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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Prairie Photo Companion

One Colorado photographer takes aim at the plains in a new photo conservation book

 A Prairie Photo CompanionThis Article Features Photo Zoom
Dave Showalter covered thousands of miles to create Prairie Thunder: The Nature of Colorado's Great Plains. From the Wyoming border south, he photographed the Colorado prairie through all of the seasons for four years. Above: Autumn cottonwoods over Lake Ladora, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

Scenes of the famed Rocky Mountains epitomize the Colorado landscape. Jagged, snowcappedpeaks in winter, yellow aspen trees in fall, blooming wildflowers in spring and yearlong wildlife sightings make for the kind of iconic shots that fill photography bookshelves. But one photographer has turned his attention elsewhere in the state. Trading steep, rocky terrain for flat grasslands, Dave Showalter captures the essence of Colorado’s eastern plains in his book Prairie Thunder: The Nature of Colorado’s Great Plains. More than an attempt to show the subtle beauty of a region where few rarely spend time, Showalter joined forces with an army of scientists, conservation groups and private landowners to complete the project. In doing so, his work has become part of a major effort to protect the Colorado grasslands.

This ecosystem is considered one of the most endangered in the world, yet less than one percent of North America's shortgrass prairie is protected. In the United States, it’s an area that encompasses 100,000 acres, stretching east of the Rocky Mountains from Nebraska, through Colorado, Kansas and southward, through the high plains of Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. So consider the magnitude of what’s happening in Colorado alone, where about 40 percent of the state’s shortgrass prairie remains, with much of it degraded because agriculture, rural development and urbanization have fragmented the land. Grassland birds have shown steeper and more consistent declines than any other group of vertebrate animals in North America.

Winter Sunrise
Winter sunrise, Boulder County
Prairie Thunder After learning about the challenges facing this region, Showalter set out to capture the splendor of a place that, at first glance, strikes some as just plain boring. For non-prairie lovers, views of flat, windswept landscapes may not inspire the same sense of wonder as dramatic mountaintops or endless oceans. But Showalter’s photographs reveal a vibrant, colorful world that possesses a delicate, yet often overlooked beauty that changes dramatically from season to season. Woven between the photographs, he describes the challenges facing the Colorado prairie, the action being taken now to preserve it and what still needs to be done.

Many people consider the plains to be drive-through country says Showalter. So one of my first missions was to show their beauty, the flora and fauna, because if it’s not beautiful people won’t take an interest. Gary Graham [Executive Director of Audubon Colorado] said to me, "Your job is to make people love the plains," and that’s what I tried to do in every shot. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, I’ve trekked in Nepal, and I’d rate the grasslands among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

On his visual trek across Colorado’s eastern half, Showalter followed the cycles of the prairie for four years, covering more than 30,000 miles. He shot thousands of photographs, from blinds, his truck, a small airplane, the plains, and canyon and river overlooks. Tracking the seasons was vital to his work because of how quickly the terrain would change. Native grasses that appeared thin and overgrazed in the spring would burst into thick, lush fields in August after a monsoon. Showalter found that if he missed just a few weeks, he’d have to become reacquainted with the land all over again because things changed just that fast.


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