As I was packing up my camera after photographing from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, two men came up and asked if they could see what I was shooting. I said, "yes," and pressed the play button on my camera to display the last image I took that morning.
Without asking, one of the men rotated the jog dial on the back of my camera to see the other images I captured that morning. But he rotated it clockwise, and instead of seeing an earlier image, the camera displayed the first image on the memory card — one I took four days earlier.
"Wow!" he exclaimed. "Is that Niagara Falls?"
The image was of a waterfall, but it wasn't Niagara Falls. It was a little-known waterfall in western Pennsylvania called Springfield Falls. Like Niagara, the waterfall completely filled the frame from side to side, although that was because I zoomed in. Springfield Falls is only a few dozen feet across. The largest of the Niagara waterfalls, Horseshoe, is a half-mile wide.
But what may have been striking about Springfield Falls was the bright yellow wildflowers that ran completely across the bottom of the frame. Or perhaps the lush green forest that ran all the way across the top.
Niagara Falls doesn't have either of those features — at least not anymore.
Just before arriving at Niagara Falls, you have to drive through a busy tourist district full of buildings dripping with loud neon signs. And at the falls, there isn't a vantage point that doesn't include a view of a bright video billboard. The morning I was there, footage of a spinning roulette wheel was on an almost continuous loop. The previous night, a fireworks spectacular upstaged the falls entirely.
The man's question somewhat echoed the thoughts that were running through my mind when I saw the electronic graffiti suffocating what is arguably the most stunning waterfall in all of North America: "Wow! Is this Niagara Falls?"
My experience at Niagara Falls could not have contrasted more with my time a couple days earlier in Pennsylvania. I was there to attend the opening of an art exhibit that featured four of my images in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
Over the past 50 years, the act has helped set aside more than 100 million acres of nature, barring any form of development on it.
No power transmission lines. No oil tanks. No roads.
A day before the art exhibit opened, I hiked through some parts of the Allegheny National Forest that Friends of the Allegheny Wilderness is working hard to protect. We started in a proposed addition to the Hickory Creek Wilderness, which at 8,663 acres is one of the smaller wilderness areas in the country. The average wilderness area is nearly 16 times larger.
The proposed addition of less than 1,800 acres would barely make a dent in that gap, but it would help preserve a scenic second-growth forest that is just now starting to look like a more mature one. And even though the trees aren't hundreds of years old, I found myself saying, "Wow," several times during my hike through it.
As the parking area and any sign of civilization faded from view, I was struck by how impressive the forest became. I had to stop and photograph the sun shining through a thick section of the forest canopy. I stopped to photograph a particularly attractive arrangement of ferns. Later that day, in another proposed wilderness area, I spent a half hour photographing the patterns of tree roots on a rock outcropping.
Without manmade distractions, all there was to focus on was nature's beauty. And it was amazing how much of that beauty there was to notice when it didn't have to compete for attention.
In a way, wilderness areas don't just protect nature. They also protect us from ourselves.
I'm guessing the situation at Niagara Falls began somewhat like this. Someone figured that the waterfalls were spectacular, but they would be better if you could stay in a hotel right next to them. And eventually, they figured those hotels would be better if they were also casinos. And that the waterfall would look even better bathed in colored lights and fireworks.
I'm not against hotels, casinos, and fireworks. What I am against is pulling out all the stops to upstage a true wonder of nature. And we don't have a great history of showing restraint.
There was a time when the sheer granite faces of Yosemite weren't dramatic enough for people. For nearly 100 years, Yosemite rangers would push burning embers off Glacier Point, creating a 3,000-foot-tall waterfall of fire. The park finally stopped the practice in the late 1960s when the crowds grew so large that the fragile meadows in the valley below were being trampled to death.
Initial plans for Mount Rainier National Park called for roads and hotels to touch each of the majestic mountain's main glaciers.
I'm not usually one for using food analogies, but let me try one here. If you had an incredibly tender, flavorful steak, would you completely cover it in seasonings? And then bury it under ketchup? And then cover that with chocolate sprinkles?
That's what we're doing when dress up nature in modern clothes and the latest technology.
And while nobody's talking about building a giant water park in the proposed addition to the Hickory Creek Wilderness, it's threatened by modern times, too. There isn't much to stop new roads from being built through it, or even logging and oil drilling.
I'm sure there are people who feel a little development here and there won't hurt things, but it can. On one of the forest hikes that day we came across an oil tank. And it stood out on the landscape not unlike the video billboard at Niagara Falls. Once I noticed it, it was hard to notice anything else.
We cannot protect everything from development. We need lumber. We need gas. We need places for homes and offices. But we should protect truly special places, and when we protect them we should try leave them in their natural state as much as we can. Declaring them as wilderness areas guarantees that they will remain "untrammeled by man."
On my last morning at Niagara Falls, I got a taste of what it must have been like there hundreds of years ago. Because of the high humidity, mist from Horseshoe Falls hung in the air. The mist blocked out the casinos, and at times even obscured the rising sun. I could see the power plant, but the mist temporarily blocked out almost all other development.
And I was in awe.
If anyone doubts that we need the Wilderness Act, I would ask them to stand at the edge of Niagara Falls and then travel a couple hours to hike in the Allegheny wilderness. And I would ask where they felt closer to nature.
It isn't much of a contest, because it took a blinding mist for me to say, "Wow! That is Niagara Falls!"
(For more information on the Wilderness at 50 gallery exhibition and to see the images Kevin is showing, visit his special Wilderness at 50 page. You can also follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.)