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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Photojournalist’s Eye

From the Pacific Northwest and beyond, top nature photographer Gary Braasch takes on the planet

This Article Features Photo Zoom

“Nature is news.”
With those three words always top of mind, photojournalist Gary Braasch embarked on a career where environmental issues and conservation have remained the heart and soul of his work for more than 25 years. From threats to coral reefs in the Philippines to the endangered wetlands in Argentina and all points in between, his powerful photographs tell a compelling story about the state of the world’s most imperiled places.

Since 1999, Braasch has focused squarely on the effects of climate change. He has circled the globe photographing receding glaciers in Greenland, rising tides along various coastlines, Chinese farmers facing famine caused by drought and the countless other effects of global warming. That work appears in his latest book, Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming Is Changing the World (see sidebar).

Gary Braasch’s mission as a nature photographer began with a desire to show beautiful pictures of old-growth forests in the Northwest. Now, he says inspiring people to become more interested and active in conservation is the goal.
But before turning his lens on the entire planet, Braasch’s story started in his own backyard in the Pacific Northwest where this country’s oldest forests live. Trained as a journalist, he began taking pictures to illustrate his nature articles. After moving to Oregon, where he still lives, the stunning landscape convinced him to pick up a camera.

Beautiful nature shots marked his early work, but that changed in 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted. He had already started exploring the scientific importance of the trees that surrounded him, but when the volcano erupted, it helped Braasch crystallize how he could marry a love of nature with his journalistic background.

“At the time I didn’t know it, but I had a talent for making a good picture, and I was reading all of these scientific reports about the trees I was photographing,” Braasch says. “With Mount St. Helens, here was natural beauty and news. That really was the turning point for me. I decided I would use my camera to illustrate natural history, science and environmental issues through pretty pictures.”

His photographs of the eruption were widely published and put him on the map as a photographer. He continued his work in the forest, but he started to take photographs that were guided by a scientific understanding of the forest.

Generally, what makes old-growth forests so ecologically special is the richness of plants and animal life found within them. Among all of the forests in the world, the Pacific Northwest is unique because of the size and old age of its trees, which are anywhere from 350 to 750 years old. Other factors include biomass accumulation and the climate, with wet, mild winters and dry, warm summers.

No other forest has an entire group of tree species that equals that of the Northwest in terms of size and age. For that reason, there’s a considerable number of species that have become rare because they depend on their now-rare habitat and wouldn’t survive in a younger forest. When Braasch came on the scene in the 1980s, the toll that heavy, unrestricted logging had taken on this ecosystem was starting to draw the ire of the scientific community and environmental groups.

The removal of these trees was problematic in several ways. It altered how the forests were structured and changed the balance between animal and plant species. Since deforestation often is associated with logging, many scientists believe it’s responsible for 17 percent of annual global carbon emissions, a level higher than emissions from transportation.


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