About 100 million images will be posted on Instagram today, so it may not seem like one image can make a difference. But last week 100 images did.
Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two spectacular areas of red rock canyons and buttes in Utah, are once again full national monuments. In 2017, President Trump slashed Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalate by half, a travesty reversed by President Biden last week. I think nature photography helped to save them.
Twenty-seven monuments were at risk under Trump, under what was clearly a sham process. He ordered reviews of monuments that he said were created or expanded without adequate input from the public. But he gave his Interior Secretary just 45 days to make recommendations. The comment period was compressed into just a few weeks.
Americans are proud of their national parks, but national monuments can be every bit as beautiful. In fact, a fair number eventually become full national parks. I had photographed several of the monuments at risk. I believed they deserved to be protected. So did several of my colleagues. In just one week, we put together a free ebook consisting of about 100 images that illustrated the wonderful wilderness that could soon be destroyed. And our readers answered the call for action.
People filed more than 2.8 million comments about Trump’s proposal. Nearly all of them — 99.2 percent — wanted him to leave the monuments alone. It was an incredible response. The number of comments on critical environmental issues usually only numbers in the tens of thousands.
Of course, that wasn’t the result of our work alone, but we did play a role. The Grand Staircase is not the Grand Canyon. If someone has been there, odds are their experience consisted only of seeing it through the window as they were speeding between Utah’s national parks. Most of the other monuments are even farther off the beaten path.
In addition to the book, some of our images made it into major newspapers. The Seattle Times ran one on the front page. Radio hosts talked about the pictures. And environmental organizations, like the Wilderness Society, also referenced them as part of their pleas for action. We helped bring these seldom-visited treasures to life.
While Trump gutted a few despite the outcry, he might have delisted them all had there not been protest. And with everything on Biden’s plate, had it looked as if people didn’t care, he might have waited even longer to restore them.
There’s a rich history in this country of using images to preserve special places. In my home state of Washington, I give thanks to the pioneering work of Philip Hyde, who helped keep the North Cascades wild. Thomas Moran’s paintings 150 years ago helped convince lawmakers to set aside Yellowstone for future generations.
It’s tempting to see ourselves as far removed from their historic works, but the truth is that the wilderness and wildlife still need our help. And there is still room for art to help make a difference.