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Return to Middle Earth

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains, and then find somewhere where I can rest. In peace and quiet, without a lot of relatives prying around, and a string of confounded visitors hanging on the bell. I might find somewhere where I can finish my book. I have thought of a nice ending for it: and he lived happily ever after to the end of his days.” – J.R.R. Tolkien


Autumn is, without a doubt, my favorite season. The light is longer, even warm days have a different tone, birds make their escape to warmer climates, and to paraphrase Gretel Ehrlich, the beautiful changing leaves are the verbs that conjugate the seasons. Autumn is almost certainly the time of the year I am the happiest.

Although I should have been working on my Wilderness Project, I opted to start the season by escaping to the high country. In hopes of getting a much-needed taste of Autumn, last week I visited the Tushar Mountains, a small mountain range in central Utah. I arrived right as a fall storm was moving out of the area. In the days before my visit, it had deposited a skiff of fresh snow in the higher parts of the range. Elk were bugling in the thickets, and aspens had begun to turn. Autumn was definitely in the air!

detail of a high altitude hillside in the tushar mountains of southern utah

We first visited this lovely mountain range in July. Always struck by the way a landscape can affect–or speak to–a person, I knew instantly the Tushars had claimed another victim in me. These mountains are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Broad high altitude ridge lines, stout peaks, steep canyons, and verdant hanging valleys (“pockets”) remind me of something from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The way the light played on the ridges and snowfields extending from the summit of Delano Peak (12,169′)–the highest point in the Tushars–was simply magical. Yup, I knew I had to go back.

The Tushars are a volcanic mountain range that sit on the ecological cusp of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. They are geologically interesting; two separate volcanic events have shaped them, erosion has worn them down, and glaciers have carved their canyons. The Toquima Mountains in Nevada and the San Juan Mountains in Colorado are also good examples of  volcanic ranges. The Tushars’ white peaks–formed by ash flow–stand in stark contrast to the darker volcanic rock of the lower canyons.

photo of a small waterfall and colorful aspen trees in front of two mountains peaks in utah's tushar mountains

photo of a volcanic rock outcropping at sunrise in beaver canyon, utah

Although they are beautiful and unique, images don’t present themselves easily. Because of their nature, you don’t find majestic skylines like you would in the Tetons. To the casual traveler viewing the Tushar Mountains for the first time, they look nondescript…not especially noteworthy. As they say though, most things worth getting to know require a bit of time. The US Forest Service, which manages the public lands in the Tushars (part of the Fishlake National Forest), has a trail system in the Tushars, and off-trail travel is easy. Thus, it’s easy to “choose your own adventure.”


In addition to what was mostly solo hiking, I enjoyed talking with a couple of mountain goat hunters, locals whose families had been in the Tushars for generations. I was also fortunate to connect with a local landscape photographer, Brady Nay, who spent a day hiking with me and showing me some of the places he grew up with. It is always nice to meet other photographers whose images are driven by a sense of connection to a particular landscape. Brady’s certainly are, and it was a really fun day to explore some of the canyons in the Tushars with him. Whether it’s hunting or photography, public lands really do bind us all together.

a two-tiered waterfall with pale rock and bright green moss in the tushar mountains of southern utah

photo of a hunter leading his horse off of a snow-covered slope in the tussah mountains of southern utah

Wherever autumn finds you, I hope you find someplace you can rest, in peace and quiet, to enjoy the season’s best!

2016 year in review

Monday, December 26th, 2016

As I write this, Christmas is only a couple of days away, rain is falling outside, and I’m putting together my favorite photos of the year feeling a bit of disbelief that another trip around the sun has already passed. In many ways, the past twelve months have represented contrast, a dichotomy. The world lost several great and inspiring artists this year, but I feel lucky to have discovered new artists who are a source of inspiration. Another contrast is the current state of division that the United States is ending the year in, but personally I feel more complete–less divided–that I’ve felt in quite some time.

Photographically, 2016 was one of contrasts as well. My travels between the desert and the coast really underscored this; two dramatically different landscapes, have–in their own way–become home to me. I finally put together a small (but growing) portfolio of ocean images this year, and of course expanded my portfolios of the deserts and mountains. Of course, in addition to new friends, I was able to enjoy these places with old friends. My girlfriend and I enjoyed several camping trips along the California coast, and I got to introduce her to some of my favorite desert landscapes. A couple of great backcountry trips with Jackson Frishman helped to strengthen my affinity for Great Basin landscapes.

To that end, contrast has certainly been a theme this year as I chose my favorite images for this annual year-end retrospective. I also have been thinking a lot about the role of landscape photography as art.  In 2016, it became more apparent to me the threats that face public lands (see my blog posts here and here), and producing art that changes the way people see the world seems more important now than ever. My friend Mark Hespenheide’s artist statement continues to resonate with me in this regard:

“Mediocre landscape photography can only reinforce the ideas about nature that we already hold. Good landscape photography can introduce us to new ways of seeing the world. Truly great landscape photography can change the way we perceive our place in the world and the way we interact with the world.”

May we all produce a truly great body of work in 2017.

bosque del apache snow geese fly in

Snow geese at dawn, Bosque del Apache NWR, January

 

montaña de oro beach

Montaña de Oro, California, June

 

Sunset in western Nevada

Sunset in western Nevada, January

 

navajo national monument sunrise

Sunrise in northern Arizona, August

 

Wildflowers in Death Valley, January

 

jalama beach sunset

Pacific Ocean sunset, June

 

Escalante River Sunset

Sunset over southern Utah, March

 

Clouds and fog in the San Gabriel Mountains at sunset

San Gabriel Mountains, November

 

winter storm and dark clouds over the salt playa in columbus valley nevada

Winter storm in western Nevada, January

 

white pine mountains sunset

Sunset in eastern Nevada’s White Pine Mountains, August

 

black and white image of the funeral mountains in death valley national park

Storm in Death Valley, January

Past images of the year:

2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015

Photography and Public Lands, a continuation

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

In my last blog post, I expressed a somewhat emotional response to the current threats facing our Western public lands. In this post, I’d like to provide a bit of context to some of the current threats, as well as the land transfer movement in general. It’s an especially complicated web of interactions and is really difficult to sum up in one blog post, so consider this an introduction. I believe that an understanding of these issues are something any Westerner should be aware of, as well as anyone working in the West (which includes landscape photographers, who have a vested interest in the preservation of wild space).

A look at our nation’s history

To understand what’s happening now in the West, we have to go back to 1862, and the passage of the first of the Homestead Acts. The Homestead Acts awarded 40-acre parcels of public land at little or no cost to homesteaders who were willing to improve it for agriculture for a period of 5 years.  Because most of the public land lied in the West, this basically amounted to the opening of the frontier, especially in the wake of the Civil War, when later Homestead Acts were passed.

As anyone who has spent any time in the West can attest, it’s a hardscrabble place with little rainfall, and it’s difficult to make a living here. So, it’s no surprise that many lands were left unclaimed because of the barriers the landscape presented. Combine this with the entry of two large Western states–Arizona and New Mexico–into the union in 1913, and the federal government was left with a huge amount of public land to manage. Although the soil may not have been conducive to farming, and (lack of) rainfall may not have made grazing easy, minerals and timber were abundant, so the government ultimately created the US Forest Service (1905) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM; 1946) to manage much of these resources, and to ease the burden on the Department of Interior, which oversees the National Park Service.

Let’s think about this for a moment. One of the things many Westerners identify with is a rugged individualism, the settling of the wild frontier. When the frontier opened during the nation’s reconstruction and the US government was basically giving parcels of land for free, Western culture laid down its roots. Within several decades, the US government, who was now in control of most public lands in the West (and still is, see the map below), needed a management plan. From the point of view of many homesteaders, this amounted to the government saying, “We gave you this land, and you settled it, but now we’re going to tell you how we want it managed.”

Map of public lands in the united states of america

Most of the nation’s public lands are in the West. Public Domain image downloaded from Wikipedia

As you can imagine, a homesteader who was suddenly being told how the land they had been mining, or grazing their cattle on might be a little bit upset. So, to some extent there’s always been some level of anti-government sentiment in the West, which has been compounded by people who move to the West for added seclusion and an increased sense of isolationism. Indeed, such high profile incidents as Ruby Ridge, and even the car bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 have either directly or indirectly been the result of rugged individualism clashing with government oversight.

Land transfer & the Sagebrush Rebellion

While private development is not usually allowed on public lands, grazing allotments can be leased, there are some mining claims, and of course recreation is allowed such as hiking, rock climbing, photography, and hunting and fishing, although specific rules vary somewhat depending on the management agency, etc. For instance, no hunting or fishing is allowed in national parks.

In 1932, the federal government did try to transfer land back to the states, but in post-Depression America, states were concerned about having the funds to manage the lands effectively, etc. As a result they stayed under federal control. Today, the federal government pays states for the land that cannot be developed, and as a result, taxed. These payments in lieu of taxes can be a significant revenue generator for certain counties that have a large proportion of public land.  Similarly, other sources of income like the ones resulting from the Taylor Grazing Act are important for certain counties (see reference below).

In 1976, in an effort to more explicitly regulate some of the above-mentioned activities on federal lands, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) that officially ended homesteading and formalized processes for regulating activities on federal lands, specifically those administered by the BLM. Within a year, the FLPMA had drawn enough ire from ranchers and miners that legislation was introduced into Congress that would transfer some land back to the states with the idea being that the land could be managed more directly for the sake of individual interests there.  This legislation–which was introduced twice but did not pass–was the birth of a movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion.

Where are we now?

Since the late 1970s the Sagebrush Rebellion hasn’t really garnered much attention per se, although there have been some very high profile incidents that revolve around the federal government and disagreements with private citizens (The standoff at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon are two of the most well known). Despite the fact none of these incidents have resulted in major legislative changes, there is the argument that they really are counterproductive to their stated original intent (see here and here), driving wedges where they don’t really belong.

That ‘stated original intent’ is also a bit cloudy. When you dig into the web of what’s morphed from the Sagebrush Rebellion into the Land Transfer Movement, things get confusing fast. Ranchers aren’t the only concerned parties it seems, but militia members and “alt-right” conservatives also seem to have a vested interest in returning public land to the states or private parties. Similarly, members of Congress also have ties to groups like the American Lands Council (which has a misleading name but is the biggest proponent of the Land Transfer Movement).

Most recently, representative Rob Bishop from Utah introduced the Public Lands Initiative to Congress, which would have returned public lands in Utah to state control; fortunately it was not voted on before Congress ended their session in late 2016, effectively killing the bill.

Sunrise at Grandview Point, in the white mountains of eastern california

What’s the big deal, and what next?

With all of these failed attempts to return Western public lands to state control, why should you care? There are several reasons.  First, the vocal minority who are perpetrating the highest-profile standoffs with government officials are becoming increasingly violent. Threats to public lands employees are becoming more common. Second, while this legislation has failed in the past, it doesn’t mean it always will. Rob Bishop is the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and advocates development of Utah’s wild places. Sooner or later, he’ll catch the ear of influential people who can make things happen. This is underscored by the fact that it’s becoming clearer that the Land Transfer Movement is incredibly well funded.

Lands transferred to state or private control do stand a higher chance of oil and gas or large scale mining development, among other things. This would make it more difficult to pass legislation fighting global warming, and thus would set heartbreaking precedents, and do irreversible damage to our Western landscapes. A common response I’ve seen to these threats on social media is, “It’ll never happen!” Maybe not, but the stakes are simply too high to sit back and assume it won’t happen.

There is hope, though. Although a vocal minority is favor of the transfer of Western public lands, the majority of Westerners are not. This was well illustrated just last month in Nevada’s general election as well as in the Montana governor’s race. As Westerners we all need to be educated, and see through the politics, and look for common ground together. Very few of us would disagree that there is room on public lands for everyone–grazing interests, hunters, photographers, backpackers, etc. None of us want these magnificent landscapes spoiled.

As photographers what can we do?  I have several ideas. First, you can donate your images to worthy nonprofit groups (e.g., the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance or Grand Canyon Trust). If that is financially prohibitive, consider donating a portion of your proceeds to these causes, or to the support of quality journalism. Second, tap into your local community. Learn what the land use issues are, and how your images can support groups advocating for your position. Similarly, take advantage of public comment periods on these issues (and use your images to support your comments).  Third, build bridges outside of your box. Hunters and anglers are equally as vested in the land as you are–how can your images help advocate for issues important to them?

This is just a start–feel free to offer more ideas in the comments.

sunrise on currant mountain, near ely nevada

References

Read the Homestead Act of 1862 here.

An in-depth history of in-lieu programs for western federal lands can be found here.

Read the Federal Land Policy and Management Act here.