The politics surrounding landscape photography

A look at the environmental policies impacting our climate, how they can affect our work, and what we can do to help.


"Southern Appalachian red spruce-Fraser fir forests are considered one of the top two most endangered ecosystem types in the U.S. and contain multiple federal and state listed rare species, including the federally endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel. Today, the largest threat to these forests is climate change, with warming temperatures and changes in rainfall." - appalachian.org

Landscape photographers are a common breed with unconventional habits. YouTube has many channels dedicated to the craft, and Instagram catalogs the most brilliant images from otherworldly locations. Most will highlight a penchant for days that start before dawn and joy for the drab and dreary conditions that create the ethereal atmospheres in our work that captures an audience. Few broach subjects beyond the tried and true, and almost no one I’ve seen has spoken about the politics that affect our work. Most will profusely exclaim that they were not making a political statement in reaction to the tamest expression. I understand this notion, and it happens for various reasons that I believe all play their roles to differing degrees. But I also think we should use our voices loudly to impact the world around us positively.


As landscape photographers, we have a unique opportunity to position ourselves in a space that wildlife photographers and photojournalists often find themselves in - one that uses our lens to raise the political and social awareness of those who enjoy our work. Most Americans will never truly understand what it means for a rhino to be extinct or a child’s village to be wartorn. However, significant numbers of Americans - and westerners in general - appreciate the majesty of mountain regions, the serenity of a forest, and the importance of preserving these wonders for everyone to enjoy. Every day, these impressive lands are at-risk from the threat of special interest lobbyists and the politicians they fund.


One of those threats came in the monstrously grotesque form of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a joint venture between Dominion Energy, the lead stakeholder, and Duke Energy. Set to run its course through three states - West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina - it was designed to carve a path through cave systems, watersheds, indigenous land, historic black communities, the Appalachian Trail, and the Blue Ridge Parkway. In December 2018, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the pipeline could not run through the AT. The U.S. Supreme Court would eventually overturn the lower court’s decision, ruling in favor of planners, once again allowing them to cross the AT. Ultimately, July 5, 2020, would bring a significant victory during an utterly defeating year when Dominion and Duke announced they were canceling the pipeline.


A smokestack at the Duke Energy power plant in Asheville, North Carolina. After 56 years of burning coal, Duke made the switch to natural fracked gas in 2020. Fracking has its own environmental issues, including methane pollution, which is 25 times more potent in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Other effects of fracking include water and land contamination.

To truly grasp the scope of this resounding triumph, one must first realize the sheer force of power the ACP had backing it. Dominion is one of the most powerful corporations in America and one of the world’s most profitable. Dominion Energy has donated $12 million to Virginia state candidates and committees in the past decade. Included is $75,000 to Terry McAuliffe in 2013 alone, who was then governor of Virginia. As governor, McAuliffe appointed key figures who were involved in the approval process of the ACP. Laura Vaught is Dominion’s Federal Affairs Policy Advisor and a key lobbyist. Their efforts included lobbying the National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service for approvals that allowed the ACP to proceed. Immediately before her Dominion position, she served in the EPA during the Obama administration for six years. Duke Energy also poured its lobbying power in the pot, donating $43,750 to North Carolina governor Roy Cooper. Cooper helped clear the way for the ACP by approving an essential water quality permit, which seemed to be in opposition with his clean energy plan, a significant point of his campaign’s platform. So what ultimately vanquished Godzilla? The political power of people.


What was initially estimated to be a $4.5 billion price tag nearly doubled to around $8 billion, mainly due to environmental groups’ efforts in bringing lawsuits against the project. The threats pointed out in the suits included water pollution, deterioration of rural scenery, endangerment of rare species and habitats, and miles of ridgeline reduction, which is considered a form of mountaintop removal. Combining those concerns with the route through the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway, landscape photographers in the Appalachian region faced an immense enemy that seemed unknown to us. Sadly, the battle for the soul of our public lands extends past my area to some of the most iconic landmarks across the nation.


During Trump’s presidency, our national parks were brutalized by his administration’s kowtowing to the fossil fuel industry’s corporate greed and other special interest groups. It started swiftly, with an abrupt reorganization of the National Parks Service. It continued with the announcement that employees with the Bureau of Land Management would be relocated from D.C. to state offices, and the BLM headquarters would move to Colorado. The reason given by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was that the employees could better serve the land they manage since most of it is located in western states. To a majority of the public and those involved, it indicated a desire to remove any potential hindrance to opening up protected land, including national parks, to privatization. Then acting White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, expressed as much when he said it’s nearly impossible to fire federal workers - claiming he’s tried - but many won’t be able to relocate.


In the end, the damage was evident. Protections in the Clean Waters Act were repealed along with a plethora of other environmental and land regulations. Parks that landscape photographers rely on were left vulnerable as trees in Joshua Tree were cut down to make new roads, and Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah were vandalized. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument suffered significant losses when ancient cacti were flattened, and sacred Apache land and burial sites at Monument Hill were blasted, all for the construction of the border wall. The Trump administration even used the worst pandemic ever recorded to suggest opening the Grand Canyon to uranium mining. Nothing was sacred.


"Scientists have determined that air pollution and acid-laden precipitation are contributing to the long term decline of Mount Mitchell's spruce-fir forests. On eight out of ten days, Mount Mitchell is covered in clouds and fog that are sometimes as acidic as vinegar." - ncparks.gov

Fast-forward, it is now 2022. We’re a year into the Biden presidency, and I think we can ascertain some information as to what has been done so far and how his administration will govern when it comes to environmental politics for the rest of his term. There is no denying that Biden was left with monumental hurdles to overcome from Trump’s administration, as detailed above. Though he ran on what some call the most progressive climate platform of any presidential candidate in history, there is also no denying Biden’s complicated stances regarding environmental policies.


Biden’s presidential campaign advisor, Heather Zichal, whose own history is checkered - she headed an interagency group under the Obama administration that eventually allowed Shell to drill in the Arctic - called his approach middle of the road. The said approach was painted as realistic compared to the Green New Deal, but one could say it was negotiating from a place of weakness, especially for someone who hoped to step into the most powerful elected office in the world. Another troubling voice in Biden’s ear is Cedric Richmond, the president’s senior advisor. As a democratic representative to Louisiana’s 2nd district, Richmond constantly voted in favor of fossil fuel companies. During his time as a representative, his district routinely reported some of the worse air quality in Louisiana, which coincided with over a quarter-million dollars in donations from the fossil fuel industry.


Then there are the shortcomings of Biden, himself. Though he quickly shut down the Keystone XL pipeline, he has failed to act against the equally concerning DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline), allowing it to remain operational despite essential permits being revoked. There has also been his inability to coalesce his base behind the policies of his climate infrastructure, refusing to use the bully pulpit while seemingly letting Joe Manchin set the agenda. With the Greenpeace story detailing Exxon Mobile’s lobbying efforts to muddy the waters of climate change policy - in which Manchin is called a “kingmaker” for Exxon and Kyrsten Sinema’s named as a large benefactor of their donations - one would think that would be perfect fodder for applying pressure to pass these bills. Nevertheless, Biden appears to be content with settling for the scraps the vultures have left on his climate change agenda. At the same time, environmental disasters continue to ravage communities worldwide.


The rallying cry of the opposition to those combating climate change and hoping to protect the beauty of our landscape always boils down to it simply being too expensive. For all the talk of its economic burdens, there is little mention from those same politicians or lobbyists of what happens if action is not taken. What impact will rising sea levels have on a region like South Florida, which is reliant on its coastal tourism economy? How forceful will the brunt of the financial hit be to the rest of Florida? What of the Everglades? They’re not only a picturesque photographic landscape but also an ecosystem not found anywhere else in the world, one that provides drinking water to 8 million people and supports a fishing industry of $1.2 billion.


Over a century of logging in Washington - the nation's second largest lumber producer - has stripped the state of much of its old growth forest. These great woodlands are home to the marbled murrelet, a robin-sized bird listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The birds use the mature forests to raise their young

As landscape photographers, we are the documentarians of these unique environments. Our interests not only lie in the survival of these wonders but in their ability to flourish. We have a chance to capture our audience’s imagination through our work while shedding light on some of the many conservation efforts to protect our natural world and the threats they face from special interest groups, fossil fuel companies, and the politicians they pay to feign ignorance. As such, the scope of our responsibility should shift and expand as the presence of these evergrowing threats loom. We owe the land that much because indifference is nothing less than a death march directly towards an unforgiving future.