Posts Tagged ‘Atlantic Monthly’

Book Review – Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks

April 27th, 2018

Book Review

Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks by Q. T. Luong

The Ethics of Protecting and Promoting Our National Parks

Cover of Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks by Q. T. Luong. (Click to view large.)

Americans invented National Parks and in return, National Parks and other wild lands of the new continent shaped Americans. Yet the influence of cities and automobiles has eclipsed that of the national parks in all ways except through our collective imagination and grandest vision of all that makes up an ideal civilization. We must be careful to perpetuate these fragile image ties to our wilderness past, or forever lose our identity as part of nature. Maintaining this vision will also ensure our national parks remain wilderness untrammeled. Otherwise, we lose the piece of our core selves closest to our heart.

The age-old debate still rages over whether to invite more people out to enjoy nature and thus develop a larger fan base, or keep quiet and try to stop people from increasing the wear, tear, vandalism and man-made infrastructure necessary to simultaneously maintain access and protect our national treasures.

“For every place there will always be people that want to exploit it,” my father, pioneer conservation photographer Philip Hyde said. “And, there will always be people—hopefully—that want to save it and keep it as it is. Even with the risk of inviting the crowds into paradise, better to publish your photographs and rally the troops. What’s in the frame of the photograph matters artistically, to be sure, but what’s outside the frame can destroy it.” Later in life, in the early years of the millennium, after hearing how overrun and trampled certain locations had become, Dad said he still wondered whether his books benefitted or harmed nature.

The Advantages of Large Format Film and of a Well-Written Text

Grand Teton from Schwabacher Landing, Midday, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming by Q. T. Luong from Treasured Lands. (Click to see large.)

If this best in class large format book, Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, with text and photography by Quang-Tuan Luong were a film, it would win multiple Academy Awards as one of the best efforts ever for recruiting new national park fans and encouraging old fans to renew themselves through new visits. My impression is that Mr. Luong accomplished such a masterpiece through sheer will, discipline and diligence.

When you open Treasured Lands for the first time you revel in the sublime realism and beauty that can only be achieved by large format film or a $40,000 digital camera rendered through the subtle, well-balanced color palette of a well reproduced photography book. To be fair, Tuan Luong informed me that the photographs in the book were not all made with a large format camera. Nonetheless, they all exhibit large format acumen by the photographer and they all have an unmistakeable large format aesthetic, portraying the full spectrum of nature, rather than nature dressed up only on her best day.

To accompany this colossal collection of effective and moving illustrations, Q. T. Luong wrote a text that flows and delivers just as well as the images. His punchy prose keeps your interest. It is loaded with facts, but not everyday facts, novel, captivating facts, figures and surprising observations that give you the feeling of having smartly and efficiently obtained the essence of each place. Just starting at page one and turning a few pages to the contents showing all the parks, I felt like I had already embarked on an adventure. I was learning, absorbing and celebrating our national heritage. I held in my hands all the parks in one monster volume.

Art, Propaganda and Photograph Location Disclosure

Cannonball and Badlands at Night, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota by Q. T. Luong from Treasured Lands. (Click to see Large.)

But is it art? Critics and others might ask. I would say the book itself is a work of art, the photographs are mainly documentary but contain artistic elements, some of them more than others. Some art critics might say the book is propaganda. They might perceive it as a kind of glorified guide book because Luong provides specific directions to each of his compositions in each park. Some art connoisseurs, gallerists and museum curators consider any art that is not solely for the sake of art itself is propaganda. This traces back to critics John Szarkowski and Nancy Newhall, as instigated by Ansel Adams and Beaumont Newhall around the time they co-founded the first museum photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Ansel Adams in workshops and his student and teaching associate Philip Hyde in a number of places, both in writing and in interviews spoke against giving directions to image locations. Both photography mentors felt the practice inhibited student resourcefulness and creativity, as well as hobbling the development of individual vision. I usually tend to agree with Dad and Ansel and believe these details are a flaw in Treasured Lands.

However, times have changed and photography in many cases is self-taught or no longer taught with the same rigor. Many photographers today find location specifics an asset and have praised Treasured Lands most of all for this reason. Either way, still today the best guidebooks offer suggestions and ideas, but do not give exact specifics. Nonetheless, even for purists like me, Luong somehow gets away with providing specific directions because the sheer scope of his undertaking and achievement force us to take him seriously as more than a mere tour guide. To go with the directions, I would have liked to see an outdoor ethics statement, or the Leave No Trace Principles. However, between the photographs and text, Luong portrays and describes these natural places with such reverence and admiration that his readers will hopefully take on at least some of his tone and outlook, which will hopefully cause them to treat our amazing national treasures with respect.

With new adventures on every page turn, my resistance to location disclosure fell away almost immediately under the sheer power of what I was seeing and reading. Unfortunately, I did find the maps a bit hard to read due to their tiny type font. However, I enjoyed reading how to reach a smattering of the photo locations. Meanwhile for the most part I became caught up in reading other content, which while obviously extensive and geologically rich, came accessibly served up in one to two page bytes. These are rewarding and satisfying because each section acts in part like a mini-tour of the park it covers. The text is well thought out, well-organized, captivating, diverse and packed with actionable instructions and tips to make your travels more enjoyable and photographically productive.

The Many Reasons Treasured Lands Is Not Propaganda

Haleakala Crater from White Hill, Midday, Haleakala National Park, Hawaii by Q. T. Luong from Treasured Lands. (Click to see Large.)

Regardless, I have other reasons not to dismiss Treasured Lands as mere propaganda. At face value, rather than feeling commercially viable at all, Treasured Lands feels so heavy in weight, so chock full of striking imagery and so bulging with smart information that once you have it in your hands you feel that you have made a great deal to have it for under $100. The publisher’s retail is $65 for an autographed copy from TreasuredLandsBooks.com. Currently you can even get it for as little as $44.19 with free shipping from Amazon.

Large two-page evening panoramas sprinkled across the pages bring the parks depicted into vivid awareness while taking us partially into abstraction with the extreme light and shadows of dusk. Sweeping vistas throughout the book give a sense of place and overwhelm us with the vastness and remoteness of wilderness. Luong visited many of the parks multiple times, which translates to years of hard work, days and nights of grinding travel in all conveyances and over all manner of terrain, which also translates into daunting logistics and planning.

By no means did Q. T. Luong make the expected photographs of each or even many of the national parks. In Lassen Volcanic National Park, as one example of many, he skipped the most popular views, especially of the mountain, but with the exquisite detail and texture of large format film he captured frames that showed the character of the park just as well without being cliché. In discussions with other photographers, I found most of them said that the book has a good balance between more innovative images and what some might call “the obvious shots” that are all but required to identify certain landmarks in some parks. Besides, in the visual arts people are drawn to at least a nuance, if not a good amount of familiarity, as Atlantic editor Derek Thompson points out in his book, Hit Makers. Hits are made from images that look new, but also remind us of other images before in some way.

Some of the Best Illustrative Landscape Photographs Ever Made

Cove of Arches and Cove Arch at night. Arches National Park, Utah by Q. T. Luong from Treasured Lands. (Click to see Large.)

Speaking of hits, in some of the national parks, Luong managed to make what I consider some of the best photographs ever made of certain areas. This was true in a number of unexpected places such as in Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite, where Luong shows us the only photograph I have ever seen that lives up to the early 1900s Bureau of Reclamation vision of what the reservoir would look like, as sold to the American public. Pinnacles National Park is challenging to photograph. Perhaps his many visits enabled Luong to do something extra special there by knowing the most striking compositions and capitalizing on the best possible light. In the Sierra, he photographed snow caked on Giant Sequoia trunks, but did it better than it has been done before, with more majesty and more mood. I love Luong’s photograph of Alabama Hills. It is more about the Sierra Crest and the terrain, than any gimmicky cliché pseudo-arch foreground window framing the distant peaks. Luong omits the Merced River altogether in Yosemite, except in the higher elevation roaring cascades below Vernal Falls.

The differences between documentary and art photography are blurring anyway, but Luong is perhaps one of those who push the two definitions inward toward each other. His photographs for Treasured Lands overall are documentary, but even the most representational and least creative works are artistically strong and well seen from a design perspective with luscious forms and beautiful lines. It is quite evident that Luong has studied the great works of photography and art and applied what he has observed. Documentary, almost standard issue images that essentially say, “Ok, here we are at Joshua Tree,” are the best working basis for a large book on all of the national parks. However, Luong keeps his book fresh by mixing in nighttime photographs, ridge silhouettes, a few wildly tilted horizons and other Pictorialist effects such as slow shutter speeds for silky water, movement blurs and wind blurs. Luong also puts in the extra effort and expense to provide variety in other ways by getting up in airplanes, scaling mountain peaks, climbing walls, swimming underwater, chartering various boats horses, burros and other unusual transportation. Meanwhile, he also mixes in enough expected imagery such as the lava dripping into the ocean in Hawaii, Tunnel View from Yosemite, the Teton Barn, Mt. Denali and Wonder Lake and the circular petroglyphs on Signal Hill near the Tucson Mountains in Saguaro National Park.

Realism, Hard Work, Diligence, Feedback, Revisions and Quality

Margerie Glacier from Tarr Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska by Q. T. Luong from Treasured Lands. (Click to see Large.)

Another significant reason large format film was the ideal medium for this national parks project lies in how the high fidelity gives reflections, textures and details a much more interesting and realistic look. With large format, a nature photographer can go after and make ordinary objects extraordinary. The resulting photographs also work better when they contain flaws and extra grit, rather than having to be sterilized by over retouching in Photoshop. For example: I love that Luong left the house in his Zion photograph of Towers of the Virgin. Many digital photographers take it out of their images of this iconic location. The large format color is also so lush and true without any false-rendering of tones or over-saturation.

Part of what lifted up the text and images to far above average, was the amount of advice and feedback Quang-Tuan Luong asked for along the way. He was wise to get Gary Crabbe to help him edit the photographs and to get advice from many other experts at each stage in the production process. The first time Tuan and I met in San Jose, he asked me for ideas on how he could come out with yet another national parks book and make it different from any that had been done before. This was a smart question to ask about such a book and a good place to start in attracting my interest and participation. My first answer was that we do not need another book on the national parks. However, as I began to think about how Tuan opened himself up to input and ideas, I felt I had to offer more. Besides, when he asked me about making it a guidebook for photographers as well as a picture book for everyone else, I told him I did not like guidebooks. Some help I was. Yet he patiently and gently persisted in asking more questions and asking me to read some of his text. I agreed to do so, somewhat reluctantly. It took me a long time to offer much feedback, but as I began to, I saw that Tuan had put a great deal of thought and effort into the project, the text no less than the photography. As the book took shape and began to emerge from the realm of ideas, the quiet strength of what he was doing became evident. Let this be a word of caution to all aspiring creative people out there: never give up on what you love or on your big idea just because it has been done before. Do it better. Q. T. Luong certainly did and the world and the field are far richer for it. However, he did it not by force of will or ego, but through good listening. Remember that too, above all else. He also did it with kindness and generosity. My copy of Treasured Lands is the limited edition version that Tuan personally sent me. He numbered it by hand 77 of 150, signed it and wrote me a personal note. How cool is that?

A Tribute to the American Land, the Art of Place and Our National Heritage That Will Live On

Cypress trees Reflected in Cedar Creek from Canoe, Congaree National Park, South Carolina by Q. T. Luong from Treasured Lands. (Click to see Large.)

It may be due to the large format camera, or perhaps Luong and his sensibilities, or all three, regardless an outstanding sense of place permeates every page of Treasured Lands. Many are close behind, but the national park depictions deserving the most recognition in establishing place in my opinion are Cuyahoga Valley, Death Valley, Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Great Sand Dunes, Guadalupe Mountains, Haleakala and Yellowstone. In Yellowstone, Luong includes Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs and a fairly unique framing of Yellowstone Falls, but also shows us many locations with which we are not familiar. In Death Valley, Luong gives us perhaps more of the usual images than in other places, but the additional images show us so much more as to render the place very well overall. Luong exhibits a certain flair for Alaska as his images in each of the parks there for the most part are both unexpected and extraordinary in the lexicon of all landscape photographs.

Q. T. Luong’s massive work consists of not so much a single unity of style, but of several style themes that run throughout the book. This cohesiveness is quite an accomplishment for a project that took so many years to complete. With all of the elements that went into making the book creating a synergy that lifts it above other work in the genre, it also transcends its minor shortcomings, or perceived structural flaws that we readers bring to it based on our own biases.

The sheer volume of work, in and of itself is impressive, but the consistent quality and exemplary execution make Treasured Lands a truly monumental achievement. Even as the son of Philip Hyde, or perhaps especially as the son of Philip Hyde, I am going to go out on a limb and say that Treasured Lands is one of the greatest large format landscape photography books ever published. It will live on and influence photographers for years and perhaps even generations to come. These statements, considering what has been accomplished in the genre before, hopefully transcend anything else I could say, or have said above, whether critical or supportive.

Book Review: Picturing America’s National Parks

September 1st, 2016

Book Review: Picturing America’s National Parks by George Eastman Museum Assistant Curator Jamie M. Allen

Cover of "Picturing America's National Parks" by Jamie M. Allen (2016).

Cover of “Picturing America’s National Parks” by Jamie M. Allen (2016). (Click on Image to See Larger.)

Landscape Photography Classics and Much More

To accompany the George Eastman Museum exhibition, Photography and America’s National Parks, the Eastman Museum and Aperture Foundation teamed up to publish assistant curator Jamie M. Allen’s new comprehensive book on the history of photography in our nation’s parks called Picturing America’s National Parks.

The George Eastman show, made up of the work of more than 50 photographers from all eras in the history of photography, includes landscape photography greats such as Ansel Adams, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Imogen Cunningham, John K. Hillers, Philip Hyde, William Henry Jackson, the Kolb Brothers, Eadweard J. Muybridge, Eliot Porter, Bradford Washburn, Carleton E. Watkins, Edward Weston and Minor White, as well as a good number of other renowned photographers who also happened to make exposures in the National Parks such as George Eastman, Andreas Feininger, Lee Friedlander, Johan Hagemeyer, Martin Parr, Stephen Shore, Garry Winogrand and others. The exhibition has also turned out to be one of the most popular and prominent museum shows of the year.

You See It “Everywhere”

As such, during the run of the exhibit from June 4 – October 2, 2016, Photography and America’s National Parks has enjoyed significant publicity, while the book, Picturing America’s National Parks, already has attracted even greater press exposure. The exhibition or the book or both were introduced or reviewed in Antiques Magazine, Outdoor Photographer magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Aperture, Real Clear Life, the Rochesteriat, the Nature Conservancy magazine, the Rochester City Newspaper, Smithsonian Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune Magazine, Museum of Photographic Arts, Visit Rochester, The Atlantic, Tween Tribune, Artsy, Outside Magazine, AnOther magazine, Mother Jones magazine, USA Today, Yahoo News, Slate, Audubon magazine, Artbook, Travel & Leisure magazine, Pop Photo, and many others. The book can be found online to purchase, borrow or to read more reviews at Amazon.com, Aperture Foundation, Target.com, Bookshop.com, eBay, Google Play, Library Resource Finder, Sweet, Abelardo Morell, Schaumburg Library, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art bookshop, Worldcat, Fraser Muggeridge Studio, Loot, LibraryThing, Lenscratch, Photolucida, ALA Booklist, Beyond Words, PDN Online and many, many others too deep in Google search results to track down.

Fascinating, Well-Written and Leavened With Significant Detail

Like her pre-show introductory article in Antiques magazine, assistant Curator Jamie M. Allen’s main essay in the book is well written, smooth flowing and easy to read, yet packed with interesting history of both the national parks and early photography in them. The rest of the book displays the photographs with titles and an accompanying text for each of the featured photographers, interspersed with several paragraphs at a time on various historically relevant points such as the invention of the mass produced Kodak camera, the increase in availability of the automobile, the development of photomechanical and photolithographic postcards for sale at park concessions, 18-by-60-foot Colorama photo advertisements for the national parks, caretakers in the national parks and the National Park Service’s social media campaign #findyourpark.

Interspersed with the images from each major contributor at approximately every 16 pages, a timeline page provides the reader with significant dates in the history of photography and the history of the national parks. These timeline pages are loaded with fascinating tidbits that enrich the reading experience of the book. Despite many details included, the timelines present history in general, broad strokes. There are significant points of history, especially of the parks that are not detailed, but this would require a much larger, more difficult to read book.

A Popular Populist Approach

Ms. Jamie M. Allen approaches her subject from a populist perspective, which is somewhat unusual for a museum curator. More than one of the reviews of Picturing America’s National Parks said it was a comprehensive history of photography in the national parks. This is partly true, depending on the definitions of these terms. On a more close reading though, I would say that this volume is not necessarily the history of fine art photography or landscape photography in the national parks, but it could more accurately be described as the history of all photography in the national parks, or a history of cameras and images of any kind from any source made in the national parks.

This populist view of photography in the national parks puts significant emphasis on the various ways that photographs have helped to establish, preserve, depict and popularize the national parks. Allen observes that the history of the national parks is inextricably intertwined with the history of photography. After reading this inspiring book, I would go beyond saying that photography helped popularize the national parks to say that apparently the national parks helped popularize photography. In the development of the West, Allen points out that images produced on location at several of the most popular parks such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite became a hot commodity. A cottage industry in photograph sales developed with photographers establishing small shops where tourists could purchase various types of photographic reproductions of the scenery they had enjoyed during their visit and in some cases purchase photos of themselves in the scenery.

Intertwining Histories of National Parks and Photography

The development of postcards, the snapshot camera and many other aspects of photography that were popular rather than professional, were a large part of the story of the intertwining histories. In addition these aspects make a more interesting read than a mere compilation of the great photographers who have depicted the national parks. Because some of the professionals have been left out, the collection of photographs represented acts less as a survey of those famous for photographing the parks and more as a compilation of famous people and ordinary people who also made images in the national parks.

Both the exhibition and the book tie all of this history into current trends by bringing to light the masses of images and selfies made each day and shared hourly on social media. However, Allen and the Eastman Museum go beyond the mere mention of this phenomenon, to incorporating it as an activity at the exhibit. In the entryway to the show a photograph of the Grand Canyon containing a life-sized figure of George Eastman standing on the rim gives visitors to the show an opportunity to make a selfie with Mr. Eastman and the Grand Canyon in the background to take home, share on social media and discuss the exhibit with friends online. This feature and the encouragement of phone snapshots in the museum makes the visitor experience more fun while portraying the museum as cool and up to date in their delivery of history, not to mention making the show and the museum extremely popular, as well as the objects of considerable buzz.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Allen and her team are to be commended for their fanning of the media flames through her appearance on local TV and the comprehensive development of publicity across the country, but also in their exhaustive and colossal volume of research necessary for such a project. As excellent as done, their research was not necessarily perfect, or perhaps for sake of simplicity and accessibility they chose to leave some information out. For example: the timeline for the 1960s is missing the introduction of color to photography books. Though the timelines are a small part of the overall book presentation, this was a major breakthrough for the parks, for photography and for the fortunes of Kodak because it caused a huge spike in the popularity of color film. It also was part of what led to the popularization of the coffee table photography book, which changed the face of the photography industry and paved the way for more photographers to make a living in the medium.

In the timelines, there is also no mention of the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series, which during the 1960s, especially in the Western U.S., but also all over the world, greatly advanced the momentum of the movement to conserve more public lands and to further popularize the national parks themselves. The timeline entry for 1963 mentioned that David Brower and Eliot Porter published several books on the parks, but the mention of popular books by Philip Hyde in the Exhibit Format Series, who is represented in the Eastman Museum collection, also is omitted. David Brower called Philip Hyde his go-to photographer because he produced the images for many books that made or protected national parks just in the 1960s alone, such as The Last Redwoods (1963), Time and the River Flowing: Grand Canyon (1964), The Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland (1965), Not Man Apart (1965) Navajo Wildlands (1967), The Grand Colorado (1969) and even more volumes in the 1970s.

Philip Hyde’s book, Island In Time: The Point Reyes Peninsula (1962) was the first book to ever raise funds to purchase land to make a national park service unit, Point Reyes National Seashore. It was also published the same year as Eliot Porter’s In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World, (also not mentioned in Picturing America’s National Parks) in 1962, giving both books the shared title of the first major book projects published in color.

Outstanding Image Choice and the Making of an Evergreen Title

I like Allen’s image choices for the sections on Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Minor White and many of the others because she used photographs we don’t often see from these well-known masters. Adams as usual gets a huge amount of credit for his work in the national parks, most of which is well-deserved. However, also as usual, Adams gets credit for some of the accomplishments of other photographers such as the help in conservation and formation of national parks, which Adams did do some and quite effectively, but not more than or even at the same level as photographers such as Philip Hyde and Eliot Porter, who essentially took over the Sierra Club Books from Ansel Adams after they transitioned to color. The description under Ansel Adams carried on at length about conservation and the national parks, whereas the Philip Hyde description mentioned it only briefly, especially in light of his much greater volume of work on wilderness and national park protection campaigns. When I asked Allen about the difference, she said that originally her text included much more about Philip Hyde’s work in preserving national parks, but that her editors cut some of it. Apparently editors need educating as well about the figures behind major conservation efforts.

To illustrate this point and to show an example of how the descriptions were presented, here is the entry for Ansel Adams:

Ansel Adams‘ (American, 1902-1984) lifelong passion for the national parks began in 1916 when, at the age of 14, he read James Mason Hutching’s 496-page book In the Heart of the Sierras (1886) and convinced his parents to take him on vacation to Yosemite Valley. Equipped with a No. 1 Brownie camera that his parents had given him, Adams took his first images of Yosemite that year. Soon after, he became involved with the Sierra Club, starting as the custodian for the club’s headquarters in Yosemite and later leading tours and participating in trips to the Yosemite High Country. He was eventually elected to the board of directors and lobbied for additional areas to be set aside as national parks and monuments. By the 1930s, Adams’ photographic work had become well known, and in 1941 he was invited to participate in a project to photograph all the national parks. Organized by the Secretary of Interior, the initiative was abruptly cancelled when the United States entered World War II. Adams continued the project independently, supported by a series of Guggenheim Fellowships. His images of the parks have come to represent the grandeur of the American landscape, conjuring a sense of pride for American viewers in both the land itself and the preservation of these spaces through the National Park Service. Adams’ photographs have also had broad international appeal, establishing the national parks as globally recognizable icons.

Compare that to the entry for Philip Hyde, which is also excellent, but not as thorough:

In 1946, Philip Hyde (American 1921-2006) became one of the first students to attend the newly formed photography program at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Here he studied under Edward Weston, Minor White, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, and many other influential photographers of the time. After graduating, Hyde served as the official photographer of the Sierra Club High Trip during the summer of 1950, thus beginning his long relationship with the organization. His involvement with the club blossomed into relationships with other groups, including the Wilderness Society and the National Audubon Society. Hyde’s photographic work was used to advocate for and realize the preservation of places such as the Grand Canyon. While he photographed the characteristic vantages of many national parks, his images also show atypical views, such as a sand dune at the Grand Canyon.

Regardless, even with some omissions, Picturing America’s National Parks is destined to be a staple of bookstores, libraries, schools and universities for many years to come. I like the accessibility of the approach, the innovative layout and the depth of information presented in an easy to digest format. I like the cover art, but don’t particularly like the no dust-jacket cover. However, this keeps the costs down also adding to accessibility. Besides, this type of jacketless cover will likely prove ideal when the book is used as a textbook. It certainly ought to be mandatory reading for anyone studying photography, the national parks or any related outdoor curriculum.

The Battle Over Dinosaur: Birth Of Modern Environmentalism 7

December 13th, 2010

The Battle Heats Up to Save Dinosaur National Monument from Dams and Philip Hyde’s Photographs Begin to See More Use

(Continued from the previous blog post, “The Battle Over Dinosaur: Birth of Modern Environmentalism 6.”)

Sculptured Boulders, Hells Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument, 1951 by Philip Hyde.

In early 1953, finally David Brower proposed a Sierra Club campaign against the two proposed dams in Dinosaur National Monument. The Sierra Club Board approved the campaign on the grounds that it was imperative to maintain the integrity of the National Park System. In May 1953 David Brower enlisted the donated services of Charles Eggert, a professional photographer, to make a quality film covering the river trips and promoting alternatives to the dams. Martin Litton, a pilot and Los Angeles Times editor and writer, who loved the outdoors and the Sierra from his youth, wrote a series of articles condemning the Colorado River Storage Project in the Los Angles Times. David Brower saw Martin Litton’s articles and convinced him to join the Sierra Club. Martin Litton then began to write articles for the Sierra Club Bulletin while continuing his editorial efforts with the Los Angeles Times.

This Is Dinosaur: Wallace Stegner, Philip Hyde and Martin Litton

In 1955 David Brower enlisted novelist and Stanford writing professor Wallace Stegner to write the forward and edit This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers. Philip Hyde’s photographs joined those of Martin Litton and others to illustrate the book. This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers was the first book ever published for an environmental cause. As a result, Wallace Stegner, who later won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Angle of Repose, became a writer and spokesman for the Sierra Club, and as a land preservation advocate in general. The proposed dams in Dinosaur National Monument turned into a heated national debate in Congressional committees between development interests and an alliance of environmental coalitions including the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs and the Council of Conservationists. David Brower and the Sierra Club gathered and led the coalition of various organizations.

The environmental coalition rallied the American people around the idea of maintaining the integrity of the National Park System by not allowing any development in Dinosaur National Monument. The Sierra Club used what would become its standard strategy of publicizing, initiating a letter-writing campaign and encouraging recreational use of the threatened area. In 1950, about 13,000 people visited Dinosaur and only 50 of those by river. In 1954 nearly 71,000 visitors showed up, and more than 900 rafted Dinosaur’s canyons. Philip Hyde’s photographs of Dinosaur National Monument appeared with articles in National Geographic, the Sierra Club Bulletin, Life and other national publications. Martin Litton on his own wrote a series of articles not only for the Los Angeles Times but after he became managing editor of Sunset Magazine. He wrote articles for Sunset Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle on Dinosaur National Monument. Also independent from the Sierra Club, Bernard DeVoto wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly that raised the national awareness about the Dinosaur controversy. As a result of these efforts Americans began to write letters and over 200 Members of Congress turned against the Colorado River Storage Project. A copy of This is Dinosaur landed on the desk of every member of the House, the Senate, most high-level management in the Department of Interior and newspaper editors nationwide.

The Glen Canyon Sacrifice

The Sierra Club maintained that the water storage and power generating capacity lost by eliminating the Dinosaur dams, could be made up downstream on the Colorado River by building the proposed Glen Canyon Dam higher. As David Brower’s team of volunteer engineers looked into the technical aspects, they calculated that the proposed Glen Canyon dam, if built higher, could store more water with less evaporation than the dams planned in Dinosaur National Monument. The Bureau of Reclamation argued that Echo Park would evaporate more than an enlarged Glen Canyon dam. David Brower’s team not only found errors in Bureau of Reclamation evaporation figures, but discovered flaws and miscalculations in the entire project. The proposed reservoirs in dry years would evaporate more water than they could store from wet years. Environmentalists ultimately won the battle to prevent dams in Dinosaur with the numbers that proved the economics unsound.

“They were trying to build so many dams to hold over storage from the wet years to the dry years that in the period it was held over it would have an enormous amount of evaporation and the water benefit would be negative,” David Brower said. “We were building excellent opposition to the whole project because its economics were now being shown to be faulty. Its hydrology—its engineering of the river—was becoming transparently faulty.” In the Congressional hearings David Brower used what he called ninth grade math to question the Bureau’s figures. “In the course of our looking into the project,” David Brower said at a water resources hearing in San Francisco, “We found it distressingly full of errors, contradiction, inconsistencies and very questionable arithmetic, which is slowly being admitted, item by item.”

Conservation Becomes Modern Environmentalism

In The History of the Sierra Club Michael Cohen said that a group of the leaders of conservation organizations, who called themselves the Council of Conservationists, accepted a donation from Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr., a longtime Sierra Club member and ran a full-page advertisement in the Denver Post on the eve of a meeting of the Upper Colorado River Basin development groups, who stood to gain from the building of the dams. The ad read, “Conservationists who have been leading this battle are NOT anti-reclamationists [not against dam building or against the Bureau of Reclamation], and are NOT fighting the principle of water use in the west.” It warned that their position was stronger than ever since the deficiencies of the proposal were now exposed, that the Dinosaur dams were “obviously extravagant” and “serve far more local political purposes than national economic purposes.” The ad further admonished that congressmen would have to explain an expensive, “controversial project far away,” in an election year. The campaign to save Dinosaur National Monument with it’s use of full-page advertisements coupled with a diverse strategy of publicity, a letter-writing campaign, Congressional lobbying and other political and activist tactics transformed conservation into modern environmentalism.

Congress rewrote the Upper Colorado Storage Project Bill without the dams in Dinosaur and inserted the phrase, “no dam or reservoir constructed under the authorization of this act shall be within any national park or monument.” The environmental groups withdrew opposition and the bill easily passed. David Brower and other conservation leaders afterward regretted that they did not continue opposition to the whole project and thereby save Glen Canyon. Martin Litton said, “If we hadn’t believed in ourselves, we never would have stopped the Dinosaur thing. If we had believed in ourselves enough, we would have stopped Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.” Wallace Stegner succinctly expressed that at the core of the controversy was the resource-based “development-minded corporate West.”

“Dinosaur was a great turning point in the Sierra Club’s interest and in other people’s interest in the canyon country,” Philip Hyde said. “The more people used the monument, the less power it gave the Bureau of Wreck-the-Nation. It was a turning point for them too. Before that they thought they had carte-blanche to go anywhere and do anything they wanted to, regardless of whether the area had been legally preserved or not. It also probably was a turning point in the use of rivers. People discovered that running rivers was great fun and a wonderful way to see the country. A few years later the Bureau reached for the Grand Canyon and got slapped down by letters and communications from all over the world.”

(CONTINUED IN THE BLOG POST, “The Battle Over Dinosaur: Birth Of Modern Environmentalism 8.”)