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Behind the Lens, Above the Ground with Photographer Dave Showalter

Dave Showalter is an award-winning photographer, author and Fellow Photographer in the International League of Conservation Photographers. Ride along as Dave gives us an aerial tour of conservation issues facing Colorado and Wyoming by sharing why he created the following images made on LightHawk donated flights.

Does Green Energy = Good Energy?
The image below represents how complicated development can be in the West. LightHawk volunteer pilot Mike Conway (Fort Collins, CO) flew me over wind farms so I could photograph their footprint on the land, the scale of which is impossible to see from ground level.

Foote Creek Rim, in southeastern Wyoming, takes advantage of Elk Mountain’s world-class wind and provides renewable energy, but at a price. In an increasingly fragmented West, each development (even renewables) must be scrutinized for habitat loss, and risks to wildlife, human health, and recreation.

The Foote Creek Wind Farm, near Arlington, Wyoming catches world-class wind from nearby Elk Mountain. Carbon County, Wyoming. LightHawk flight with pilot Mike Conway over south-central Wyoming wind farms and landscapes on June 14, 2011.
The Foote Creek Wind Farm, near Arlington, Wyoming catches world-class wind from nearby Elk Mountain. Carbon County, Wyoming. LightHawk flight with pilot Mike Conway over south-central Wyoming wind farms and landscapes on June 14, 2011. credit: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk

 

This is What Conservation Victory Looks Like
To see the land unfold as only migrating pronghorn, birds on the wing and intrepid hikers can, LightHawk volunteer pilot and fellow photographer Chris Boyer (Bozeman, MT) flew a mission to show where the Hoback River begins as snow high in the Wyoming Range, then flows through the Upper Hoback Basin. Our route took us over the junction of the Hoback and Snake Rivers, the Snake having just traveled south from Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone.

Because of the aerial perspective, this particular photograph makes a visual connection to the Teton Range, visual evidence that the Upper Hoback just as important ecologically as Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

When I made this image, the Upper Hoback Basin was leased for full-scale industrial drilling. This was being actively contested by a broad-based grassroots coalition fighting for critical wildlife habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

This January, the species that need these wild places, pronghorn, mule deer, elk, moose, grizzly bear, Snake River cutthroat, and countless other species breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Trust For Public Land purchased the gas leases in the Upper Hoback and retired them forever. For me, this stands as one of the biggest conservation victories in the West.

A clearing storm passes over the distant Teton Range in this view of the Upper Hoback area of the Wyoming range. This are is now protected forever. Grizzly bear, moose, wintering mule deer, elk and pronghorn are among the wild animals that will be allowed to roam free. credit: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk
A clearing storm passes over the distant Teton Range in this view of the Upper Hoback area of the Wyoming range. This are is now protected forever. Grizzly bear, moose, wintering mule deer, elk and pronghorn are among the wild animals that will be allowed to roam free. credit: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk

 

Shattered Places
Places like these often spell doom for animals whose survival is inextricably connected to the land. Although you’ll see no active drilling rigs in the image below, to local wildlife it is forever altered through a spaghetti network of roads, drilling platforms, power lines, and drilling apparatus left behind once the wells run dry.

Single-use industrialized landscapes like this are unsuitable for human recreation and wildlife are simply pushed away. The aerial perspective, here provided by volunteer pilot Chris Boyer, is often the only way to show the scale of these sacrifice zones.

An aerial perscpective of the the fractured landscape in the La Barge Oil and Gas Fields. Although there are no derricks in this image, the land is permanently fragmented by roads, drilling pads, and equipment. This is but a narrow view of a much larger industrial complex. Sublette County, Wyoming. credit: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk

Stomping Grounds
This image captures a small elk herd grazing on lush alpine tundra on Carter Mountain east of Yellowstone National Park. If developers had their way, drilling rigs would spring up around the base of the mountain – the elk’s winter range. Five thousand or so elk from the Yellowstone herd migrate through here in fall and spring, to and from the sagebrush-thick base of the mountain.

Flying with volunteer pilot Ray Lee (Cody, WY), as part of a collaboration between Greater Yellowstone Coalition(GYC) and iLCP, helped me document a critically important slice of this migration superhighway traveled by elk, mule deer, grizzly and black bear, bighorn sheep and other iconic Western species. The photography expedition supports GYC’s efforts to maintain freedom to roam and make seasonal habitat off-limits to widespread oil and gas drilling, ensuring a healthy future for wildlife.

Stomping Grounds This image captures a small elk herd grazing on lush alpine tundra on Carter Mountain east of Yellowstone National Park. If developers had their way, drilling rigs would spring up around the base of the mountain - the elk's winter range. Five thousand or so elk from the Yellowstone herd migrate through here in fall and spring, to and from the sagebrush-thick base of the mountain.  Flying with volunteer pilot Ray Lee helped me document a critically important slice of this migration superhighway traveled by elk, mule deer, grizzly and black bear, bighorn sheep and other iconic Western species. Protecting their freedom to roam and making seasonal habitat off-limits to drilling ensures a healthy future for wildlife. credit: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk
Elk Aerial – Washakie Wilderness, Wyoming. credit: Dave Showalter aerial support from LightHawk

 

A River Runs Through It
The southern end of Pinedale Mesa in western Wyoming has been given over to natural gas drilling. Gas rigs line the New Fork River, which starts in the Wind River Mountains seen in the backdrop of this image. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” uses million of gallons of water for each well and adds roughly 550 chemicals (some cancer-causing) to make the fracking fluid that is injected into the earth.

I made this image from Chris Boyer’s Cessna 172 while considering the risk to water and air quality.

Natural gas drilling operations along the New Fork River at the southern end of The Mesa in the Upper Green River Basin.  Wyoming requires gas drilling operations to disclose the components of the fracking chemicals that are injected into the earth to fracture rock layers, but drillers are still not fully disclosing the chemical recipe of their fracking fluids. Sublette County, Wyoming. credit: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk
Natural gas drilling operations along the New Fork River at the southern end of The Mesa in the Upper Green River Basin.
Wyoming requires gas drilling operations to disclose the components of the fracking chemicals that are injected into the earth to fracture rock layers, but drillers are still not fully disclosing the chemical recipe of their fracking fluids. Sublette County, Wyoming. credit: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk

 

Wild for Now
Rising up like cresting wave from the surrounding basin, the Roan Plateau near Colorado’s border with Utah has long been a target for development. The surrounding area has been intensively drilled for natural gas, and almost 55,000 acres leased for drilling on the plateau are hotly contested.

This image to showcases the spectacular landscape of sagebrush, aspen, and conifer forest that remains here largely wild. Flying with LightHawk volunteer pilot John Feagin (Vail, CO), I was able to document both sides of the Roan – the fragmented industrial zone and the wild side.

The Roan Plateau, in Colorado's Piceance Basin, is a major target of gas drillers seeking to expand the heavily developed area.   credit: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk
The Roan Plateau is a major target of gas drillers seeking to expand the heavily developed area.
credit: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk

 

What the Snow Revealed
Gunnison, Colorado is home to an endangered and intriguing namesake bird. The Gunnison Sage-grouse is a bird that spends its entire life in sagebrush nearby and that’s a good thing.

The Ohio Creek Valley, seen here, stretches northwest from Gunnison towards Ohio Pass and the Raggeds Wilderness weaving through ranchland and grouse habitat. Conservationists, ranchers, land managers – the extended Gunnison community – have banded together to improve habitat and land management practices and give the endangered grouse a fighting chance.

LightHawk volunteer pilot Jim Grady (Grand Junction, CO) flew me over Gunnison in winter when snow highlighted the relationship of ranchlands to public lands (and residential areas, reservoirs, roads, and powerlines. The resulting images provide a sense of how much habitat is available to grouse and sagebrush obligate species.

Flying over many places in the West, I’m struck by how crowded things look from the air. At first glance, the image below shows a Western mountain valley in winter. But the aerial perspective reveals the interface of private and public lands, used by Gunnison Sage-grouse for thousands of years without thought to ownership. The extended Gunnison community is doing a remarkable job of managing the land for agriculture, wildlife, and recreation – the endangered grouse population in Gunnison Basin has stabilized as a result.

An aerial view of the Ohio Creek Valley looking west to the West Elk Mountains. The landscape is mixed ranchland and public land and home to a high percentage of the global population of endangered Gunnison Sage-grouse. credit: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk
An aerial view of the Ohio Creek Valley looking west to the West Elk Mountains. The landscape is mixed ranchland and public land and home to a high percentage of the global population of endangered Gunnison Sage-grouse.
credit: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk

Comments

  1. Alex Winn
    Denver, CO
    August 8, 3:08 pm

    I really appreciate the photography – it’s beautiful. However, i think we need to keep perspective on what makes that possible; cameras, computers, equipment and planes largely made with polymers extracted through oil/gas production; Jet A1 fuel that allows you fly in the plane to capture the magnificence.
    I feel like it’s easy for us to demonize an industry that makes significant environmental impacts, yet we all want to enjoy the modern conveniences that come from said industry. Unless we are willing to give up our plethora of modern conveniences that come from oil/gas production, then we need to stop pointing fingers. We should instead, spend our time finding truly economic alternatives for the energy we all crave.

  2. Jayne Mller
    Texas
    April 23, 4:42 pm

    I was in LaBarge in the mid 80’s for the Exxon project drilling for SO2 – Sulphur Dioxide. It was a magical and harsh landscape. Those scars on the land will remain for hundreds of years. Indeed, the ruts of the Lander Cutoff of the Oregon Trail could still be seen south of Pinedale looking towards Big Piney.

  3. Jayne Mller
    Texas
    April 23, 11:43 am

    I was in LaBarge in the mid 80’s for the Exxon project drilling for SO2. It was a magical and harsh landscape. Those scars on the land will remain for hundreds of years. Indeed, the ruts of the Chisolm trail could still be seen south of Pinedale looking towards Big Piney.

  4. Harry Kelleher
    May 24, 2013, 9:41 am

    To save a grouse is to take a step into a better future. Thank you Dave.

  5. Dave Showalter
    Arvada, CO
    May 20, 2013, 11:28 am

    Thank you all for your kind and insightful comments. I’m fortunate to be able to do this work, to have marla’s wonderful support, and great partners like LightHawk. We can all do something – write a letter, sign a petition (less effective), share what’s happening and what’s at stake with friends and family, get kids outside.

  6. Carol Keith
    Littleton, CO
    May 18, 2013, 9:30 pm

    Dave, Congratulations on such an amazing accomplishment! We are so fortunate to have someone like you who is so passionate at working to protect our environment and the creatures that inhabit it.

  7. Chris Gyorkos
    Rockford, Il.
    May 18, 2013, 1:22 pm

    Dave,
    You are a true warrior! Your work is nothing but the best, and the the truth it tells exposes the short term goals of big oil and the long term destruction it causes. As I am a friend from childhood, I am proud to say I grew up with you!!!

  8. Lori Martinson
    Hendersonville, NC
    May 17, 2013, 6:42 pm

    Dave,
    Thank you so much for that perspective, both with the photos and the information. You really do very important work. I wish we had more people like you in our world.

  9. Mike G
    Colorado
    May 17, 2013, 10:39 am

    Wow, that’s a fantastic perspective. The Roan is beautiful while the former drilling area, scarred and cut up is pretty depressing. Thanks for sharing and thanks for taking a stand!

  10. Louise Hecht
    May 16, 2013, 7:48 pm

    The pictures show us on the ground what damage is being done. Keep up the good work and journalism!

  11. Ted Harvey
    Boulder
    May 16, 2013, 2:27 pm

    Dave, you always amaze me with your unique perspective, not only in your beautiful photography, but also in your insights about the impacts our quest for energy has on our irreplaceable habitat.
    Thanks for your work.

  12. Barb Anthony
    Centennial
    May 16, 2013, 2:11 pm

    These photo’s are amazing. Most people would never get to see this without the dedication of people like you. Thanks for all your hard work and great photography.

  13. Eva Spain
    Centennial Colorado
    May 16, 2013, 1:50 pm

    Dave, Thank you for your splendid work and energy that you give to protecting the land and the environment. Hopefully, my family and great grandkids to come, will have the land as we have known it and the animal life to enjoy and appreciate.

  14. Marla Ofstad
    Arvada
    May 16, 2013, 11:20 am

    The American West is a better place thanks to the work you are doing, just amazing, and as a human who loves the land and everything that goes along with it, I thank you and am proud to be a part of it.