KALISPELL – A picture, so they say, is worth a thousand words.
“You can read about a place,and you can hear about it, and you can try to imagine it,” said Will Hammerquist, “but really, there’s no replacement for actually seeing it.”
Hammerquist works for the National Parks Conservation Association, and for years has fought Canadian mining proposals north of Glacier National Park.
He’s used a lot of words in that fight, explaining the international importance of British Columbia’s Flathead River Valley.
It’s a place of tremendous ecological diversity, he says, home to the densest population of grizzly bears anywhere in the interior of North America. It’s a place where endangered bull trout spawn, where elk migrate with the seasons, where waters are clean and cold and run south, along Glacier’s western edge and into Flathead Lake.
These are the headwaters of America’s most pristine river system.
But those are just words, and the Canadian Flathead also is remote and rugged, a distant wildness few can imagine and fewer have tracked. Most people have no idea what it looks like, or even where it is.
“The idea,” Hammerquist said, “was to send in a team of world-class photographers to capture as many images as possible, to tell the story of the Flathead. We wanted people everywhere to be able to visualize the place, and to understand it.”
And so last summer, Hammerquist and others called upon the International League of Conservation Photographers, which organizes the best of the world’s outdoor photographers to highlight threatened places. For two weeks, they crawled over mountaintops of fractured limestone, slogged through swampy bottoms, dove into shining streams.
They called it a RAVE – a rapid assessment visual expedition – and it revealed wonders. Deer, moose, cougar and grizzly. Trout, stonefly, rainbows of river rock. Peaks and ponds and meadows, waterfalls, snowfields, wildflowers. They shot from the ground, and from the air, and from watery depths.
“Images,” ILCP executive director Cristina Mittermeier explained on the project blog, “are irrefutable evidence of the beauty of our planet and the critical resources we can’t afford to lose.”
It has always been so, and art has always held the power to influence government policy.
Back in the late 1800s, in the earliest days of the U.S. Forest Service, agency head Gifford Pinchot demanded his foresters take pictures as part of their routine field reviews. He knew those images could be used for public education, and to inform management decisions.
“Photography and the Forest Service have long gone hand in hand,” wrote agency historian Aaron Shapiro.
At one point, the Forest Service photo archive grew to total some 750,000 images.
“Pinchot,” Shapiro wrote, “understood the power and ability of photography to educate the public about conservation.”
The California photographs of Carelton Watkins and Charles Weed, sent east to seats of power, were instrumental in establishing Yosemite as a state park in 1864, and later inspired the government’s 1867 exploration of the region and its eventual designation as a national park.
In 1869, photographer and painter William Henry Jackson was commissioned by the Union Pacific Railroad to document the scenery along the rails, and a year later Jackson joined the government’s survey of the Yellowstone River country.
He shot images of sights widely believed to be tall tales and rumor – geysers and mud pots, rivers steaming beneath mountain heights. The country saw those pictures, and in 1872 made Yellowstone America’s first national park.
Photographs helped keep dams out of the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument, and stirred Abraham Lincoln to give national protection to Yosemite.
Farther north, painters and photographers commissioned by the Great Northern Railway helped make Glacier Park a park, sending pictures of tremendous scenery to a skeptical Congress.
“We need strong, credible images to give a voice to places that cannot speak for themselves,” Mittermeier wrote.
Since forming in 2005, the International League of Conservation Photographers has held RAVEs around the globe, in the jungles of Mexico and in equatorial Guinea, in Patagonia and in the Upper Green River country of Wyoming. The photos become witness in the court of public opinion.
“I think that when you actually trip the shutter, and you hopefully capture that image, there is, I think, a feeling that if people see these images they’re going to want to do the right thing.”
So said Garth Lenz, in a video documentary about the British Columbia photoshoot. Lenz specialized in aerial pictures for the group, connecting the river with wetlands and lowlands and high mountain summits. He flew the adjacent Elk River Valley, where coal miners have removed entire mountains, and he flew the wild Flathead, and the reaction to the juxtaposed images is visceral, fundamental, beyond the traditional argument.
You can replant a clearcut, Lenz said, “but nobody’s ever going to rebuild that mountain. It’s gone.”
The plans for Foisey Creek, high in the Flathead’s wildest reaches, called for a mountaintop-removal coal mine, to literally tear down the hills and then dig another 300 feet below the floodplain. The mining company said there were no fish there. The RAVE images told a different story.
Biologist Clint Mulfeld, traveling with the photographers, found in Foisey Creek the highest density of bull trout spawning nests anywhere in the basin, and strong populations of genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout.
Mine the Canadian Flathead, Mulfeld said, “and basically what we’d see is the unraveling of this watershed from the headwaters all the way down to Flathead Lake.”
But that’s only 21 words. The pictures tell thousands.
A whitetail reflected at water’s edge. Beargrass glowing at sunset. A patch of moss campion cradled in stone. Sweeping vistas, and portraits of paintbrush.
In the months following the RAVE, British Columbia’s provincial government surprised the world by ending 36 years of international dispute – placing the Flathead off limits to mining, once and for all. There was increasing pressure from both sides of the border to do so, from the local, regional and federal levels. And even UNESCO entered the fray, bringing to bear the weight of international opinion.
It’s difficult to measure the effect the conservation photographers had on British Columbia’s decision, Hammerquist said, “but it was real, and it was substantial. These images did matter.”
Photographs from the two-week assault hung for weeks in a U.S. Senate office building, and later at the Capitol Rotunda in Helena, and then across British Columbia, in halls of government there. They’ll be back in Montana next summer, Hammerquist said, for a showing in Montana’s Flathead Valley.
“You can tell people about a place all you want,” Hammerquist said, “but unless they can see it, and imagine it, then they aren’t going to step up to protect it.
“These pictures have been an amazing tool, and they’ve allowed us to invite the world to see the Flathead for the first time.”
Reach reporter Michael Jamison at 1-800-366-7186
or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.