Fields of Indian paintbrush fill the foreground. Mount St. Helens, pockets of snow still visible in the soft glow of a summer sunset, anchors the entire scene. Clouds stretch into the distance drawing the viewer fully into the photo.
It's a beautifully composed and executed landscape. And it won first place in the trailscape category in the Washington Trails Association's annual photo contest. The photo will appear in the WTA's January and February magazine and on its 2019 calendar.
The only problem?
The photographer, who did not respond to a request for comment, may have jumped a wall, ignored a sign and trekked into a field of protected wildflowers.
"Unfortunately, this one didn't flag for us," said Kindra Ramos, WTA's director of communication and outreach. "Our goal here is not to throw a photographer to the wolves. We saw a beautiful picture and we did what we thought was due diligence. ... We're exploring what other precautions we could take."
The issue was first noticed, and flagged by Spokane photographer Craig Goodwin. Goodwin is confident the photo was taken from a closed area of Mount St. Helens, one that's visibly marked by signs and a small wall. He first explained his reasoning in a blog post.
Chelsea Muise, the recreation program manager for Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, has seen the winning photo but can't be sure from where it was taken. She said it's not uncommon for people to ignore trail signs and area closures.
"Going off trail can impact some of the major research projects going on, plus it ruins the experience for other visitors," she said.
Goodwin entered his photography into this year's WTA contest and has won in the past. He recognizes his complaint may be seen as the mumblings of a sore loser.
"I could care less about the photo contest," he said. "It's more about my experience of seeing all those people out in the middle of the wildflowers at Saint Helens."
It touches on a much larger issue. With social media and photography driving people into the outdoors in record numbers, amateur and professional photographers often tromp through sensitive ecological areas looking for "The Shot."
"I think overall technology has moved much faster than rules and regulations," said Tony Bynum, a Montana-based photographer and board president of the Professorial Outdoor Media Association. "We can't respond fast enough. Ten years ago, there was no iPhone. You literally had to be in the business of shooting photos and videos to afford the equipment it took."
Organizers of photo contests have no obligation to ensure the photos are being taken legally, said Michael Van Tubergen, an attorney who works for POMA and other outdoor media clients.
"I would say that the organization doesn't have any legal obligations, but there are probably some ethical obligations," he said.
Photography is generally protected by First Amendment rights, even if the creator of the image trespassed to take the photo.
Ramos points out that WTA receives roughly 8,000 photos in each contest. They flag and disqualify ones that are clearly taken unethically or illegally. Per their photo contest rules, all photographers are expected to follow Leave No Trace guidelines. The only other contest rule is that the photo must be taken in Washington.
"We catch a lot of tents in meadows and too close to animals," she said.
But there is no good system for vetting photos that aren't clearly violating Leave No Trace principals.
"There is an element of taking photographers at their word," she said.
In 2017, Outside Magazine reported on how Instagram, and social media in general, have driven overuse of particular spots leading to damaged ecosystems and disrupted habitats.
In an interview from last summer, Carly Reed, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest wilderness manager, said Instagram has fueled overuse in the Alpine Lakes area.
"You don't have to go the place that your 15 friends put on Instagram," Reed said.
As for the WTA contest, Ramos said no changes have been made, but each year WTA staff debrief the previous year's contest. This issue will be high on their agenda.
"I think as more people are discovering the outdoors, we have to really continue to evaluate how we can help hikers protect the places they love," she said.