If you watched Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” recently, you know that the story of our parks is really the story of the people of America. It is a story about a conflict of ideas that permeates today – the conflict between those who believe that a select few should benefit from the economic potential of these majestic lands and those who believe that all Americans, regardless of stature, should have equal access to the parks for enjoyment.
I obviously fall into the later camp. If the likes of James Mason Hutchings or Ralph Henry Cameron or others of their ilk had their way, people like me today would not be entitled to access a national park for a minimal entrance fee – we would have to have paid exorbitant private concessionaire’s fees. But we can thank Mr. Hutchings and Mr. Cameron both for taking their causes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court – and losing. Thus, giving the federal government the power to not only develop the concept of a national park but for the President to be able to use the Antiquities Act to set aside national monuments, like how the Grand Canyon was originally set aside.
I am in that latter camp of supporting equal access to our public lands not only because I am a nature photographer, or because I know from my own personal experience the invigorating, rejuvenating and spiritually cleansing act of being in a wild place. I know from experience the truly equalizing effect of having public lands where people of all backgrounds can enjoy a place of wonder regardless of their station in life. It is the one thing in our Republic where all people truly are equal. When you are hiking, backpacking, biking, canoeing or whatever you do in a national park, you are no longer a rich man, poor man, white collar, blue collar or whatever other sort of label is thrust upon you in your development as a human being. You are a human being, simply put, trying to find a way to rediscover himself or herself through immersion in the wild, wonder of nature.
Increasingly I endeavor to photograph people enjoying parks. I don’t do it because I know that images of people in nature sell well at stock agencies. I do it because the story of each park cannot be told without the people who visit it. As commercially-minded as their motivations may have been, the railroad companies of the early Twentieth Century certainly understood that the word had to get out about the wonders of our new national parks in order to increase visitorship to them. On a similar note, others like Stephen Mather – the man responsible for creating the national park service – knew that the only way to protect a park was to get people to have a connection to that park so they would be emboldened to ensure its survival. By photographing people in the parks, I can only hope to illustrate and remind myself and others that these parks exist to be enjoyed; and the people are out there enjoying them.