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America’s Natural Treasures

A new book pays tribute to the national parks

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Panorama of Slough Creek at sunset, near Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

American historian, writer and conservationist Wallace Stegner once called the national parks “the best idea we ever had.” While that description may be debatable, there’s something to the notion that these beautiful natural landscapes are to the United States what the Roman Coliseum, Greece’s Parthenon or countless medieval cathedrals are to Europe. They’re unique treasures that allow visitors to step back in time.

Merced River and El Capitan at last light, Yosemite National Park, California.

Having spent a few years working steadily for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), photographer Ian Shive was building up quite a collection of images. His assignments allowed him to see the parks in ways that most people can’t, like when he accompanied a search-and-rescue team to Mount McKinley in Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve or an underwater archaeological team to Lake Mohave, which is part of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada.

So his plans were to do a book, but one that would come out in 2016 when the National Park Service celebrates its centennial. After floating the idea to a couple of colleagues who then contacted a publisher, Shive discovered that there was great interest in his book now. He had four months to fill in the gaps of an archive that had grown to more than 3,000 images. Missing in his collection were those iconic spots, like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Point, which he had purposely stayed away from in order to bring a fresh perspective to these often-photographed places.

Having done several cross-country jaunts already for National Parks magazine and the International League of Conservation Photographers, Shive embarked on two 3 1⁄2-week trips across the Rockies during the winter. His travels included a 7,500-mile trek in which he was sometimes shooting two parks a day. The result is The National Parks: Our American Landscape (Palace Publishing Group, LP, 2009), a volume containing 200 of the photographer’s best shots—from familiar, but always breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim and Death Valley to lesser-known spots like the rail yard at Steamtown National Historic Site in Pennsylvania and Big Bend National Park in Texas.

The remains of a 225-million-
year-old tree from the late Triassic period, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona.

Definitely one for getting off the beaten path, Shive goes to great lengths to make sure the entire country is represented and to show places, even within the most popular parks, that few people ever get to see, like a stunning aerial shot of the Alaska Range’s snow-covered landscape taken from a helicopter.

With so many images of national parks published each year, it’s a real challenge for a photographer to capture these classic landscapes in ways that are new and interesting. Shive’s approach is equal parts historical account and personal journey, with his focus more on capturing a moment than a landmark. Rather than arranging the images by geographic location, he groups them by color, theme and shape, emphasizing that these places are all interconnected.

In doing the book, Shive’s goals were not unlike what William Henry Jackson’s were back in 1872 when his photographs helped convince Congress to pass an act establishing Yellowstone as the country’s first national park. While Jackson was revealing to the public a series of places that were previously thought of as rumor, Shive is sharing his experiences in the parks to inspire people to explore and reconnect with nature. In both cases, the power of a photograph is used to tell a story or provide some kind of insight that motivates others to go out and form meaningful connections to the land.

“Exploration is about personal discovery,” says Shive, “seeing something for the first time about yourself.”

This Article Features Photo Zoom

A giant sequoia against the backdrop of a starry night sky, Sequoia National Park, California.

A conservation photographer from the start, he plans to donate proceeds from the book to the NPCA, as a chronic lack of funding is just one of many challenges facing the parks. While the estimated $8 billion to $9 billion backlog in needed maintenance is of great concern, dealing with the potentially devastating effects of climate change is even more pressing. Some experts predict Joshua Tree National Park could lose its Joshua trees. Glacier National Park could be without glaciers by 2030 or sooner. Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone may lose their pines. Low-lying parks, such as Dry Tortugas off of Key West, Fla., and Ellis Island in the New York-New Jersey Harbor, could disappear underwater sometime this century, as sea levels are expected to rise by up to four feet.

“There’s no better place, visually, to see global warming than in the parks,” says Shive, who’s an emerging member of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Earlier this year, he was one of several photographers who went on the iLCP’s Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (RAVE) to the U.S.-Mexico border to document how the wall being built is harming wildlife, ecosystems and local communities.

Top 10 Most Visited Parks

Big Bend National Park, Texas

The National Park Service is headed for a record-breaking number of visitors this year if attendance numbers hold up. Through the first nine months of this year, nearly 232 million people have already visited national park sites. This translates to a 5% increase over the same time frame last year. If visitation stays strong through the rest of the year, the parks could see more than 288 million visitors for 2009, topping the previous records of more than 287 million visitors in 1987 and 1999.

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee, North Carolina) — 6.4 million*
  2. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona) — 3.2 million
  3. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho) — 2.7 million
  4. Yosemite National Park (California) — 2.7 million
  5. Olympic National Park (Washington) — 2.4 million
  6. Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming) — 2 million
  7. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) — 2 million
  8. Zion National Park (Utah) — 2 million
  9. Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio)— 1.8 million
  10. Glacier National Park (Montana) — 1.6 million

Nature and conservation is something about which the New Jersey native has been passionate since childhood; that passion intensified when he decided to attend Montana State University. During his years there, he began exploring Yellowstone with a camera in tow and laying the foundation for a career in photojournalism. However, he would spend eight years at Sony’s Columbia Pictures developing marketing campaigns for more than 60 movies, including the Spider-Man franchise, before becoming a full-time photographer.

Since then, his work has appeared in many publications, including National Geographic, Time, U.S. News & World Report, Outside, Popular Science and The Los Angeles Times.

“I definitely lived a dual life for a while. On a Friday night, I would hop on a plane and go to Montana or Smoky Mountains National Park to take pictures,” he recalls. “Then I’d fly back and walk a red-carpet press line after just having watched a buffalo herd crossing. Two totally different worlds.”

Now Shive’s world is about enduring the extreme temperatures of the desert or the frozen Alaska landscape while dealing with 40 pounds of gear. Images for the book were shot digitally with Canon EOS 5D cameras, a variety of lenses, extension tubes, strobes, filters and other extras. A videographer accompanied Shive along the way, recording HD footage that was originally intended to be a short video showing behind-the-scenes action. They ended up with about 40 hours of footage that was turned into a four-part series, Wild Exposure, which airs on Current TV.

A wild tarantula in the Chihuahuan Desert, Big Bend National Park, Texas.

After spending so much time in the national parks, it’s tough for Shive to pick a favorite, but he does have one.

“Channel Islands National Park. It’s close to home, so I can wake up and photograph the sunrise and get great early-morning-light landscape and coastal views,” he explains. “Then I can jump in the water and spend three or four hours down there. Then I can go for a hike in the evening. I can do something all day.

The National Parks: Our American Landscape is available at all major bookstores and See more of Ian Shive’s work at