If you have ever visited a national park or enjoyed a dip in a fast flowing western river, chances are you have a conservation photographer to thank for that experience. Early camera models of the 1800’s required too lengthy of exposures to capture moving subjects, so photographers turned their lenses towards monuments that stood still, like mountains and valleysi. Photographs of the exquisite beauty of then-unknown landmarks like Mammoth hot springs and Old Faithful helped convince congress to establish Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, in 1872ii.
Countless other monuments have been carefully preserved for public enjoyment thanks to the stunning power of photographs to stir their viewers to action. The nearly sacred tourist mecca of the Grand Canyon was not even immune to the threat of development. Thankfully a photographer named Philip Hyde (a student of Ansel Adams’) helped save the wild beauty of the Colorado River from a future as a stagnant reservoir that precedes a hydroelectric dam. His 1964 book Time and the River Flowing: Grand Canyon was hugely popular and helped garner the strong outpouring of public opposition which eventually shelved the proposal. As Hyde astutely observed,
“For every place there will always be people that want to exploit it, 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.”iii
Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing a member of the next generation of camera-wielding conservationists. Photographer Matt Dolkas completed his Masters in Conservation Social Science by producing a beautiful book of photographs and writing outlining the challenge and benefits of conserving the remaining original Palouse prairie ecoregion in the northwestern US. He couldn’t have chosen a more complex subject. Unlike the grandiose vistas and charming wildlife of the Grand Canyon, the 1% of the original Palouse prairie that remains is characterized by tufts of hardy grass perched on gently rolling hummocks. Though it once sustained the Nez Perce tribe and countless wild bison, currently its most notable endemic species is the Palouse Giant Earthworm which has only been sighted in the wild four times in the past 30 years.
To complicate matters further existing pockets of prairie lay almost entirely on privately owned land in one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. The areas of original prairie that remain are either too rocky or too steep to be farmed. But what these areas lack in agricultural potential they make up for by providing habitat for native plant and animal species. These species filter water and prevent soil erosion and are intrinsically valuable because some aren’t found anywhere else.
The scattered remains of this once vast ecoregion already have a few staunch protectors in the form of a non-profit called the Palouse Prairie Foundation. Matt’s goal for the project was to give the organization “…a tool to help them garner support for the protection of the remaining prairie.”iv He spent two years taking photos on foot and from the air to document what is left and why it’s worth saving. The stunning images in the book are accompanied by carefully researched essays about the history, currently threats, and intrinsic value of the remaining prairie.
To be completely honest, when I first held Matt’s book in the spring on 2012, I didn’t read it. Instead I leafed through the pages quickly, admired the images, and moved on. The pictures are rich in color and in symbolism, and reminded me a little of the marshy meadows along my favorite Colorado highway. Even though my first encounter wasn’t very thorough, I connected with the pictures and they stayed with me. I recently relocated to the region and when I arrived I eagerly dug it up to give it a real read. It was then that I fully appreciated how little prairie was left and why it’s worth fighting a long uphill battle to preserve it.
Matt described both types of reactions I had to the book in our interview. I felt reassured when he remarked that a cursory thumbing through of the photos was an ok place to start. “Just by flipping through the pages the reader gets the point that the Palouse is a beautiful place but has been seriously degraded by industrial agriculture.” If they are seduced by the images and feel a personal connection, than the reader will hopefully give it a full read. “If that happens you have a good chance of persuading that reader”v he said.
The power of the book lies in its images and also its careful distribution. It is dedicated to the land owners of the Palouse, for “The future of the prairie lies in their hands”vi.A conservation photographer like Matt has to have more than a good eye; he or she also needs a keen understanding of the issue at hand and which audience is most critical to reach. Even though it’s a gorgeous collection of images, it’s appeal is probably limited to those who have a personal connection to the Palouse region. That’s a pretty small number of people (if you don’t count the millions out there unknowingly munching on wheat grown on these picturesque slopes). Taking into account the trend of farmland consolidation, there is an increasingly small number of people who own land and can have the kind of impact the book intends.
I don’t find that reality discouraging though, and I gather Matt doesn’t either. The book sold more than a hundred copies and all the proceeds went to fund an education grant supported by the Palouse Prairie Association. His photos are now another tool these dedicated individuals can use to educate others about the need for conservation. He did the most any one person can do by capturing the story of the prairie in an elegant collection of images that can inspire current and future stakeholders to protect a valuable piece of our natural heritage.
If you’d like to see a preview or purchase the book, click here
If you’d like to see more of Matt’s work, here is his website
If you want to read more about conservation photography, here’s a fascinating paper on its origins and effectiveness.
iWard, Carlton, Jr. “Conservation Photography.” Diss. University of Florida, 2008. Www.conservationphotography.info/. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
ii“William Henry Jackson (Getty Museum).” William Henry Jackson (Getty Museum). The J. Paul Getty Museum, n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
iii“Philip Hyde (photographer).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 08 Sept. 2013. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.
ivDolkas, Matt. E-mail interview. 12 Sept. 2013.
vDolkas, Matt. E-mail interview. 12 Sept. 2013.
vi Dolkas, Matthew. Introduction. Finding the Palouse Prairie: Images of a Vanishing Grassland. Moscow, ID: Palouse Prairie Foundation, 2011. N. pag. Print.