Friday, July 12, 2013

Airborne photographer lands — in local jail: National Geographic freelancer, paragliding instructor charged after flight over Kansas feedlot

An early-morning photo shoot across a landscape of cattle landed a world-renowned freelance photographer for National Geographic in jail.

Well, at least briefly.

George Steinmetz, 55, of Glenn Ridge, N.J., was flying in a paraglider as he snapped photographs from the air of a feedlot at Brookover Ranch Feed Yards in Garden City. Waiting on the ground by an SUV was Wei Zhang, 39, of Beijing, China, a self-employed paraglider instructor.

Steinmetz is known for photographing the world's deserts while piloting a motorized paraglider, which resembles a lawn chair with a motor behind the seat and a parachute on top for sailing through the air. Many of his photographs have landed in National Geographic magazine, including a series depicting post-Gadhafi Libya.

In that case, according to Steinmetz's website, he got an "unusual permit to fly his motorized paraglider over parts of the country that had been impossible four years earlier."

However, this time, Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue said, Steinmetz and Zhang didn't have permission to be on the private property where the paraglider launched.

"The property owner called because two guys were parked on the property — they drove onto Brookover Ranch land, where it's clearly posted, 'No Trespassing,'" Bascue said.

Nor did they tell anyone they were going to be taking photos from the air over a county feedlot filled with thousands of cattle, causing concern from industry officials that it could be a potential food security issue.

A Brookover employee saw Steinmetz. He advised Bascue and his deputies that a subject who was flying over the feedlot taking pictures was trespassing and that there was an SUV on the ranch property. Steinmetz and Zhang, meanwhile, moved south of the area to a different location, but feedlot executives still wanted the two men arrested for trespassing.

"We made contact with the individuals and arrested them for criminal trespass," Bascue said. "We had an obligation to the property owner, since they had driven on the property without permission and it was clearly posted."

While just a misdemeanor, the two were held in Finney County Jail briefly and each paid a $270 bond to be released the same day on June 28.

"It's now in the county attorney's hands," Bascue said.

Finney County Attorney Susan Richmeier was unavailable for comment.

It does bring up an issue of what is trespassing in the air, said Kansas Livestock Association attorney Aaron Popelka.

After all, hundreds of thousands of cattle are fattening in a 100-mile radius around Garden City, and such incidents could turn into a food security issue — especially in an era where agri-terrorism is a threat.

Steinmetz was circling around the feedlot and taking photographs — not flying straight across it, Popelka said. Criminal statute, however, Popelka said, doesn't define how far land goes — in this case, how far up. Moreover, while Congress has authorized flights and air travel, the photographer wasn't engaging in air travel to pass through on a public air highway.

"This was a low-level entry with intent to remain in that space," he said.

"A case could be made here," Popelka said, but added it was up to the county attorney to decide what exactly to do in the situation.

KLA spokesman Todd Domer said the group continues to stress to its members to be watchful — and this incident is a good reminder the importance of being alert in an effort to provide a safe product for the food supply.

"Any unauthorized and suspicious activity should be reported to local law enforcement," he said, noting such activity is a biosecurity issue for the facility.

Such incidents have the potential to create safety issues for employees and animals, which is why feed yards want visitors to check in when they arrive on the grounds.

"Everyone knows safe food starts with healthy animals," Domer said. "We have to have those animals healthy in order to produce a safe food supply."

Beth Foster, a spokeswoman for National Geographic, said the organization was aware of the incident. She said it was the group's policy that photographers obey the law wherever they are working.

"One of our attorneys did have a conversation with the county attorney's office on July 3, but at that time, the county attorney had no information on the status of the charges," Foster said.

The magazine will provide defense for Steinmetz and his assistant, if necessary, she added.

"We don't believe he broke the law," Foster said.

Steinmetz, a veteran National Geographic freelance photographer, was working on a series about food that will be published sometime in early 2014.

"He's one of our best," she said.

Steinmetz could not be reached for comment.


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