When Americans think about our national parks and natural beauty, our minds often jump — whether or not we’ve visited these places — to images we’ve seen of ice sheets at Glacier National Park, the moonlike wastes of Death Valley, or iconic images of groves at Joshua Tree National Park. While the classic look of these places is fixed in our minds, the places themselves are changing for the worse, and if we don’t take action, old images may be all we have left to enjoy.
Nearly a hundred years ago, before these and other now-famous locations became backgrounds on our computers, the photographer Ansel Adams set out to capture their beauty and share them with the nation. In doing so, he provided Americans with an environmental lens through which to view the world. His images awakened the conscience of people young and old who had heard about, but often not yet seen, these remarkable places. His work spoke to us without words about the importance of environmental protection.
Today, his extraordinary photographs serve as a historical record of what our national parks looked like when the very idea of “national parks” was still fairly new. Looking back on his work and seeing how these landscapes have changed can help us put our current world in perspective. Whatever our political convictions, it can remind us of what we value about our country, what we’ve lost, and why we should seek to reverse those losses. It reminds us that our public lands can help bring our country back together, but only if we protect them.
The sad but undeniable truth is that in President TrumpDonald TrumpMan sentenced to nearly four years for running scam Trump, Biden PACs Meadows says Trump's blood oxygen level was dangerously low when he had COVID-19 Trump endorses David Perdue in Georgia's governor race MORE’s America, our public lands look very different than they once did. The president’s mismanagement can be seen in the vanishing of Glacier National Park’s ice, which Adams powerfully photographed and which has since almost disappeared. During the government shutdown early in Trump’s tenure, irreplaceable stands in Joshua Tree were cut down when his administration left parks open without staffers to manage visitation. At Death Valley National Park, tire marks from off-road vehicles have destroyed once pristine desert lake beds.
The damage isn’t confined to national parks. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, which contain tens of thousands of tribal and cultural artifacts, rare rock art, and 75 million-year-old dinosaur fossils, were stripped of protections by the administration and subsequently vandalized; both sites are targeted for drilling and grazing. Sacred Native American sites have been blown up and bulldozers have toppled giant saguaros in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona to make way for Trump’s unpopular border wall. Protected waters in marine monuments are being opened to commercial fishing. Public lands across the country are being fast-tracked for extraction and exploitation at every turn.
You don’t have to look at an old photograph to understand that with Donald Trump running the executive branch, our public lands are on a path to destruction. Just since the pandemic first shut down much of the country, Trump has sought to open parts of the Grand Canyon to unsafe uranium mining and weaken the National Environmental Policy Act. He has systematically silenced communities of color and given polluters more political power and cover from public scrutiny.
Today, photographs of our public lands vividly capture the ravages of climate change and the consequences of ignoring science. We all saw the West Coast quite literally on fire, turning the sky orange and eerie and apocalyptic for millions of Americans for days at a time. The president has made it easier for fossil fuel producers to release methane, a dangerous gas that fuels climate change and threatens human health, into the air regardless of the health, environmental or economic costs to the rest of us. This continues even at places like New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a sacred site for countless Native Americans who fear the impacts of allowing natural gas drilling nearby, as the administration prefers.
Instead of stewardship, images from Trump’s America show the cost of greed and mismanagement. National parks and public lands are places that can provide us with healing in difficult times — but they also need healing themselves. If Ansel Adams set out today, what would he find?
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources.