For sale to the highest bidder

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, by Thomas Moran. 1872. Since Moran was paid a cool $10,000 for this painting, his work in Yellowstone was a ‘commercial enterprise.’ Moran’s work led directly to the creation of Yellowstone National Park and an increased awareness of the beauty and fragility of the West. But never mind history and tradition; we can get more dough out of balloon tours.
While the news is filled with stories about Cliven Bundy and an aborted land grab by the BLM, a similar story crossed my radar this week. It’s on a much smaller scale, but it touches me directly. And the root of the problem seems to be the same as that being played out in Nevada: our nation’s resources are for sale to the highest bidder.

Like me, Michael Chesley Johnson teaches plein airworkshops. Last week he was teaching in the Red Rock Ranger District of the Coconino Forest when he was stopped by a ranger who told him he can't take his painting workshops onto Forest land without a permit.  Because he charges a fee for his workshops, he is considered a commercial operation. If he continues to flout the requirement, he’ll get a $500 fine.

Michael Chesley Johnson's painters having a huge impact on the environment.
Michael’s groups are very small—never more than four students at a time. Like most plein airpainters, he’s also a keen environmentalist, and like most plein air teachers, he polices the area in which his students work, enforcing a strict “leave nothing but footprints” policy.

So Michael duly looked into the permit and found that he can’t get one. Why? Because the Red Rock Ranger District has used up all its permits, doling them out on a ten-year basis.

Tower Falls at Yellowstone, by Thomas Moran, 1876. We have national parks in the west in large part because of artists like Moran.
What is the competition that Michael is theoretically displacing? Red Rock Western Jeep Tours was authorized for 10,055 trips, each with multiple passengers.  In contrast, Michael takes about 30 people out each season. Total.

The Park Service recognizes the need for a different kind of permit for people like Michael, but they won’t get around to creating it until 2016 at the earliest.

The field artists who accompanied every important western journey of exploration contributed mightily toward shaping our national ethos.  Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, William Keith and others defined the American West for the 19th century, just as Ansel Adams did for the 20th century. And all of these artists were unabashedly ‘commercial enterprises,’ just as painters are now.

How do we train new plein air artists in that historic tradition? By taking them out into the field, of course.

Another plein air painter in one of Michael Chesley Johnson's workshops.
I have taught in public parks from the Kit Carson National Forest to Owl’s Head in Maine. The only place I’ve ever bothered to apply for a permit was at Niagara Falls, and that was because it’s crowded. And all they asked of me was a “hold harmless” agreement.

I’ve never been bothered by a ranger—never. But neither had Michael Chesley Johnson, until last week.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

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