Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Artificial Lighting Banned in Grand Teton

The Thomas A. Moulton Barn illuminated with Low Level Lighting at about 2:00am, in order to align it with a mid-July Milky Way. The lights are left on during the full 25-seconds exposure, and were dimmed to output less light than a Quarter Phase Moon. In fact, the light is so dim it takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to see the effect on the barn —until then, you have to rely on the greater sensitivity of your camera to see what is happening. At the time, I did not know that artificial lighting was not allowed in the park! © Royce Bair

Night photography that uses artificial lighting is not allowed in Grand Teton National Park. This policy applies to all Grand Teton National Park visitors, including commercial operators.  Any operator found using artificial lighting outside of a headlamp for walking safety and red lights inherent on camera equipment may be subject to a written citation.

The ban on artificial lighting is not new. This policy has been around for many years. The park’s compendium language states, "The Superintendent has determined that prohibiting the use of such devices is necessary for the protection of wildlife." This restriction, in section 2.2(e), is found on page 19 of the 38-page Grand Teton National Park Superintendent's Compendium.

Since most of us don't take the time to fully read such lengthy documents, it's not surprising that I've overlooked this restriction in years past. However, during this year's CUA application process for a photo workshop permit, this restriction was brought to my attention. Instead of taking the normal few weeks to get a permit, it took several months. In the end, I and all other commercial operators are being made aware of this ban on artificial lighting. (I know of about a dozen photo workshop operators in the park who show artificially lit Teton features on their websites. This change may come as a surprise to many photographers!)

Both of these photos of the John Mouton Barn and homestead were taken in June and illuminated with Low Level Lighting. At the time, I did not know that artificial lighting was not allowed in the park! Click images to enlarge. © Royce Bair 

Alternatives to artificial lighting in Grand Teton: The Moulton Barns are popular and historic man-made structures in the park. They and the Chapel of the Transfiguration are the only features I've ever lit within the park. There are over a dozen other natural park features that I regularly photograph at night without the use of any artificial light, so this restriction will have little impact on my NightScape style photo workshops within the Tetons!

Even the man-made structures can easily be photographed without artificial light, using additional longer exposures for the foreground and blending those exposures with the sky exposure(s).

Manish Mamtani took this photo of the Thomas A. Moulton Barn without the use of any artificial lighting. © Manish Mamtani

Teton wildlife and artificial lighting: Section 2.2(e) of the Superintendent's Compendium states, "Viewing of wildlife with any type of artificial light is prohibited in the park and the parkway. This prohibition conforms to Wyoming State Law (W.S. 23-3-306). The Superintendent has determined that prohibiting the use of such devices is necessary for the protection of wildlife."

A closer look at section W.S. 23-3-306 of the Wyoming State Law reveals that it prohibits the... “Use of aircraft, automobiles, motorized and snow vehicles and artificial light for hunting or fishing…” and that “(b) No person shall take any wildlife with the aid of or by using any artificial light or lighting device...”

This law is all about the use of artificial light to take (kill) wildlife. The state restriction is only against the hunting and taking of wildlife via the use of artificial light and motorized vehicles. I would have to have a firearm and dead animals in my possession to be in violation of the state law.

So, does the park Superintendent's ban on the use of any artificial light (other than the use of headlamps to get safely to our night photo locations) within the park help protect the wildlife and eliminate the disturbance of their natural habits? That's certainly debatable, especially compared to the havoc automobile headlights have within the park. And, Low Level Landscape Lighting is about 40 times less powerful than most headlamps.

Still, I believe we should be grateful that all night photography was not banned from the Tetons. This restriction on artificial lighting is only a minor inconvenience compared to not being able to photograph the stars over such a magnificent setting!


  1. I certainly concur with your point on this ban being an inconvenience. The low light ability of cameras have come a long way and have in effect made the use of artificial light no longer a must. Like you, during the Milky Way night sky workshops I conduct in variuos NPs, I will continue to use the blue hour time period and long exposures to bring out the fg and even shooting to near quarter moon to help illuminate the scene. Does the use of artificial lights add interest to the scene via accenting interesting parts of our subject? Sure they do. However, I can forgo these any day to be out under the beautiful night sky with the Milky Way.

    1. Yes, I will forgo artificial light any day as long as I can be under the gorgeous night skies with the stars from our awesome galaxy! Thanks for sharing, Jerry.

  2. I believe that compliance with the request is appropriate. However, I also believe that a legal challenge of the ban in regards to photographic lighting would be equally appropriate.

  3. Royce, let's not beat around the bush here. As a huge fan of the National Parks and a holder of an annual pass, I am extremely concerned about, on the one hand, the heavy handed nature of the park service on operators like you who get the permits and try to follow the rules, and the lack of any effort to manage the real problem. The problem is that the national parks let everyone in, not light painting per se. By letting everyone in, I mean large tour groups, often from different cultures, that crowd the parks and tend to make life difficult. I'm all for access to everyone, but people who pay taxes here should have a different fee structure, and international groups should be subject to a friendly, but very direct, brief tutorial on expectations. This includes photography and acting in a manner so as not to disturb other photographers and guests. If you control the real problem, you get real results. The problem also is that the park service appears to be largely run by people who do not want to listen and who do not understand. Night sky photography is a key to preserving dark skies and the night experience. Every night photography group I have been in, with you and other responsible operators, stresses the "leave nothing behind" approach. We revere and document the natural wonders in the parks. Low level lighting disturbs nothing. If you have a bunch of irresponsible and uninformed idiots, you have problems. This is the real issue the park service should address.

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  5. Thank you for the information Royce. I understand their point, and with the abundant wildlife it makes sense. I do think there is a lot more light from headlamps than there is from lighting scenes though. The basic problem is too many people out at night now. Once you show people just how beautiful it can be, everyone wants to see it for themselves or photograph it themselves.

    I suspect this is just the beginning, and more parks will follow suit. Sigh… I really think that the overwhelming response to night photography is the basic problem. The photos are so alluring that everyone wants to do it and there are just too many people out there. The Tetons seem to have a lot more wildlife that places like Arches, although plenty of small animals come out at night in Arches also. I feel for all the animals that have had their habitat restricted already.

    All we do is going to be overshadowed by the shear number of people out at night, walking around with headlamps, and causing disturbances. I fear for total restrictions at night.

    One thing I do not get is this: It makes more sense to me that they would restrict everyone at night Except Commercial Operators, since they can monitor them much better, and hold them to a higher level of accountability.

    1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, John! You and I are probably the makers of some of own problems due to the popularity we have created for these locations. LOL.

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  7. I did lighten the John Moulton Barn with LLL, when I visited GTNP last year. I did not know about the ban and even if I read the section you quoted, I would not have thought in my wildest dreams that it applies to night photography! It seems to be about wildlife and the barns are pretty dead... If they are serious about the ban, they should make it known better - be it in the visitor center or the information flyiers.

    It is sad that park authorities are fighting responsible night photographers, instead of solving the real problem: overcrowding. After visiting several popular NPs, I am convinced that this is the real problem. They should limit the overall number of visitors and group size - especially in daylight. However, as the daylight visitors are bringing the big money, probably nothing will be done.

    It is so much easier to target night photography. Regulating it might be necessary, but if so, they shoud (again) target group size and the overall nuber of visitors. How about a permit system like BLM uses in some places? It could be linked to some educational information about how to behave at night and violators could be banned from applying for further permits. A ban for headlamps and flashlights might be a good idea too.

    Responsible nightscapers, individuals and operators, could be the natural allies of the park rangers in protecting the environment and dark skies. They should be supported instead of banned.

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  10. Now that light is banned, how long before a photography ban could follow?

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