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Behind the Lens, Above the Ground with photographer Dave Showalter
Dave Showalter is an award-winning photographer, author and Fellow Photographer in the International League of Conservation Photographers. Ride along as Dave gives us an aerial tour of conservation issues facing Colorado and Wyoming by sharing why he created the following images made on LightHawk donated flights.
Does Green Energy = Good Energy?
The image below represents how complicated development can be in the West. LightHawk volunteer pilot Mike Conway (Fort Collins, CO) flew me over wind farms so I could photograph their footprint on the land, the scale of which is impossible to see from ground level.
Foote Creek Rim, in southeastern Wyoming, takes advantage of Elk Mountain’s world-class wind and provides renewable energy, but at a price. In an increasingly fragmented West, each development (even renewables) must be scrutinized for habitat loss, and risks to wildlife, human health, and recreation.
This is What Conservation Victory Looks Like
To see the land unfold as only migrating pronghorn, birds on the wing and intrepid hikers can, LightHawk volunteer pilot and fellow photographer Chris Boyer (Bozeman, MT) flew a mission to show where the Hoback River begins as snow high in the Wyoming Range, then flows through the Upper Hoback Basin. Our route took us over the junction of the Hoback and Snake Rivers, the Snake having just traveled south from Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone.
Because of the aerial perspective, this particular photograph makes a visual connection to the Teton Range, visual evidence that the Upper Hoback is just as important ecologically as Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
When I made this image, the Upper Hoback Basin was leased for full-scale industrial drilling. This was being actively contested by a broad-based grassroots coalition fighting for critical wildlife habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
This January, the species that need these wild places, pronghorn, mule deer, elk, moose, grizzly bear, Snake River cutthroat, and countless other species breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Trust For Public Land purchased the gas leases in the Upper Hoback and retired them forever. For me, this stands as one of the biggest conservation victories in the West.
Places like these often spell doom for animals whose survival is inextricably connected to the land. Although you’ll see no active drilling rigs in the image below, to local wildlife it is forever altered through a spaghetti network of roads, drilling platforms, power lines, and drilling apparatus left behind once the wells run dry.
Single-use industrialized landscapes like this are unsuitable for human recreation and wildlife are simply pushed away. The aerial perspective, here provided by volunteer pilot Chris Boyer, is often the only way to show the scale of these sacrifice zones.
This image captures a small elk herd grazing on lush alpine tundra on Carter Mountain east of Yellowstone National Park. If developers had their way, drilling rigs would spring up around the base of the mountain - the elk's winter range. Five thousand or so elk from the Yellowstone herd migrate through here in fall and spring, to and from the sagebrush-thick base of the mountain.
Flying with volunteer pilot Ray Lee (Cody, WY), as part of a collaboration between Greater Yellowstone Coalition(GYC) and iLCP, helped me document a critically important slice of this migration superhighway traveled by elk, mule deer, grizzly and black bear, bighorn sheep and other iconic Western species. The photography expedition supports GYC's efforts to maintain freedom to roam and make seasonal habitat off-limits to widespread oil and gas drilling, ensuring a healthy future for wildlife.
A River Runs Through It
The southern end of Pinedale Mesa in western Wyoming has been given over to natural gas drilling. Gas rigs line the New Fork River, which starts in the Wind River Mountains seen in the backdrop of this image. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” uses million of gallons of water for each well and adds roughly 550 chemicals (some cancer-causing) to make the fracking fluid that is injected into the earth.
I made this image from Chris Boyer's Cessna 172 while considering the risk to water and air quality.
Wild for Now
Rising up like cresting wave from the surrounding basin, the Roan Plateau near Colorado's border with Utah has long been a target for development. The surrounding area has been intensively drilled for natural gas, and almost 55,000 acres leased for drilling on the plateau are hotly contested.
This image to showcases the spectacular landscape of sagebrush, aspen, and conifer forest that remains here largely wild. Flying with LightHawk volunteer pilot John Feagin (Vail, CO), I was able to document both sides of the Roan - the fragmented industrial zone and the wild side.
What the Snow Revealed
Gunnison, Colorado is home to an endangered and intriguing namesake bird. The Gunnison Sage-grouse is a bird that spends its entire life in sagebrush nearby and that’s a good thing.
The Ohio Creek Valley, seen here, stretches northwest from Gunnison towards Ohio Pass and the Raggeds Wilderness weaving through ranchland and grouse habitat. Conservationists, ranchers, land managers - the extended Gunnison community - have banded together to improve habitat and land management practices and give the endangered grouse a fighting chance.
LightHawk volunteer pilot Jim Grady (Grand Junction, CO) flew me over Gunnison in winter when snow highlighted the relationship of ranchlands to public lands (and residential areas, reservoirs, roads, and powerlines. The resulting images provide a sense of how much habitat is available to grouse and sagebrush obligate species.
Flying over many places in the West, I’m struck by how crowded things look from the air. At first glance, the image below shows a Western mountain valley in winter. But the aerial perspective reveals the interface of private and public lands, used by Gunnison Sage-grouse for thousands of years without thought to ownership. The extended Gunnison community is doing a remarkable job of managing the land for agriculture, wildlife, and recreation - the endangered grouse population in Gunnison Basin has stabilized as a result.