Nonprofit Scenic Utah opens 1st annual photo contest to fight state’s ‘visual pollution’

Stock image | Photo courtesy of Angelica Reyn, Pexels, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — From Ogden to St. George, billboards and unused structures stream up and down Interstate 15. 

Photo of a billboard beside a Utah road, Aug. 9, 2022 | Photo courtesy of Kara Hentrick, St. George News

Scenic Utah, a nonprofit organization aiming to cultivate Utah’s natural beauty, calls this “visual pollution.” The organization has taken new action in its efforts to reduce this by hosting a statewide photo contest, open to all public submissions.

There are six categories in the photo contest. Each category winner will be awarded a $50 photo printing at Nichols Photo Lab, a $50-value Cotopaxi backpack and a $50 gift card for Pictureline, Inc.

Anyone can submit photos for the contest on Scenic Utah’s website. Submissions close Sept. 1.

Kate Kopischke, Scenic Utah’s executive director, discussed with St. George News the contest and the organization’s purpose.

Describe each category of the contest.

“‘Off the Beaten Path’ is for lesser-known, remote or hard-to-reach places in our beautiful state — that don’t require trespassing or breaking other laws in order to photograph.”

“‘Scenic Night Skies’ is for astrophotography of all types.  Long exposures or quick shots of the stars with captivating silhouettes, and everything in between.”

“‘My Rural Roots’ is for the scenic farms and rural communities that celebrate Utah’s heritage.

“‘Town, City, and State Parks’ is for the parks you love to visit, whether they’re a block away or a road trip to the other end of the state.”

“‘Visual Pollution We Wish Would Go Away’ is for that billboard that makes your blood boil; the junk pile or deteriorating billboard in your neighborhood; those overhead power lines blocking an otherwise amazing view of the skyline … in other words, scenes you wish were different.”

“‘Community Character’ is the architecture, public art, garden, or other enchanting spots in the man-made environment that brings you joy and makes you love your community.”

Please elaborate a bit regarding “visual pollution.”

“Visual pollution is everything in a landscape that affects or disturbs the aesthetic quality of our natural and human-made landscapes. It’s ugliness in the environment, but it’s not just about aesthetics.  It’s a social problem that affects peoples’ quality of life, including our physical and mental health.  It also decreases property values and suppresses economic development.

“In some ways, it’s become so ubiquitous that people barely notice it. Things like overhead utilities, dilapidated structures, cell towers, graffiti, junk piles, and billboards are often just accepted as natural elements in an environment until you start pointing it out. People often tell us they never thought about it until someone else pointed out how ugly something is, like a billboard.”

How will participating in this photo contest aid in the fight against visual pollution in Southern Utah?

Photo of Canaan Mountain Wilderness Area, Utah, August 9, 2022 | Photo Courtesy of Jeff Clay, St. George News

 “Participating in the contest is one way people can help raise awareness about the growing visual pollution problem, and raising awareness is the first step toward changing sensibilities and policies. The scenic preservation movement is a visual one; people react to images, images of things and places they love and images of things and places that upset them.”

“An image of the scenic area around Leeds that’s obstructed by billboards advertising strip clubs and casinos is a more visceral pollution story that’s better than a written description. These are the stories we need help telling.”

What specific stretches of land in Southern Utah seem to be accumulating billboards?

“Some of the densest and most visually polluting concentrations of billboards are in Southern Utah – particularly the ones at the Beaver, Cedar City, and Hamilton Fort interchanges.”

“New billboards recently went up in Snowfield and Pintura. Washington County apparently decided to allow them because there’s a gravel pit nearby. Maybe their rationale was ‘it’s already ugly’ – but those are unfortunate additions to Southern Utah. There are controversial billboards in Tocqueville, Leeds and Washington.”

“In Sun River, back in the ’90s, when St. George denied a billboard request, the company gave a loan to the Shivwits Paiute to purchase 25 acres along I-15, in St. George city limits. The Shivwits got the BIA to hold the land in trust for the tribe, and the billboard company put in a handful of billboards that mostly advertise Nevada casinos.”

Why do they keep coming up? How can residents fight against the building of these billboards?

“Utah state laws are highly favorable to billboard companies. In fact, the legislature gives outdoor advertising companies special treatment and benefits that few other businesses enjoy.  Local governments have very little say in how billboards are regulated in their communities, because state laws override them.”

“The Highway Beautification Act is very clear that billboards are not allowed on agricultural lands, and it doesn’t allow ‘strip zoning’ for billboards. Counties and industry get around Highway Beautification Act regulations by putting up phony storage sheds and calling the land commercial. And in many places throughout Utah, they’re strip-zoning farmlands, with no costs or consequences.”

“Scenic Utah has been on the front line, raising these issues with lawmakers and local elected officials. We’ve offered help to communities, businesses, local governments to strengthen their ordinances and fight against unfair statutes.  

“For residents to take up the fight, it’s important that they work together on specific requests — bringing them to their local leaders and letting their state legislators know how billboards are impacting their neighborhoods, businesses and quality of life. It’s very difficult to effect change as an individual. The successes we’ve seen involve coalitions of neighbors or community groups who demand action.”

How has Southern Utah contributed in the past to Scenic Utah?

Stock image | Photo by
edb3_16/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

“In 2021, Senate Bill 61 was introduced which would have allowed all existing billboards across the state to be converted to digital. This was a pivotal moment in Scenic Utah’s work when the organization worked tirelessly to educate people about the implications of this statewide legislation.”

“There are many communities in Southern Utah that already ban billboards but can’t do anything about those grandfathered in.  Even in communities where new billboards are banned, this law would have made it possible for billboard companies to have lit-up video messages on any existing board.”

“We developed and distributed a primer statewide to all city and town planners and councils regarding local billboard ordinances because many of these issues are regulated on a local level.”

“One of our active board members, Ty Markham, lives in Torrey, Utah, and was instrumental in having Torrey designated as a dark sky community.  She was a founding member of Mormon Environmental Stewards.”

Updated August 11, 3:12 p.m.: Changed “Home Builders Association” to “Highway Beautification Act.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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