A world-renowned National Geographic photographer was arrested on June 28th after paragliding over a Kansas cattle feedlot to take photos.
George Steinmetz‘s speciality is aerial photography. Strapped into a paraglider, he captures stunning images ranging from desert vistas to African savannahs. It wasn’t unusual that he was once again aloft on June 28th, flying high over a feedlot near Garden City, Kansas to capture images for his current project on food issues.
Unfortunately, Steinmetz and his paraglider instructor, Wei Zhang, apparently didn’t get permission from the landowner to park their vehicle on its property or to launch their paraglider from there.
A feedlot employee reportedly noticed the paraglider circling above the facility, as well as the unfamiliar vehicle parked on the property, and alerted the local police. Steinmetz and Zhang moved to a different location, but were arrested anyway.
County law enforcement officials took Steinmetz and Zhang into custody and charged them with misdemeanor criminal trespass. They were held briefly and released after posting $270 bond.
“We had an obligation to the property owner, since they had driven on the property without permission and it was clearly posted,” Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue told NorthJersey.com.
Since Steinmetz did not coordinate his overflight or picture taking with the feedlot, the operators had no way of knowing why he was up there. The Kansas Livestock Association (KLA) believes this easily could have been a food security issue.
KLA spokesman Todd Domer told Hutch News that a situation like this is a biosecurity matter for the facility. “Any unauthorized and suspicious activity should be reported to local law enforcement,” he said.
So far, this is not an “ag-gag” case, though the buzz surrounding the circumstances gives it that feel. In 1990, Kansas passed the United States’ first “ag-gag” law, known as the Kansas Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act. Among other things, it prohibits individuals from entering and taking pictures or video in an animal facility that is not open to the public.
Whether Steinmetz could be charged under the state’s “ag-gag” law is questionable. By flying over the facility, did he “enter” the property? There’s no clear answer. The issue of how far above the ground ownership of property legally extends remains unsettled.
According to an article prompted by this incident at Slate.com, the federal government considers the area above 500 feet to be navigable airspace in uncongested areas. Arguably, this means private ownership of airspace “probably ends somewhere between 80 and 500 feet above the ground.” This factor may be why the charges against Steinmetz and Zhang so far have not included an “ag-gag” allegation in addition to trespassing.
The Finney County Office of the County Attorney released a statement clarifying the nature of the charges in this case, which said:
Much discussion has ensued surrounding the arrest of Mr. Steinmetz and his employee regarding the right to air space and to take photographs. The charges in no way are related to those two issues and focus on the landowners right to privacy and control over their property.
A well-publicized attempted prosecution for violation of a state “ag-gag” law occurred earlier this year in Utah. Activist Amy Meyer was arrested and charged with violation of Utah’s law for standing on a public street and using her cell phone to videotape a bulldozer being used to move a downed cow. After much public outcry, authorities dropped the charges.
It’s not yet clear what the future holds for George Steinmetz. He apparently noted in an interview some time ago that he has been arrested before while taking aerial photographs, so this adventure may be familiar territory to him.
National Geographic issued a statement that said, in part: “We believe [Steinmetz] did not break any laws and have reached out to local officials about the incident. We are awaiting more information. If the matter does require legal action, National Geographic will provide for his and his assistant’s defense.”
Photo Credit: Thinkstock