airlines charge the passenger who books late the premium. I also found that if you are assigned a less desirable seat, ask for a seat change at the gate 15 minutes before the flight. With some airlines, the premium seats will revert at that time.

We ask for a special meal when making the reservation. My friend is a vegetarian, and we find that the Asian Vegetarian meal is usually much better than the mass meal that consists of chicken, pasta, beef, etc. We find that one has to double check with the airline about the special meal request, as they seem to have some difficulty communicating the request to the vendor.

Lastly, I have found that airlines sometimes change the flight times/equipment and send me (hopefully) an email to confirm and agree with this change. Please note that I ALWAYS check my seat assignment at that time, as the airlines are notorious for reassigning your seat (“You have an window seat and requested an aisle? Too bad, but it is only a 14 hour flight”, is a response I have heard from the flight attendant on a full flight.


I wear a long sleeved shirt and long pants on the plane. The cabins are rarely warm —usually cold. Compression hose are a good idea to prevent possible embolisms (blood clots) when one is sitting in the same position for hours at a time. My shoes are sturdy for the long walks between gates, but are easy to get on and off.

No one wants to enter the airplane toilets in stocking feet. Hardware stores sell boxes of plastic booties for industrial use. I take a couple of pairs in my carryon and wear them to the toilet.

I also check what the weather will be like at my destination. Rain? Humid? I carry a change of clothing with me if I know that there will be a radical difference in upcoming climate.


As mentioned, we request Asian Vegetarian meals when booking the flights. When boarding, I identify myself to the flight attendant as a recipient of a special meal. I do not drink alcohol, but consume plenty of water, as the plane’s air is usually very dry. The flight attendants are good at replenishing the supply during the flight. I use a towelette or hand sanitizer to clean up before eating.

Sleep Aids

I find a blackout eye mask is essential for sleep on an airplane. In addition, I have a noise reduction earphones (with an extra battery). Earplugs are an alternative, but not as good. Sometimes I take a blowup neck ring, but use it for lumbar support when the seats are not conducive to a good sleeping position. I can inflate the ring to the correct level – pillows don’t work as well. I grab a blanket when boarding, as I may need it for warmth. Also, I alternate sleep with books, movies or audio (my iPhone or supplied audio/video) to make the time go faster. I do not look at the flight progression map and see the minutes slowly tick away (a watched pot never boils!).


Every couple of hours, I leave my seat and walk the aisles. If I can, I do a loop, stopping in the rear galley area to do stretching exercises to loosen up.

Freshening Up

About an hour before landing, I retire to the toilet to refresh myself before our arrival. I wash my face and hands with hot water and brush my teeth (I bring a travel toothbrush in my carryon). A little deodorant, and I feel like a new man! I don’t wait until the plan is on final approach (a half hour before landing) to freshen up, as I may not be able to leave my seat, and if I can, the toilet may be occupied.


• If the airplane is not filled, once on board I change seats if I do not like my assigned seat as well as the unoccupied ones. I then tell the flight attendant that I have changed seats.

• I have a lot of carryon – my cameras and maybe a long lens in it’s own backpack that I do not want to check (ever!). I get on board at the top of my boarding group even though I have an assigned seat, as the overhead bins fill up and when that happens, sometimes the flight attendants force you to check carryon.

• My carryon also has a collection of my favorite snacks so I am not subjected to airline peanuts and pretzels. Also, I can eat them any time I am hungry.

• As noted, cabin air is dry. I regulate my individual airflow to ensure that it is not stagnant.

• Many airplanes now have USB or 110 volt receptacles. I check with Seat Guru and then bring the appropriate attachments on board.


What Are Your Strategies?

This is my strategy for surviving lengthy flights. You may have some others. I invite you to put them in the comments section of this blog, and I will incorporate them (with credit!) into the main body.

Bobbie Burnett’s Angels

My latest assignment was to photograph Bobbie Burnett’s Angels. Her picture and the following explanation of her company are on the homepage of her website:

“The Caring Collection creates stained glass artwork to benefit cancer patients at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center in Baltimore, Maryland and the Anne Arundel Oncology Center in Annapolis, Maryland.  It is composed of a group of over 90 volunteers of all ages and backgrounds who create stained glass angels and sun catchers. To date, they have donated over $945,000 for specific equipment for patient care and research.”
Bobbie began to design stained glass angels in 1982. Now she is creating a book about her collection. At present there are over twenty past angels in the collection, however only a few are currently available for purchase.

Photography of glass objects presents a challenge and most of the issues center around reflections and specular highlights. The photographer wants to eliminate these, but the end result can be a very flat, uninteresting image.

So what to do? I generally place the object (angel) on a pedestal and go about controlling the light source. I build a background or “tent” to keep unwanted reflections at bay. Then I place a very large reflector (I use a folding one made by Lastolite) in front of the angel to use as a key light. I could use softboxes with flash, but I like to see how the actual light source is continually striking the object. I now have a flat-lit angel with no reflections. A black background eliminates reflections or other shapes that may appear in the transparent areas of the angel.

So far so good. Now, I add my own highlights to create my own rim lighting and specular highlights but only where I want them. I do this by using strings of white Christmas tree lights — moving them around until I get the effect I want. (See Setup Picture 1 above). I try a couple of different placements and shoot several bracketed frames of each. I also turn off the Christmas tree lights to give the client the flat light option. (See Angel with lights Picture 2, and Angel flat light Picture 3 left.)

Two of these images now grace note cards that The Caring Collection has for sale.

Experiment. Sometimes even an inanimate angel can bring surprises to your photography!