Additional Treasured Lands
Here are some excerpts from the new, third edition of Treasured Lands, with QT Luong's descriptions of our two newest National Parks:
White Sands National Park
"Like Bryce Canyon National Park, White Sands National Park has a moderate size and is centered around a single geological feature, unique and visually stunning. Remarkable plants add to the interest. The white sand dunes draw photographers from around the world because they are so photogenic. They are a great place to exercise one's creativity because there are so many elements to photograph but no iconic locations. I enjoy the possibilities to explore freely without the impacts caused by off-trail hiking, easily escape the crowds, and find solitude."
"Transition Area. The second section of Dunes Drive, from Interdune Boardwalk to the Backcountry Loop Trail, is characterized by an attractive combination of sizeable dunes and vegetation, most notably soap yucca plants. Of all the plants in the park, the soap yucca is the most iconic because its distinctive shape and color provide a stark contrast with the white sands. In late spring, it displays large cream-colored blooms on stalks, and later in the season, the dried blooms are strikingly dark. Although the dune field appears full of them, finding a nicely isolated and healthy-looking yucca standing in a patch of sand with intact dune ripples required a lengthy search. It is useful to scout the area at midday and use a GPS to mark spots where you'd want to return at sunrise or sunset because due to park regulations, those windows of time are short. By heading straight from the entrance to a pre-scouted spot, I was able to catch a scene at first light."
"Backcountry camping lets you experience a sunset without the need to hurry to get out of the park, and an early set up for sunrise the next morning. The sky above the park is quite dark, so it is excellent for photographing stars. Camping is a strictly regulated affair. Because of the possibility of closure due to missile testing, there are no advance reservations. Competition for the ten sites, which are assigned, can be fierce, with aspiring campers lining up right at park opening time. The park service requires campers to set up their tents before dark and prohibits hiking at night because it would be so easy to get disoriented."
"On the evening of Friday, December 20, 2019, as White Sands National Monument was redesignated White Sands National Park, I was one of the few visitors inside the park, with a camping permit in hand. This ensured that I would be the first to photograph all 62 national parks, and possibly the first to make a photograph in the new White Sands National Park. Camping is not on sand dunes, but rather on the interdunal depressions. I expected to be able to easily drive stakes in, but the ground turned out to be surprisingly hard. As my tent isn't free-standing, I ended up having to use my tripod as a mallet, hammering the stakes with the ball head. When I returned to my car in the morning, I found an almost full one-gallon water jug frozen solid."
"New River Gorge Bridge. From the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, a ramp leads to an overlook for a close- up view of the bridge. A 178-step walk down a boardwalk to an observation platform leads to a better view from below the rim. Near the top of the staircase, an opening in the trees frame the bridge. It shortened cross-gorge travel time from 45 minutes to less than a minute. The century-old cross-gorge steep and curvy route is now a mostly one-way scenic drive starting in Lansing, called the Fayette Station Road. Many visitors jump out of their cars for a quick shot as the road traverses the smaller Tunney Hunsaker Bridge. It is an excellent spot for an unobstructed view of the New River Gorge Bridge's entire span. To spend more time, I walked back from the riverside Fayette Station parking from which the bridge soars 875 feet above. The sky had been cloudless, but as I was driving up and out of the gorge, I noticed afternoon clouds moving in. If the conditions improve, photograph again! I drove again the road for a second chance. I waited for clouds to shade the foreground while leaving the bridge in the sun, making the reflection more clear, a subtle but noticeable improvement. The top of the bridge is open to pedestrians only on Bridge Day. However, you can take a guided tour along the 24-inch-wide catwalk under the bridge for vertiginous views."
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Treasured Lands, Threatened Lands
QT Luong and His Photographic Environmental Activism
Treasured Lands, the aptly named title of QT Luong's stunningly beautiful book of photographs featuring all of the U.S. National Parks, is a celebration of the scenic beauty of these vital, revered places. Known as "America's Best Idea," the National Parks have been compared to the Declaration of Independence -- a similarly revolutionary notion -- that some of the most special places should be preserved, not just for the rich and powerful, but for "We the People." Appropriately, it all began during the administration of America's favorite president, Abraham Lincoln, and nothing quite like it had ever existed, anywhere else in the world.
"From the start, photography and national parks have been intertwined," says Dayton Duncan in his introduction to Treasured Lands. "In fact, a good argument can be made that without photography, national parks as we know them might not even exist." He goes on to explain how the first time the concept of federally protected land came up in 1864, concerning lands of Yosemite Valley and the giant Sequoia trees nearby, very few in congress (nor Lincoln himself) had ever seen the properties in question. Thanks in part to the pioneering photographs of Carleton E. Watkins that made their way to Eastern galleries and happened to be on display in the Capitol near the Senate chambers, the bill passed. Eight years later, during the Grant administration, a similar situation occurred when photographs of Yellowstone's geysers and cauldrons amazed viewers, helping get the world's first "national" park established in Wyoming Territory.
Fast-forward through 16 U.S. presidents and the photography of Frank J. Haynes...George A. Grant...Ansel Adams...into the Modern Age...photographic images still hold great power...
QT Luong may seem an unlikely person to have the distinction of being the premier modern-day National Park photographer. He was born in Paris of Vietnamese parents and earned a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Paris-Sud in 1992. His fascination for the European Alps had led him to become a mountain climber and wilderness guide, and his interest in photography helped him capture the beauty of his worldwide explorations, including a solo ascent of Denali in Alaska. When he moved to California for a job at UC Berkeley in 1993, the Western American landscape became his new fascination. He fell in love with the National Parks and he was inspired to learn to use a large format 5x7 film camera. Soon he had set a goal to photograph all 58 of the parks, and by 2002 he'd done so. Since then he has continued his quest as five more parks have been added, including the latest, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia, established in 2020 as our 63rd National Park (see sidebar).
The first edition of Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America's National Parks was released in 2016, became an instant classic, and won 12 book awards (including the 2017 Gold IPPY Award for Best Coffee Table Book). But, the addition of the new parks prompted new, expanded editions with more pages, more photos, and revised maps. "From canyons and deserts to glaciers and reefs" and "spectacular iconic landscapes and rarely seen remote spots," the quality of the more than 600 images have so much detail "they are the next best thing to being there."
Luong's effort to photograph the national parks in such unprecedented depth prompted Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan to feature him as the only living artist to appear in The National Parks: America’s Best Idea film, and they also used his photograph, Yosemite, Winter Sunset for the series' cover image. Another of his photographs, showing the Little Missouri River winding through the badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park was chosen for the U.S. postage stamp celebrating the National Park Services’s Centennial In 2016.
Most recently, Luong was picked to show his work at Expo 2020, the $7 billion, 100-acre, six-month-long "world's fair" held in Dubai and delayed by the pandemic until October 2021 to March 2022. With the motto, "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future," the fair was "about communication, healing and building a better world,“ according to The New York Times, calling it a "World-Class World Expo."
"The USA Pavilion featured nine of my national park photographs as one of the exhibits and the State Department invited me to talk about my work there," says Luong. "Photos of mountains and trees might appear at odds with the rest of a pavilion that emphasizes American innovations until you remember that national parks were also a most consequential American innovation."
"The choice of images conveyed the geographic extent of the national park system, with a nice mix of iconic locations -- the most popular trail in Yosemite, three well-known parks on the Colorado Plateau: Grand Canyon, Bryce, Arches -- and lesser-known areas conducive to adventure, like Voyageurs, Glacier Bay, and Dry Tortugas, which are all explored on water."
Most of this land preservation would not have occurred without the passing of the Antiquities Act of 1906, enacted by congress "to provide an expedited means to protect areas of natural or cultural significance." The act allows the President of the United States, with the stroke of a pen, to proclaim a national monument -- and 16 presidents have used the Act to preserve some of America' most treasured public lands and waters.
Teddy Roosevelt kicked things off by naming Devil's Tower in Wyoming the first national monument, which went well, but his attempt to do the same with 800,000 acres around the Grand Canyon was met with huge resistance. Arizona politicians with ties to commercial and industrial interests engaged in a battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. "The pattern repeated itself time and time again: controversy and local outrage over new national monuments, eventually turning into near-universal approval," writes Luong. "History has always proved the proclamations wise, and local opposition has often reversed itself."
President Carter used the act more than any other president by naming fifteen national monuments over 56 million Alaskan acres, the biggest expansion of protected lands in history. Six of those monuments would be redesignated into national parks, immediately doubling the acreage of National Park Service lands. "Proclaiming a place as a national monument in response to immediate threats and then later establishing it as a national park would repeat itself thirty times; almost half of our treasured national parks started as national monuments," says Luong.
All that was before the "grand canyon" of political division in America brought Trump into the presidency and put preserving natural and cultural heritage on the wrong side of the divide. In 2017, an executive order called for the review of 27 national monuments across 11 states and two oceans, reopening the threat of development to these vulnerable and irreplaceable natural resources. Luong decided to fight back, using his feet, his backpack, and his camera.
He set out into these fantastic wilderness areas, hiking and camping in the 22 land-based national monuments under review. "In contrast with the national parks, I was surprised to find the national monuments to be so wild, with even fewer facilities than I expected," he recalls. "Many national monuments do not have a single paved road. I needed to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle several times to access some of them. Even then, I still ended up with five flat tires over three years, sometimes in incredibly remote areas."
The result of Luong's efforts is another incredible photographic book, Our National Monuments: America's Hidden Gems, concentrating on these lesser-known public lands. The book depicts vast landscapes that rival the national parks in beauty, diversity, and historical heritage. The 300 scenic photographs introduce us to critically important monuments that are "under the radar" but offer many opportunities for solitude and adventure -- especially when compared to the overcrowded national parks. Also included are maps, descriptions, highlights of each of the monuments. Introductory essays from leaders and activists of 27 conservation associations provide the perspective of citizens caring for each of these national treasures.
Former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell provides the book's foreword, noting the value of saving two of the most contested monuments: Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears, both located in Utah. She emphasizes the significance of both areas, such as the discovery of 12 new dinosaur species' remains in Grand Staircase, and the groundbreaking aspect of Bears Ears being co-managed by five Native American Indian tribes. "Before settlement by newcomers, American public lands were shared common resources of indigenous communities who understood the importance of taking only what was needed." Even though President Biden restored the monuments and strengthened their management plans in October 2021 saying, "This may be the easiest thing I've ever done so far as president," Utah's republican governor and congress are fighting the restoration and threatening to take the issue to the Supreme Court.
In part due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the national parks have become even more popular, and overcrowding has led to the necessity of stricter rules, visitation limits and closures. "Although one is expected not to enter ancient ruins out of respect, there are no fences on national monuments," says Luong. "They offer more flexibility to experience the great outdoors. You can hike with your dog and camp almost anywhere. Unlike in Grand Canyon National Park, you can drive to the canyon rim in Grand Canyon–Parashant National Monument and pitch your tent at the edge of the chasm."
"The rugged experience gives us a sense of the western frontier, where personal responsibility, independence, and self-sufficiency are qualities that matter, where unlimited opportunities for exploration and adventure under a wide blue sky leave you endless room to be your own person."
QT Luong may be a late-comer to this country, but his love for it is strong, and his efforts to protect its beauty are fierce. He wraps up his introduction to the book with these words, so appropriate for us to remember as we approach Earth Day 2022: "Tread lightly, conserve loudly."
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Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America's National Parks,
by QT Luong (Terra Galleria Press)
Third Expanded Edition Hardcover Available May 24, 2022
Our National Monuments: America's Hidden Gems, by QT Luong (Terra Galleria Press)
27 national monuments; 36 contributors; 330+ photographs; 28 maps;