Ansel Adams: conservation under Reagan and Trump

It’s somewhat surprising, but not entirely, to see similarities between the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, particularly in their respective Secretaries of Interior, James Watt and Ryan Zinke. Another controversial appointee in the Reagan cabinet was Anne Gorsuch (mother of now Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch) who was the head of the EPA and acted to reduce the budget and staff of the EPA as well as lessen regulations on pesticide use. Watt and Gorsuch were the prominent anti-environmentalists (other than Reagan) in that administration, and luckily did not have broad support in the government for their agenda. Thus, the damage they were able to accomplish was relatively limited. However, other than Zinke in the Trump administration, there are several cabinet and cabinet-level members, in addition to Trump himself, hostile to the environment that, together, along with Tea Party Republican sentiments, form a stronger force for change than was possible in the Reagan era. These current members are Administrator of the EPA Scott Pruitt, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

I’ve steered away from politics on my blog with the intent to maintain a purely art-centric dialog. However, as with Ansel Adams and Ronald Reagan, so with Trump and his administration. Many artists, as well as anyone who visits public lands, whether a National Park, National Monument, National Forest, National Wildlife Refuge, or Bureau of Land Management, depend on, enjoy, and receive countless economic and non-economic (non-quantifiable) benefits from those visits and the experiences gained. In addition, surrounding communities benefit from the trade visitors from all over the world engage in while they are in the area. Lodging, all forms of general retail, equipment rentals, guide services, restaurants, grocery stores, auto repair and rental, airlines, buses, travel agencies, art supply stores, camera stores, outdoor and hunting supply stores, all local or at some remove from the particular area benefit from the establishment and maintenance of public lands. A much greater and sustainable benefit than resource extraction which, when completed, disappears leaving behind an economic and environmental wasteland. In the 1980s, with the appointment of James Watt as Secretary of the Interior under President Reagan, public lands came under fire for exploitation and privatization. Ansel Adams, who was by that time nearly 80 years old, became very active, politically, to address the very serious threat to our public lands. Throughout his life, Ansel was always in contact with his representatives and president. But when Reagan was elected and Watt appointed, he embarked on what opponents would call today a liberal rampage or a snowflake campaign. In letters to the editor, to conservation organizations like the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, in interviews, and in letters to his representatives (I don’t know if he ever wrote to Watt or Reagan directly) he engaged in what he called in a 1981 letter to then Wilderness Society director William Turnage a “…TOTAL IDEOLOGICAL WAR ON SECRETARY WATT AND HIS COHORTS” (emphasis from the letter).

He was very concerned about the future of public lands, in particular National Parks, which were being considered for resource exploitation and privatization. In a letter to the San Jose Mercury News (1981), Ansel wrote (notice the similarities with the concerns of today, though today’s concerns I believe are even more real than they were then):

I have spent a good part of more than 60 years working with many others on the problems of conservation and the environment, beginning in 1919 as the summer custodian of the Sierra Club’s center in Yosemite. I do not intend, at the age of 79, to now stand back and observe the destruction of our environment and all that has been accomplished to appropriately preserve and manage the resources of the earth – the physical, recreational, and aesthetic qualities of the world in which we live…The present administration’s endorsement of free exploitation of our basic resources will have tragic consequences for the well-being of our people and the amenities of continued life on this earth. These dangerous new policies are expressed through Secretary of the Interior James Watt. I address my critical remarks directly to him as the spokesman of these dire policies…The impact of the fearful concepts and intentions expressed by Watt is not fully realized, except by a few experienced conservationists…Indeed, Mr. Watt acts ignorant about the park system that he now controls (and)…can do great damage just through ignorance of the facts of what our public lands represent…It is common knowledge that Watt is a religious fundamentalist. He has his right to embrace any religion or creed he desires, but he has no right to impose his religious philosophy on the management of his department and the future of the American People. I have heard that he justifies his program of using our land and resources now without regard for the future by saying, in effect, there will be very little future; the Second Coming is due any time now…The overwhelming problems of our economy and defense have taken precedence over consideration for our natural and cultural resources. I sympathize with the President in his difficult economic and political decisions. I implore him to recognize the important fact that if we lose the essential qualities of our environment no political philosophy and no effort for defense will have validity. Secretary Watt’s values appear restricted to the material, immediate, and profit-oriented mentality of a two-dimensional group with little wisdom or conscience…We are fighting for our life and the future of our descendants. We must stand up and be counted! As a citizen I urge each of us to take on responsibility: write members of Congress, Secretary of Interior Watt, and President Reagan; write or phone people you know and urge them to do the same. Impress on everyone you can that this is not just an “opinion” problem but the most intense threat we have ever faced to the integrity and future of our land.

In an interview with Playboy Magazine in 1983, not long before his death, Ansel Adams issued a quote that I and others have often repeated. The quote is part of a longer statement in response to the question “What is the most critical fight now?”:

To save the entire environment: wilderness protection, proper use of parks, breakdown of Federal operation of the parks in favor of private interests, acquiring new park and wilderness land, unrestrained oil drilling and mining on land and offshore, etc. First on the list now is that all the wilderness areas must be protected. It is very important. With the current Administration, they are gravely threatened. It means that the small inroads this country has made in protecting some areas, both for scenic beauty and for invaluable resources, are threatened.

Here is an important point: Only two and a half percent of the land in this country is protected. Not only are we being fought in trying to extend that two and a half percent to include other important or fragile areas but we are having to fight to protect that small two and a half percent. It is horrifying that we have to fight our own Government to save our environment. Our worst enemy is the person the President designated with the responsibility of managing the country’s environment: James Watt. No wonder it is a monumental battle.

We are experiencing today what Ansel Adams feared would happen in his time. We have already seen the lessening or removal of protections for migratory birds and endangered and threatened species, the allowing of toxic waste to be dumped into our streams and rivers and the spraying of known and previously banned toxic and harmful chemicals on our crops. We’ve already seen the declassification of public land specifically to allow for resource extraction. We’ve seen law enforcement and private contractors enlisted to protect commercial interests when they were clearly in the wrong (and proven so in the courts after the fact). We’re seeing attempts to defund and privatize our public education system which, I think, Ansel Adams would be angry about because education is a foundation for understanding the world, the complex relationships found in the environment we depend on and, thus, the foundation for understanding why we need to conserve and protect these areas. The parallels between the Reagan era administration and the Trump era administration is curious at least, frustrating, and in the end, infuriating, because there are many more in this current administration who previous to being appointed to their positions, were adamantly opposed to the function of the agencies they now control. Trump has stacked the deck in a way Reagan could not have. Back in the 80s, the fight was mostly against Watt and Reagan and, to some extent, Gorsuch. Today, the fight is with nearly the entire administration as well as Congress.

Ansel was able to use his considerable weight as a prominent artist and activist to influence those in power who could do something. We average citizens must rely on our combined weight to inundate our representatives with facts and fact-based opinions. We must use our individual power of the vote to replace those we disagree with with those who support continued progress and economic growth, the conservation of our environment and the protection and proper management of public lands, the protection of human rights and individual freedoms, and reasoned discourse and cooperation with those who have differing opinions and ideologies. These may seem to be disparate subjects, but they are all related and connected. We live in a more complex world than we did in the 1980s. We can’t just let others do the work for us. We have to speak up before it’s too late. Once the land is gone under an open pit, oil field, or resort development, we can’t get it back.

reference: 1984. Ansel Adams: Letters and Images 1916-1984. New York Graphic Society, Little Brown

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