Aerial Photography: A Valuable Tool for Environmental Assessment

The power of aerial images was first discovered with the earliest forms of manned flight, such as with surveillance balloons launched at Civil War battle sites. Since, we have seen the means of obtaining aerial images evolve, from balloon, to aircraft, to satellite, and most recently to tiny drones. But, we are also seeing a trend where the state, represented here by FAA as the agency intended to regulate all aviation issues, is in fact impeding the right to take aerial images.

The images we can collect offer huge benefits, such as the efficient identification of environmental damages, or even just the assessment of land use patterns. One artist who has focused on this is Mishka Henner. Born in 1976 in Brussels, Belgium and currently based in Manchester, England, Mr. Henner has done considerable work with satellite images, sometimes doing color enhancements and other edits to create images that encourage public understanding and discussion.

For example, a recent article at EcoWatch focuses on fracking.

20141215scp.. Surreal Aerial Photos re fracking impacts, EcoWatch 12-15-14 article

(click on the image to view the article)

20141215cpy.. MishkaHenner pic, San-Andres-Oil-Field-Texas

San Andres oil field, Hockley County, Texas. Photo credit: Mishka Henner

20141215cpy.. MishkaHenner closeup pic, San-Andres-Oil-Field-Texas

San Andres oil field, Hockley County, Texas (detail). Photo credit: Mishka Henner

Another recent article at EcoWatch focuses on confined animal feedlots, common in many rural areas of the United States.

20141215scp.. Stunning Aerial Photos re factory fams, EcoWatch 11-28-14 article

(click on the image to view the article)

20141215cpy.. MishkaHenner pic, Feedyard in Randall County TX

Randall County Feedyard, Texas. Photo credit: Mishka Henner

Oddly, the trends have been against the right of individual citizens to use aerial imagery. For example, FAA has been aggressively threatening fines and sanctions against any individuals who might use drones for even trivial, hobby-like jobs. And, too, we are watching larger interests (such as ag corporations, police agencies, and energy companies) play their legislators to produce laws that make it illegal to photograph their activities, even when these same larger interests are clearly breaking the laws of the land.

Here is an excerpt from an article about Ag-Gag laws, Factory Food From Above: Satellite Images of Industrial Farms:

…Industrial farming, especially of animals, tends to be hidden from public view — and under so-called ag-gag laws, that secrecy could become law.

The laws, so far enacted by Utah, Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa and Missouri, make it illegal to take undercover photos or videos on farms. Some proposed ag-gag laws would also cover zoos and puppy mills, and would officially label anyone who breaks them as a terrorist.

How might images like Henner’s be affected by ag-gag laws? It’s not clear, said Matthew Liebman, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal advocacy group. Texas has no such law, so Henner’s images are safe. In states that do, they could be protected by legal recognition of satellite-level altitudes as public space. Under some proposed laws, though, gathering any imagery without farmer consent is a crime. Taking a snapshot of a feedlot from a window seat in a commercial jetliner would technically be illegal.

Public opinion may be turning against ag-gag laws. Of 11 proposed in state legislatures this year, each was either defeated or tabled until the next legislative session. Utah’s law is being challenged as unconstitutional. “Something’s wrong in the Land of the Free when the act of looking is itself being condemned and punished,” said Henner.

As things stand now, other countries such as China are way ahead of the U.S. For example, a June 2014 Bloomberg article, China Catches Industrial Polluters With Drone Missions, notes how the state there is catching  environmental crimes, commonly by steelmakers.

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