Rediscovering Classic Icons

Many of the famous landscapes that we love most aren’t necessarily permanent. Now is the time to visit and photograph these treasures.

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Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

The beauty of nature has captured the imagination of man for millennia. Like artists before us, nature has proven to be an endless source of inspiration and wonder. Photography allows us to capture a view of the natural world as a moment frozen in time to share with and inspire others. Due to the incredibly short human lifespan in relation to geological time, the transformation of our world seemingly plays out in super-slow motion. Over hundreds of millions of years, forces of nature in combination with natural phenomenon such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have created and shaped the scenery we photograph. What many of us often take for granted is that nature is always changing the landscape of our planet. Most of the time, these changes are too minute to perceive, with the exception of the rare occurrence of a catastrophic natural disaster. Our world is in flux, both as a result of natural and man-made forces. For these reasons, we should never assume that what we have the ability to photograph today will remain the same the next time we see it.

With the loss of these landscape icons, it raises the question, what other classic icons are threatened or prone to change, either by nature or the hand of man? To answer that question, we need to consider the forces, natural or otherwise, that most frequently impact our environment.

Wahweap Hoodoos, Utah

As recently as August of this year two classic landscape icons were forever changed—Havasu Falls in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, and Wall Arch in Arches National Park, Utah. Havasu Falls was damaged by a dramatic flash flood; in time, it will heal itself, taking on a slightly different appearance. On the other hand, Wall Arch is forever gone after losing its battle with gravity and the elements, collapsing into large sandstone boulders.

Some of the most beautiful locations on the planet reside underwater. The complex and colorful ecosystems that thrive within the world’s coral reefs are as fragile as they are impressive. Runoff consisting of pollutants, sediments and nutrients from growing coastal populations are threatening and degrading coral reefs. Other threats include overfishing, removal of coastal mangrove forests and coral bleaching—the loss of symbiotic algae due to the warming of seawater associated with global warming.

Flood. Many of the most beautiful desert landscapes also are the most prone to flash floods. Mountain storms several miles away can quickly send walls of water and debris into lower-lying canyons and dry creek beds also known as arroyos. With yearly rainfall values that are regularly low, visitors see little change in the landscape sometimes for as long as several decades. Ironically many of the iconic desert formations, textures and vistas are created by these infrequent and transforming floods. In 2004, Death Valley National Park, California, experienced a rare and extreme flash-flooding incident that closed roads, washed away hillsides, buried cars and killed two people.

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Sandstone arches within Arches National Park have been created over millions of years by a perfect combination of geological instability, rain, ice, snow, wind and gravity. Since the recent collapse of Wall Arch, which had measured 331⁄2 feet tall and spanned 71 feet, the longest natural arch in the world, Landscape Arch, is thought to have become quite fragile from a series of collapses dating back to 1991. There’s no telling how long Landscape Arch will last before it falls, but it’s important to keep in mind that the environmental conditions that destroy these grand formations also form new ones.

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Mount St. Helens, Washington Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

Rock Slides.
Yosemite Valley, California, best known for its iconic formations and monolithic rock faces, is subject to rock slides year-round. As anyone who has hiked in Yosemite knows, small rock slides are common. Less frequently, massive rock slides occur, slowly reshaping this glacially formed valley. The last such event occurred in 1996 when roughly 162,000 tons of granite fell one third of a mile, generating a blast of air rivaling hurricane-strength winds that killed one person, injuring 11 others and toppling hundreds of trees.

Yosemite Valley, California

Fire. Wildfires are part of the natural life cycle of forests, opening areas to sunlight by removing overgrowth, returning nutrients to the soil and triggering the germination of various tree species. In 1988, one of the largest wildfires on record burned over one third of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming (793,000 acres). To this day, the landscape bears the scars of this fire and is transforming yearly as the forest continues to recover.

Volcanic Eruption.
The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, Washington, epitomizes the destructive power of volcanoes and is the most recent major eruption to take place in the Cascade Mountains. Stretching south from British Columbia to Northern California, the Cascades is comprised of 21 volcanoes of which 11 have cumulatively erupted 50 times in the past 4,000 years. Iconic peaks, including Rainier, Hood and Shasta, tower over Washington, Oregon and California, respectively, providing dramatic backdrops to scenic locations across the West.

Hurricanes. Beaches and forests are ecosystems often prone to damage from hurricanes. Storm erosion, flood and wind damage can quickly and broadly transform iconic southern landscapes and wildlife habitat. Wetlands that act as a natural barrier to storm surges are being lost by an estimated 24 square miles per year in Louisiana alone, contributing to the amplification of damage that occurs with each subsequent storm. In 2005, it was estimated that Hurricane Katrina damaged roughly 320 million large trees. Southern beaches and forests always have been resilient and dynamic environments, but as history has shown, large storms in combination with man made environmental changes are having greater impact.

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Glacier National Park, Montana
Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

Some of the most beautiful locations on the planet reside underwater. The complex and colorful ecosystems that thrive within the world’s coral reefs are as fragile as they are impressive. Runoff consisting of pollutants, sediments and nutrients from growing coastal populations are threatening and degrading coral reefs. Other threats include overfishing, removal of coastal mangrove forests and coral bleaching—the loss of symbiotic algae due to the warming of seawater associated with global warming. The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network estimates 25 percent of coral reefs have been lost, with another 35 percent threatened.

Arches National Park, Utah

Global Warming. Much has been made of global temperature change in the past several years. The magical blue ice of receding glaciers in many locations has given way to rocky rubble and newly exposed valleys. Glacier National Park, Montana, once boasting 150 glaciers, now has 35. Sadly, it’s conceivable Glacier National Park will be absent of glaciers one day, providing all that visit a stark reminder of recent environmental changes.

Energy Exploration.
One of the most controversial landscape locations is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. This scenic location is as rich with wildlife as it is with oil, regularly placing it in the crosshairs of political debate on U.S. energy policy. Certainly not the only location threatened by such politics, it’s the most recognized talking point by many. Less widely discussed is the expansion of ecotourism, revealing this national treasure to the eyes of many.

Havasu Falls, Arizona

Vandalism. Selfishly some individuals opt to leave their mark on iconic landscapes by marking or outright destroying formations. Ancient petroglyphs and hoodoos have proven to be particularly vulnerable to vandalism. In 2006, it’s suspected that vandals toppled a capstone at Wahweap Hoodoos in Utah, and over the last several years, numerous incidents of vandalism have been reported on petroglyph sites across the American Southwest.

Our Future

Both photographers and photography viewers benefit from rediscovering classic icons. It enables photographers both to artistically interpret and document unique scenery and moments of natural history. Many might consider art and documentary photography two distinct genres, but outdoor photographers have the ability to harness both in such a way that inspires viewers of their work to respect, learn about, protect and lobby for the environments they see transformed naturally or at the hand of man.

As we note the change or loss of iconic landscapes, it’s important to keep in mind that the dynamic forces of nature have the power to both destroy and create. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once shared the wisdom that “Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.” Such wisdom is a reminder that as we explore, cameras in hand, there are still new icons to be discovered and shared.


    One of my favorite magical subjects are the Tufa at Mono Lake, located near Highway 395, Lee Vining, Calif.

    The lake level is rising thanks to a California Superior Court decision limiting LA Water & Power from draining Mono Lake. Gradually the Tufa formations are being submerged by the rising water. So now is a good time to visit unless you plan to scuba dive a decade from now.

    Shortly after my arrival at Bryce Canyon National Park in 1991, a friend who had worked there in the 1940’s shared a slide program that showed “hoodoos” or rock formations that had fallen since he worked at Bryce Canyon. It is regretable when beautiful things are lost through the action of man yet much of the beauty of our National Parks came to be because of great, chaotic change – which is continuing.

    On page 79 of your December issue in an article about Rediscovering Classic Icons you have a photo that is totally misrepresented. There is a photo by Jeff Vanuga that is labeled Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWAR) is an arctic desert and does not have the mountains or vegetation shown. The photo you have on page 79 is from Denali National Park overlooking Wonder Lake and Mt. McKinley. It actually looks as if it was taken near the Wonder Lake Ranger Station. Unfortunately it is photo?۪s such as this that misrepresent what we have in Alaska and what Congress has been fighting for and against with drilling in ANWAR. Please make sure in the future that your photographers don?۪t label photo?۪s ANWAR when in fact they are not. It?۪s a highly sensitive issue in Alaska and your magazine shouldn?۪t be inadvertently drawn into it because someone sent you a mislabeled photo. Thank You – Jim Wood

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