Terra Galleria Photography

New River Gorge National Park: Five Classic Sights

The only thing new with New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is its status as our latest national park. The river is very old, and New River Gorge National River had long been known as an East Coast outdoors activities hub offering diverse activities including whitewater rafting with Class V rapids, excellent rock climbing, and even BASE jumping from the landmark New River Gorge Bridge. I was surprised to discover that the park has something for everyone: scenery, biodiversity, history, recreation. Located hundreds of miles from any big city, New River Gorge is not a day trip destination, which is good since in almost a week, I was far from being able to see everything. This article details the sights I expected to see in the park: the New River Gorge Bridge, and the great views of the New River Gorge.

The New River Gorge

The longest and deepest canyon in the Appalachian Mountains, New River Gorge has been cut by a river that is, despite its name, one of the oldest in the world. The river course was set before the Appalachians formed 60 million years ago. Flowing across the Appalachian Plateau, not around it or from it unlike the other Appalachian streams that run west to east, the New River cut into the mountains faster than their uplift rate, carving a gorge 1,400 feet deep at Grandview Point. The steep gradient generating its erosive power makes it one of the finest whitewater rivers in the eastern United States. Over 50 miles within the park, it drops 750 feet – by comparison, the Mississippi River drops 1,500 feet over its entire 2,300-mile course. The New River runs from south to north. Together with the diversity of niche habitats due to topography, the unusual orientation serves as a corridor for species, leading to a biodiversity hot spot.

The National Park and Preserve

Formerly designated a National River, New River Gorge (114 square miles) is long and thin, stretching for 33 miles from Ansted in the north to Hinton in the south, however never more than a few miles away from the river. A first national park redesignation bill introduced in 2018 wasn’t successful because of local opposition, mostly due to the fact that national parks do not permit hunting on their lands. The next year, the West Virginia congressional leadership put together a national park and preserve redesignation bill. Unlike national parks, national preserves permit hunting. They are mostly located in Alaska, where hunting is a way of life, with the only “national park and preserve” in the lower 48 being Great Sand Dunes. Even though the “National Park” part is only 9.4 square miles, representing less than 10% of the park, some still lamented about the loss of hunting grounds as unacceptable, but the bill passed. Although very small, the “National Park” part nevertheless includes the main attractions: the Lower Gorge around the New River Gorge Bridge, Thurmond, Grandview, and Sandstone Falls. Fayetteville is the closest gateway town with amenities. The first four locations in this article are all located in the Lower Gorge, and a short distance from Fayetteville, while the fifth is further south.

New River Gorge Bridge (1)

  The iconic 3,000-foot bridge is the longest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the third-highest bridge in the United States. From the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, a short boardwalk leads to an overlook for close-up views of the bridge. A 178-step walk down to an observation platform leads to a better view. The bridge shortened cross-gorge travel time from over an hour to less than a minute.  The old cross-gorge route starting in Lansing is now a steep and curvy scenic drive called the Fayette Station Road, crossing several times below the bridge. Many visitors jump out of their cars for a quick shot as the road traverses the smaller Tunney Hunsaker Bridge. It is an excellent spot for an unobstructed view of the Bridge’s full span, and in order to spend more time, I walked back from the riverside parking from which the bridge soars 875 feet above. The sky had been cloudless, however, as I was driving up and out of the gorge, I noticed afternoon clouds moving in. I drove again the mostly one-way road for a second chance. If the conditions improve, just photograph again! The top of the bridge is open to pedestrians only on Bridge Day, however you can take a guided tours along the 24-inch-wide catwalk under the bridge for vertiginous views.

Long Point (2)

  Long Point  is a narrow ridge extending above the canyon, offering views on both sides of the valley, and especially towards the north and the New River Gorge Bridge, only half a mile away. It is my favorite perspective of the bridge, as the unobstructed view is perfectly symmetrical and beautifully shows the bridge in the context of the gorge. Fifteen minutes before sunrise, under a delicate pastel sky, the softness of the light revealed the textures and colors of the forest canopy without distracting shadows, while its directionality differentiated the slopes that make parts of the canyon from each other. I was glad I woke up before 4 am to hike the 3.2-mile (roundtrip) trail along which I found budding Mountain Laurel.

On that morning, I was feeling a bit tired from the jet lag and a long day starting at 5:30AM and ending around 11:30PM, so I decided not to lug out my large-format camera. I came back the next morning for what I assumed to be a sure large-format photograph, only to find the bridge swathed in low fog.

Endless Wall (3)

  The most popular hiking trail in the park is the 2.4-mile Endless Wall Trail. It was voted by USA Today readers in 2015 as the country’s top national park hike even though New River Gorge was not yet a national park. If the first trailhead is full, try the second, but do not park along the road, where your car may be ticketed or towed. The serene Eastern Hemlock forest transitions to rhododendron tunnels after Fern Creek, a stream that creates several hard-to-reach waterfalls below. Given the relatively dry conditions, I did not attempt to bushwhack to them. Several side paths lead to the edge of the cliffs, and sometimes to metal ladders that allow rock climbers to reach the base of the cliffs. You can either complete the loop between the two trailheads by walking an additional half a mile along the road, or hike round-trip to Diamond Point, located mid-way, a promontory atop the cliffs that offers high views of the gorge towards the northwest, west, south, and southeast, making it good for sunrise and sunset. From there, I understood why the trail is called that way, as the high wall of Nuttall Sandstone cliffs stretched into the distance, disappearing around the bend in both directions. 

Beauty Mountain (4)

  Beauty Mountain isn’t really a mountain, but instead a stretch of sandstone cliffs running along the eastern rim of the gorge a thousand feet above the river. Located right at the park boundary, Ram Head is an unmarked spot popular with locals for watching the sun set over the gorge, as it offers a panoramic view for a 5 minute stroll. A woman set up a hammock and a group brought a guitar, creating a festive ambiance, but numerous ledges allow visitors to spread out. To find even more viewpoints, you can hike two-third of a mile along user trails following the cliffs. Take the Edmond-Lansing Road off US-19 and turn right after 3 miles at Edmond, then right again after half-a-mile at the tiny Edmond Post Office. Park after 1.4 miles near a T-junction, respecting the nearby private properties.

Grandview (8)

  Aptly named Grandview includes the highest overlook on the gorge rim, the Main Overlook located 1,400 feet above the river. A short stroll from a large parking lot with a seasonal visitor center, that overlook offers the most spectacular view of the gorge that I have seen, as the dramatic horseshoe bend of the river below is clearly visible.  Starting from there, the 3.2-mile Canyon Rim Trail offers more choices of viewpoints, including the North Overlook, where I found pink rhododendrons to frame the views over the gorge. Although it was early, many were already blooming in mid-May. The east-facing overlooks are great locations to watch the sun rising over the gorge. Inversions that leave you above a striking sea of low fog filling up the gorge frequently occur at that time, making it my favorite to photograph grand vistas. There are many other compositions possible (two open this article), but for the images below, I have selected only wide-angle views of the horseshoe bend – for which I made good use of a 12-24mm lens. Each of those images show something different. Earlier, the light is better, but later, the break up of the fog (that takes place surprisingly fast once it begins) reveals more of the gorge.


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13 tips for sharp photographs with a telephoto lens

Using case studies of the first images in Our National Monuments, I’ve touched on why one would want to use a telephoto lens for landscape photography and that even getting a sharp image can be a challenge. Below are 13 practical tips in no particular order for overcoming this challenge. All images in the article were photographed with the Sony FE 100-400 lens for Our National Monuments, but not used in the book.

Check Sharpness

Shots can look great at a glance on the LCD, but turn out unusable in print because they were not sharp enough. Checking the camera LCD at 100% magnification to see if your shot was sharp before moving on to the next one is always a good idea to prevent disappointments. That practice is all the more important in telephoto photography because there are so many reasons why telephoto images may lack critical sharpness. If you notice that images are not sharp, then it is time for some of the adjustments described below.

Mind focus and depth of field

One reason why it is more challenging to get sharp images with telephoto lenses is that the depth of field area is so much smaller than for normal and wide-angle lenses. Any imprecision in focusing shows up. Manual focusing at 100% magnification is the most reliable way to proceed, but if you use autofocus, but sure to check if it is perfect. For an indication of how narrow the depth of field area can be, refer to this example, where we saw that with a 340mm lens on the Sony A7R4, even at f/22, the depth of field area including infinity starts half a mile away, meaning that you cannot have any object closer to half a mile and infinity in perfect focus at the same time.

Consider focus stacking

At a longer focal length, getting a foreground and background both in focus can be impossible. Stopping a lens down to f/22 is not optimal because it results in degraded image quality due to diffraction. In addition, the requirement to use a slow shutter speed makes the capture more vulnerable to vibration. A useful alternative is to merge exposures made with different focus points at f/11, a feature automated by Photoshop.

Time for better air clarity

Air clarity is an overlooked issue with telephoto photography. Often with those compositions, even the closest subjects can be far enough that image degradation due to air quality is quite noticeable. On a hot afternoon in the desert, looking in the viewfinder of a telephoto lens, you can see distant elements vibrating due to air convection. Even in windless conditions, if you take a picture in those conditions, nothing at a distance comes out sharp. In the cooler temperatures of the morning, the air is often more clear, and that is often the best time for telephoto work. In addition, at dawn and dusk, when the sun is not out, haze is much reduced.

Use a polarizer

Haze consists of particles in the air that reflect light, reducing contrast and desaturating colors. A polarizer makes the haze disappear because it cuts reflections. The more distant the subject, such as the South Rim of the Grand Canyon from its Northwest rim, the more haze there is, which makes a polarizer particularly useful for telephoto shots.

Use a sturdy tripod

The main reason for unsharp telephoto images is unwanted camera motion. Handholding a telephoto lens with successful results is difficult. Those lenses are often large and heavy. Small camera movements affect the composition. You need faster shutter speeds for sharp images, with the general rule that you need an exposure time in seconds faster than 1/F, where F is the focal length in millimeters. This is difficult to attain in low light, particularly if you stop down and use a polarizing filter. In the slightest of breezes, even a tripod that works fine for normal lenses is not enough to stabilize a telephoto lens. Typically, I use a series 2 tripod and a medium-size ball head. However, that combination is often insufficient for a telephoto. On road trips, I pack a series 3 tripod and a full-size ball head. While I don’t like to hike too much with that setup, it works fine for roadside photography and short hikes. I have found it makes a significant difference for telephoto lenses.

Use a tripod collar

Tripod collars are often used on telephoto lenses to reduce the strain on the lens mount caused by a heavy lens with a long lever arm. That is a good enough reason since the strain could result in long-term misalignment of the lens mount. The issue relevant to this article is that without a tripod collar, the offset of the center of gravity degrades the stability, and the lever arm of wind pushing the lens is larger. Most high-end telephoto lenses come with a built-in tripod collar. Lesser telephoto lenses don’t, but you can buy a third party collar for them. Once I added a tripod collar to the Sony 70-300, I noticed a higher success rate, whereas before I often struggled to get sharp images. However, in terms of weight and bulk, the difference with the better Sony 100-400 became minimal.

Stabilize the tripod

Even though a light tripod is not optimal for telephoto photography, sometimes that’s all you got. You can somehow make it into a heavier tripod. Many tripods come with a hook at the bottom of the center column or the platform, from which you can hang weights, such as your camera bag or a shopping bag that you load with rocks. Another related technique is to apply downward pressure to your tripod. The easiest is to press on the top of your camera with a hand, but you can also step with your feet into a strap attached to the center column or platform. Note that while those solutions address the lack of mass of the tripod, they don’t address its lack of rigidity, hence the “somehow”.

Use a remote release

Unless you use an extremely sturdy tripod, pressing the shutter will result in some camera vibration. For normal lenses, with a self-timer delay of 5 seconds (but not 2 seconds!) the vibration dies down enough, but in my experience, for telephotos, 10 seconds is more appropriate. The problem is that quite a bit can happen during those 10 seconds, including a gust of wind picking up. And there are those situations when the shot needs to be timed, for instance for a wave. A remote release alleviates those issues.

Time for the wind

Telephoto lenses are particularly sensitive to the wind because of their physical size and magnification. If you pay attention to the wind pattern, you’ll notice that it is almost never uniform. There are gusts alternating with calmer periods. Try to release the shutter during a lull. It can take a lot of patience, but such lulls often happen.

Shelter from the wind

Not only the wind is not uniformly distributed in time, but the same also applies in space. When I stepped up on the summit ridge of Dona Anna, the wind hit me with full force, but by descending a few meters the downwind side of the summit, I found enough shelter to photograph at sunset. Even a tree can offer enough shelter. Getting lower to the ground usually results in lower wind speed, so just lowering your tripod can help, with the additional benefit that a lower extension means higher rigidity. Besides taking advantage of terrain configuration, you can shelter your camera with your body. Among many other useful applications, an umbrella makes an excellent wind shelter. For roadside shots, I have used my car as a shelter, either by pointing it towards the wind and standing behind the rear hatch or even by shooting from a seat.

Crank up ISO

If you are not able to get out of a stiff breeze, unless you have the beefiest tripod, there are always going to be some vibrations. The shorter the shutter speed, the lesser their impact. Everything else being equal, you can get shorter shutter speeds by increasing ISO. Increasing the ISO from base 100 to 400 in the daytime doesn’t result in significant noise and loses only minimal detail, but it divides your exposure time by a factor of four.

Take multiple exposures

In some situations, you may not have the time to check at 100% magnification that the shots are sharp, maybe because there are quick changes not to be missed, such as the sun cresting above the horizon. That is a case where making redundant exposures can be useful to increase the chance that you got a usable shot.

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Telephoto lenses in landscape photography

Landscape photography is often associated, or even equated with the use of wide-angle lenses, however, this can lead to formulaic compositions. Telephoto lenses may seem like the province of wildlife photography, however alternating with them brings new creative opportunities for landscape photography, as illustrated by the two opening images of Our National Monuments, compared to their wider counterparts.

For many years, I was heavily influenced by the near-far compositions of David Muench: a graphic and impactful foreground subject, with mountains in the background, all often below a dramatic sky. Photographers such as Galen Rowell would embrace that esthetic. His most used wide-angle lens was a 24mm, with the occasional 20mm, but since then the short end of the 16-35mm lens has become a standard, with focal lengths of 14mm, and more recently 12mm fairly common at a wide end of a zoom. Wide-angle photography was one of the main reasons I turned to a large-format camera – which is severely limited for telephoto lenses. There is much to be said for this approach. It helps place the viewer into the scene, depicting everything that someone standing there may see, naturally creating a sense of depth. On the other hand, they shrink the backgrounds, for example diminishing the impact of huge mountains and placing the emphasis on foreground elements that are more common than those mountains. If, in addition, you process them the same way, images can end up looking all the same.

Telephoto lenses are heavier to carry and more challenging to use than wide-angle lenses. Compositions need to be more precise, as small changes have greater effects. You have to look harder for them, as they form only a small portion of your field of view. The latest point is maybe what makes telephoto landscape photography so compelling: when you pick up a small portion of the scene, you direct the viewer to something that you found interesting but they may have missed. This makes those shots intrinsically personal. A group of photographers standing at the same scene with a wide-angle lens are much more likely to produce similar images than if they were using a telephoto lens.

Even with close to 500 pages, packing 60+ national parks in Treasured Lands was such a challenge that almost each image had to represent a different location. Our National Monuments had more room, and I could use multiple images to represent single locations. In two cases, I repeated images taken at the same time from the same viewpoint, looking in the same direction and differing only by the choice of the focal length.

Example 1: Our National Monuments cover

During the afternoon I spent at a petroglyph site in Ironwood Forest National Monument, besides close-ups of petroglyphs and flora, most of my compositions consisted of wide-angle photographs with etched rocks in the foreground. At sunset time, I made one more such photograph at the widest setting of my 16-35mm lens (page 247). The foreground includes the main mountains in the monument, Silver Bell and Ragged Top. However, being located more than 20 miles away and only about 4,000 feet high, they appear tiny on the horizon.

Because of my awareness of that mountain, I still noticed the distinctive profile of Ragged Top, the crown jewel of Ironwood Forest National Monument. Between two wide-angle shots, I zoomed into the peak with the 100-400mm lens for a single shot at 340mm. Although the resulting image is just a crop of the previous image, it is entirely different, conveying a sense of majesty rather than of space. The perspective looks natural enough that without comparison, I suspect you wouldn’t have known it was made with a super-telephoto lens. A bit of cropping enhanced the image’s symmetry, making it an excellent cover image for Our National Monuments.

Example 2: Our National Monuments half-title page

In Our National Monuments, there is a second pair of images where one is a crop of the other. They were photographed from the summit of Snow Mountain in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. During my spring visit to the monument, the low-elevation hills were lush with an explosion of verdant grass and wildflowers. From the trailhead, it did not seem like Snow Mountain would live up to its name, but as I neared the summit, I found a landscape still emerging from the winter. Photographing towards the south let me include north-facing slopes with some snow.

The comparison between this image (page 83), and the following is even more striking because the two focal lengths are not that different. The wide image was photographed at 54mm, which by today’s landscape photography standards is quite long, and the telephoto image was photographed at 240mm. The graphic quality of the latter made it a good choice for the half-title page, the first image inside the book. One of the challenges with telephoto lenses is to create a sense of depth, as the perspective that helps create it with wide-angle images is now compressed. In this case, depth is created by atmospheric perspective, the drop off in warmth and contrast occurring naturally with distance, and it would have been ill-advised to apply a “dehaze” correction.

Technical challenges

Here’s a technical detail that illustrates the depth of field issues with telephoto lenses. When I photographed the Ragged Peak image, I thought that the cactus in the foreground were far enough that they would be subjects at infinity, like the mountains. I therefore used an aperture of f/8. On the Sony A7R4, diffraction begins to limit sharpness after f/6.7. On the LCD, the image looked sharp enough, but when reviewing the image at 100% on a computer screen, it turned out that the mountain was a bit soft because of insufficient depth of field. Applying Topaz Sharpen AI worked, but necessitated doing it selectively, as the software over-sharpened the mountain crest. You’d think that the difference would not be noticeable on a 10×12 inch print (the size of the book), and indeed the original image looks acceptable, but my daughter was able to tell the difference between two test prints viewed side-by-side. Using this Depth of Field calculator with the circle of confusion 10 microns appropriate for the Sony A7R4 61 MP full-frame sensor (2.5 times the pixel pitch 3.76 microns as explained here), we find a hyperfocal distance of 1,450 meters for 340mm and f/8. The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance you can focus on and still have perfect infinity focus. All this means that in this case, to get perfect infinity focus, I would have had to focus close to mile away! Would stopping down to a sharpness-degrading f/22 have helped? The hyperfocal distance would still be over 800 meters, or half a mile.

Telephoto lenses can help you make different landscape images, but they present many challenges. Not only you have to pay more attention to compositions, but also they require a more careful technique. As we’ve just seen, depth of field is limited, particularly so with high-resolution sensors, so focusing has to be very precise, and even though the closest element may seem far at hundreds (or maybe thousands) of feet away, advanced techniques could be necessary. Since they amplify the effects of vibration, even in a small breeze getting a sharp image can take quite a bit of work. The next article will provide tips for working with telephoto lenses in the field.

Part 1 of 2: 1 | 2

QT Luong honored with Robin W. Winks Award from NPCA

Founded by the same people who started the National Park Service, the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA) is a century-old conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members. The NPCA holds an annual gala called “Salute to the Parks.” during which various lifetime awards are presented. In the past, the event took place in Washington, DC but the 2020 edition was cancelled and the 2021 edition was virtual, live streamed on April 14. Each year NPCA identifies an individual or organization that through the arts, media, or academia effectively and consistently communicates to the American public the values of the National Park System and the national park ideal.

I am so grateful and honored to have received the Robin W. Winks Award for Enhancing Public Understanding of the National Park System, presented “for inspiring the public to protect our national parks by capturing the essence of the natural world through photography.”

I am humbled to join an esteemed group of past recipients including TV journalist Tom Brokaw, artist Maya Lin, scientists Sylvia Earle and E.O. Wilson, documentarians Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, authors David McCullough, Terry Tempest Williams, Doug Brinkley and James MacPherson, In particular, only two photographers received the award before, David Muench and Tom Mangelsen.

The entire presentation (11 minutes) is here, with my acceptance speech (5 minutes) starting at 5:15.

Our National Monuments introduction sequel

Thank you to everybody who commented on the beginning of my introduction to “Our National Monuments”. If you get the book, you’ll find that I have taken your comments to heart: I’ve re-organized and streamlined it. Here is the final part that I didn’t include because that was already quite long. Thank you also for your comments about the subtitle. I am now down to two final choices. I’d appreciate it if you would vote for your favorite. Here is the cover image:

III

I watched in helplessness as the administration eviscerated the protections of two of the largest and most beautiful national monuments to pave the way to extract oil, coal, and uranium. In January 2018, I resolved to take action the only way I knew, by hiking and photographing those 22 land-based endangered national monuments. Even though I had been photographing America’s public lands for a quarter-century, many of those monuments were unknown to me. I spent months in repeated visits, immersing myself in those sacred lands and discovering remnants of cultures imprinted on the ancient landscape. The enriching experience increased my motivation to help protect those places by raising public awareness. To amplify the call for conservation, I have invited others who work closely with these national monuments to voice their perspective. More than ever, we need our public lands as wild places for our spirits. We conserve what we love, and we love what we understand. I hope to inspire you to learn about our public lands’ hidden treasures and experience them yourself.

In contrast with the national parks, I was surprised to find the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) national monuments to be so wild, with even fewer facilities than I expected. The first director of the NPS, Stephen Mather, envisioned the national parks to incorporate spectacular scenery and drive mass tourism. It required an infrastructure of roads, visitor centers, lodges, developed campgrounds, and interpretive trails. By contrast, Secretary Babbitt intended for the BLM national monuments to protect scientifically significant areas, accommodating dispersed recreation as one of the multiple uses supported. In the spirit of community-based cooperation, the BLM encourages visitors to rely on the surrounding communities and provides only minimal visitor services within the monument. Even road-building is limited. Many national monuments do not have a single paved road. I needed to rent a 4WD vehicle several times to access some of them. Even then, I still ended up with five flat tires over three years, sometimes in incredibly remote areas. Edward Abbey would have smiled.

Despite a dozen visits to Death Valley National Park, I could never find the Mesquite Sand Dunes devoid of numerous footprints from other visitors. At Cadiz Sand Dunes in nearby Mojave Trails National Monument, I saw many animal tracks but no human footprints besides my own. The last time I attempted to drive to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, the road was closed by rangers due to congestion. During four days in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, there were so few cars, less than a handful, that I frequently stopped in the middle of the road to photograph the exquisitely beautiful fall foliage. Photographers crowd famous natural arches in Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Securing a spot at sunrise or sunset can require arriving well in advance. Each time I photographed three of the most famous natural arches in Grand Staircase-Escalante, I had the entire place to myself.

As the crown jewels of our public lands, the national parks are home to places of superlatives that overwhelm at first sight. Many of them have become icons of our natural and cultural heritage. The often starker and more subtle landscapes of national monuments invite exploration to get to know and love. Because the natural features are less prominent, it was easier to pay attention to the small details that make up the ecosystem. I found the absence of postcard views conducive to personal discovery.

Our national monuments are unique places with different rules of engagement. The heavy visitation of national parks necessarily led to strict rules, fences around champion sequoia trees, and scenic overlooks. Although one is expected not to enter ancient ruins out of respect, there are no such fences on national monuments. They offer more flexibility to experience the great outdoors. You can hike with your dog and camp almost anywhere. Unlike in Grand Canyon National Park, you can drive to the Grand Canyon rim in Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument and pitch your tent at the edge of the chasm. As the national parks become ever more popular, the BLM and USFS national monuments’ vast open spaces offer us places of solitude and inspiration. The rugged experience gives us a sense of the western frontier, where personal responsibility, independence, and self-sufficiency are qualities that matter, where unlimited opportunities for exploration and adventure under a wide blue sky leave you endless room to be your own person. Tread lightly, conserve loudly.

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Canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains

Part of Southern California’s transverse ranges running east to west, the San Gabriel Mountains are roughly divided into two parallel ranges. The front range in the south, culminating with Strawberry Peak (6,164 ft) and San Gabriel Peak (6,161 ft), borders the Los Angeles Basin. The back range in the north includes a chain of peaks above 8,000 ft climaxing at 10,068-foot Mt Baldy. It is best to hike the lower elevation front-range trails during the cooler months and the higher elevation back-range trails during the warmer months. Winter snows close off the high country to hiking, and the higher sections of CA-2 can be closed. During that time, the lower elevation hills are green and inviting.

Last year, the virus outbreak prompted a stay-at-home order in California. After it was lifted, I explored a few high elevation areas, including a hike up Mt Baldy. But on that trip, it was just too hot to enjoy hiking the lower elevation canyons. Then, the late summer and autumn were plagued with some of the worst wildfires in the area’s history. They threatened to take out the Mt Wilson observatory and closed down large portions of the monument. In the winter, a Google search for “San Gabriel Mountains National Monument” indicated that the area was closed. With only a couple of months before Our National Monuments is set to go to print, I was eager to hike some lower-elevation trails to round up my explorations of the area. Bryan Matsumoto from La Nature for All pointed out to the map below, which indicates that closures were limited to the central portion of the monument. Fortunately, a few of the hikes I had planned to do were located outside of it.

Switzer Falls

Despite their dry appearance, the San Gabriel Mountains conceal more than 65 waterfalls. The moderate hike to Lower Switzer Falls (3.6 miles round-trip, 650’ elevation loss) is one of the most popular in the front range. I came on a weekday morning, when I drove into the parking lot, it was cold and raining, yet I was lucky that a car pulled out because the lot was full. It wasn’t the large lot at the Switzer Picnic Area since the road leading to it was closed (maybe because of the virus) but rather the one next to CA-2, requiring an additonal walk on the closed road.

The hike offers varied sights besides waterfalls: the shaded murmuring creek of Arroyo Seco, historic resort ruins, and the impressive gorge of Bear Canyon from an airy section of trail. Starting at Switzer Picnic Area 10 miles up CA-2, the established trail ends at Lower Switzer Falls, a two-tier drop of about 30 feet into a beautiful pool four feet deep. Unfortunately, graffiti marred the walls. I subsequently learned that the time of my visit marked a high (low?) point for graffiti. USFS workers and teams of volunteers normally spend a lot of time to clean up those. However, because of COVID-19, the USFS had not allowed them to operate.

After scrambling smooth rocks and a tiny ledge, I stepped into a lush and narrow canyon that I followed for less than a half-mile. Past a sizeable log jam, 50-foot-high Upper Switzer Falls presented itself suddenly. It struck me that despite the main hike’s popularity, the upper canyon felt so little used. Adventure is just around the corner.

East Fork of the San Gabriel River

The mountains are the most prominent component of the monument, but canyons in between are equally impressive. I found the East Fork of the San Gabriel River hike (10 miles round-trip, 900’ elevation gain) a fun way to acquaint myself with one of those monumental canyons. The year-round flowing waters of the San Gabriel River’s largest headwater sustain a delightful river habitat. In early March, temperatures were just right, and new leaves of trees growing along the river added a touch of tender green that contrasted with the desert environment.

I ended up crossing the river many more times than the necessary minimum of four times (each way), sometimes wading in thigh-high water, other times balancing myself on rocks and branches. Some people pack a pair of sandals to avoid getting their hiking boots wet, but since it wasn’t too cold, I thought that after the experience of Paria Canyon, it wouldn’t be a big deal to hike in wet shoes, and it wasn’t.

Although the hike is possibly the most popular in the monument, the main trail isn’t always straightforward. I managed to get lost and put myself in a precarious position on such a popular trail. Path crisscrossed all over the place. At one point, I followed the wrong one along the river, instead of climbing up steeply on the left side of the canyon. I was hoping that it would provide an alternative route to my destination, but when it was clear that it wasn’t leading me there, instead of backtracking all the way, I looked for a shortcut. I could see the trail above, and scrambling up the 45-degree slope looked straightforward enough, but it turned out quite slippery and unstable, and if not for mountaineering skills, I don’t think I would have made it.

Even if the hike ended nowhere, it would still be enjoyable, but it ends at a notable destination, the Bridge to Nowhere. That is the nickname of a grossly out-of-place, elegantly arch-shaped, 120-foot-high bridge spanning a steep gorge. The road for which it was built in 1936 washed away two years later and was not reconstructed. On the way back, I had a much easier time staying on the trail, especially since there were many markers painted on the uphill side of the rocks, therefore visible only when hiking out. It struck it as odd, since one’s first acquaintance with the trail must be on the way in.

Although located within Sheep Mountain Wilderness (free permits available at the trailhead), the bridge sits on a private enclave. That helps explain, why, despite being surrounded by designated wilderness, the Bridge to Nowhere is the only place in Southern California with a commercially licensed bungee jumping operation – the oldest in the USA as it’s been around since 1989. I didn’t see any of the circus since I hiked on a weekday. But I could imagine a scenario in which base jumpers inexperienced in hiking are escorted by staff on the way in, and then would hike out by themselves after their jump, therefore finding the trail markings useful on the way out.

Carrizo Plain Beyond the Superbloom

Most people in California had not heard about the Carrizo Plain until the mid-2010s when media widely publicized the superbloom. This year, you’ll be lucky if you even see a few flowers. Due to scarce winter rains, in March the plain looked brown, instead of the green you’d expect in the spring. However, the area is unique and rich enough in natural resources that there was once a proposal to nominate it for a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This post does not even touch on cultural resources, which range from milenia ago to 20th century history. Even without flowers, Carrizo Plain is still amazing, and you won’t have crowds to contend with!

Carrizo Plain National Monument protects a unique ecosystem centered around the most extensive native grassland remaining in California, providing habitat for many plants and wildlife, including the highest concentration of threatened or endangered species in the state. The flat plain enclosed between two mountain ranges, with its vast open space, alkali lake, absence of trees, and summer heat, evokes a mini-Death Valley. Compared to surrounding areas, the Carrizo Plain is relatively dry, receiving less than 10 inches of annual rain. Most of it falls from November to April, with winter temperatures cool but usually above freezing. The monument’s claim to fame is the superblooms, but they only happen in years with perfect conditions, and the peak lasts about three weeks in the window between mid-March and the first week of May. Summers are dry and warm, with daytime temperatures above 100F possible.

Soda Lake

Soda Lake is one of the main natural features of the Carrizo Plain. Further east, there are plenty of basins where water does not drain to an ocean. However, Carrizo Plain is the only closed basin within the coastal mountains, and Soda Lake is the largest remaining alkali wetland in southern California at 3,000 acres. When water evaporates, the lake concentrates white deposits of sulfates and carbonates that look like baking soda. My children found out the solid appearance is deceiving when the glistening surface did not hold their weight, and they sank in the mud to my wife’s displeasure who subsequently threw out their shoes in the trash. A boardwalk allows visitors to take a close look at the lake without ruining their shoes. Overlook Hill offers higher views of the lake from which I observed its appearance vary dramatically with precipitation. Late in the season, or during a dry year like 2021, it looks like a solid sheet of salt. On wet years, winter rains fill the lake, offering an important refuge for migratory birds. At the same mid-April date, in 2010, I saw more salt than water, whereas in 2017, a superbloom year, it was the opposite.

San Andreas Fault

The San Andreas Fault is the other main natural feature of the Carrizo Plain. A fault is a fracture in the Earth’s crust where sides have moved in relation to each other. While the fault stretches for 700 miles from the Salton Sea to Cape Mendocino, its section in the Carrizo Plain is the oldest along the entire length, and the barren character of the plain makes it easy to observe. While it spans the whole length of the monument, at Wallace Creek, an interpretive trail (1.3 miles) takes you to one of the most important geological sites in the world. In 1857, the strongest earthquake in California’s history took place there. Spanish travelers described it as ripping a deep gash across the plain as far as the eye could see. Even though erosion has covered the tear, you can still directly see the cumulative effect of earthquakes on this landscape. Wallace Creek used to flow straight down the hill across the fault with no bends, but the San Andreas Fault movement has offset its course. The San Andreas Fault is the boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. Each side of the fault has been sliding laterally in opposite directions, with the lower side moving towards the northwest (left in the aerial picture below). As a result, Wallace Creek’s segment downstream of the fault is no longer aligned with the upstream segment, it is offset by 430 feet. This phenomenon is called a stream offset, and Wallace Creek is one of the best examples anywhere. By carbon dating rocks, scientists have concluded it is 3,800 years old, therefore inferring the plates’ relative motion is on average 1.3 inches per year – similar to the growth rate of a fingernail. All the motion occurs during large earthquakes every few hundred years, for example, 26 feet during the 1857 earthquake.

Caliente Ridge

Caliente Range forms the southwest boundary of Carrizo Plain. The only long (17 miles round-trip, 2440’ elevation gain) established trail in the monument follows Caliente Ridge to Caliente Mountain (5100 feet), the highest point in the Caliente Range. Juniper trees confer an ambiance distinct from the Temblor Range. Since they provide no shade, it is best to undertake the hike in the cooler months. The wide and gradual trail offers excellent views of Carrizo Plain on one side and Cuyama Valley and Los Padres National Forest on the other side. As they do not change much, you could turn around at any point for a shorter hike. Even the drive to the trailhead alone provides high views – and scenic dispersed campsites. The narrow and rutted Caliente Ridge Road twists and climbs steeply for three miles from the abandoned Selby Ranch. During periods of rain or snow, the road could be hazardous and may be closed.

More tire fun

I had no problems with my Prius driving the road up and down twice a day. However, the next day, after pulling out at a dispersed campsite for a sunrise photograph, I immediately noticed a tire flat. That was very upsetting and demoralizing since on that trip, I had strived to drive slowly and carefully to try to avoid having yet another flat. Once I finished my photography session, I thought it would be a quick matter to change the tire. There was little clearance between the jack point and the ground, but it was hard-packed dirt, so I didn’t anticipate any problem. However, as the jack came to near full extension, it slipped sideways. I proceeded to try again, with the same result. The jack slipped, and the car crashed down. Since it was hard work to lift the car, for the third try, I thought it piled a few rocks next to the jack. The idea was that if the jack were to slip, the car would rest on the rocks, hence I would not have to lift it from the ground up. It wasn’t a good idea. The jack slipped and became stuck between the car and the rocks. Since the morning, I had not seen anybody on the road. To free the jack, my only option was to dig a hole from sideways and reach underneath it. Did I say the ground was hard? I didn’t have a shovel, but fortunately, I had packed a mountaineering ice-ax. With it, and a backpacking trovel, it took me an hour to dig a hole and free up the jack. I figured out that the low-clearance spot was forcing it to work near full extension, so I moved the car to a higher-clearance spot where there would be less stress, and this time I had no problems jacking the car up. Although my next destination was Los Angeles, on my way out of Carrizo Plain, instead of exiting via the south as initially planned, I exited via the north to minimize driving on dirt roads. When I went to a sketching-looking tire shop in Buttonwillow, I was so relieved to see that what had caused the flat was a good old nail. Could have happened anywhere, right?

Basin and Range National Monument Farewell

Days 14, 15

Shooting Gallery

Basin and Range National Monument is located near the south edge of the Great Basin Desert. The detached Shooting Gallery Unit, about 8 miles west of Alamo, is the southernmost section of the monument. It is part of the Mojave Desert, as evidenced by strands of Joshua Trees growing there. The three archeological sites of Basin and Range National Monument have some of the most extensive collections of petroglyphs I saw anywhere. The Shooting Gallery was named so because seasonally abundant water and a good grazing area in the narrow valley of Curtis Canyon made the place one of the few known ancient game drives sites in Nevada. Remarkable petroglyphs are etched on boulders, including many of bighorn sheep and deer in the Great Basin Representational style (A.D. 1-1500). Of the three archeological sites in the monument, the Shooting Gallery is the least visited. The 9-mile Curtis Canyon Road is graded by has two very steep sections. The approach road was more rough, and as the final descent looked questionable, not wanting to take any risks, I parked my SUV at the pass a few hundred yards before the trailhead.

I had planned to get up an hour and half before sunrise to try and photograph petroglyph panels at dawn with a bit of artificial lighting like I did in Gold Butte National Monument. However, when I woke up, the sky was no longer dark, and I recognized that the sun would soon rise. Looking at my clock, I couldn’t understand what went wrong. It is only when I drove back to Alamo that I realized that I missed adjusting for the transition back from daylight savings time! I got on the trail in a hurry with the hopes of at least catching the sunrise colors in the sky, but soon it became clear that I would not reach the petroglyphs in time. In retrospect, maybe I had been better off not trying to look for them in the dark. The petroglyphs were more difficult to locate than at the two other sites. They lie half a mile from the trailhead, not along an established trail, and are not marked. I would probably have missed some of the most interesting panels without GPS coordinates. Even with them (from the Rock Art Guide created by Lincoln County NV) it is still possible to miss some if you do not make sure to circle around boulders.

Mt Irish Archeological District

The Mt Irish Archeological District consists of four areas of rhyolite boulders with petroglyphs in a scenic broad valley at the base of the Mt Irish range. The unpaved Logan Canyon Road, starting at a barbed-wire gate 2.5 miles north of Crystal Springs on SR 318, is rough but passable by a passenger car driven carefully. At a junction 6.8 miles out, it continues on the south branch with a BLM sign. A group of boulders forming the smaller Echo Rock site is found 0.1 miles south of the road. 1.7 miles further, the road reaches a boulder pile next to the road and a second BLM sign. This is Paiute Rock, where a trail links 9 markers. I observed different levels of desert varnish at marker #4, indicating a likely large time difference between them. Scatters of chipped and ground-stone led to archeologists concluding that the sites were occupied from 1000 B.C. to the 1860s. A short, rougher spur road 0.3 miles further leads to Shaman Knob (another pile of boulders on the east of the road, 4 markers) and Shaman Hill (on the west, 8 markers) where I found many more petroglyphs by wandering around the boulders. A study of the Shaman Knob area suggests that it was used repeatedly by the hunter-gatherers for camping. I meditated on the relationship between the system of religious beliefs, the rock art and the landscape.

Garden Valley

Garden Valley is one of the two and sage-covered basins entirely contained within the monument. My favorite view was from a rock formation that rises from the valley floor, providing an elevated perspective that helped me behold the vast expanse to the north. That formation consists of a set of volcanic crags located near the southern entrance of Garden Valley, right next to Mail Summit Road, about 25 miles from SR 318.

On that trip, I was initially eying the Leviathan Cave, a huge cavern located near a remote mountaintop, but decided against the risk of going there by myself, planning instead to return at a later date with companions. With my schedule lightened, after photographing at sunset, I camped on the flat south of the crags. Since I was going to photograph again from there at sunrise, for the first time in my trip – and also its last night, I had plenty of time to relax and cook an abundant dinner. At sunrise, I hiked further east on the ridge for a higher viewpoint from which I witnessed a great show of light.

Normally, as the day progresses, the light becomes less interesting, but on that morning, as a storm was approaching, the light kept improving. At Water Gap, it started hailing. I thought that I’d better hurry up and get out of the monument’s unpaved roads before they get too wet. I had initially planned to exit the monument from the west and drive home via Tioga Pass, but instead, I took Seaman Wash Road in the east, as it looked like the fastest way to get back to the pavement. Fortunately, the precipitation stayed moderate. As soon as it began to let down, I stopped and photographed the clearing storm. Placing the horizon line at the bottom emphasized the skies and reduced the prominence of the foreground, which was limited to sage flats.

By that time, it was midday, but the light was beautiful, and I was grateful for this departing gift. Slightly past noon that day, just before leaving Basin and Range National Monument, I made my last landscape photograph of the decade a few yards from the park’s boundary, before embarking on the 10-hour, 675-mile drive home via Las Vegas, arriving just in time for dinner on Election Eve. Presidential candidate Joe Biden had promised to revert President Trump’s attack on our national monuments. The latter had a few beneficial unintended consequences. It reminded us of John Muir’s exhortation that “the battle for conservation will go on endlessly.” It prompted me to set out to see for myself the magnificent landscapes of the parks less traveled.

The Last Road Trip: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12

Adobe Super Resolution vs Topaz Gigapixel

Usually, I hardly pay any attention to Photoshop updates, since I use only a small subset of features that have been around for a while. However, when the new release was announced a few days ago, headlines mentioned a new “super-resolution” feature. This caught my attention since I was in the midst of delivering files to a client for a rather prestigious installation where images are to be printed up to 10 meters (almost 400 inches) high.

Naturally, most of the images are from large format film, scanned to a file size of 2GB, or 30,000 pixels in the longest dimension. However, as a large format camera cannot do everything, some images were digital captures. I had already provided to the client original digital files, as well as files resized by Topaz Gigapixel AI, but thought it would be worth it to try the new Adobe resizing on its release day. Other digital images in the set were underwater where shooting via a dome limits sharpness, and a night sky with northern lights and stars shot at high ISO, but one of them, taken from a boat, lent itself to testing.

The image is of the Loggerhead Key Lighthouse in Dry Tortugas National Park, which is now inactive but once featured the brightest light in America. Dry Tortugas National Park is a lightly visited national park because the park consists of a set of islets 70 miles from Key West, Florida. Visiting requires either an all-day excursion by boat for a few hours on land, or hiring a floatplane. There is a quota of 24 visitors allowed each day on Loggerhead Key, but this number is almost never reached, since three miles of open ocean separate Loggerhead Key from the main islet, Garden Key, where all publicly available transportation land. You can read the story of my visit here. The image was photographed on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with 24-105 lens at 75mm, f8, 1/125s, ISO 160.

Adobe Enhance Details

Super Resolution isn’t the first attempt from Adobe to use AI for image enhancing. In 2019, Adobe had discreetly introduced Enhance Details as an improvement to regular demosaic (conversion) of RAW files. Enhance Details did not change the file resolution but instead provided a superior RAW conversion method that was supposed to yield more fine details. In my tests, the improvements were subtle, often requiring viewing at 200% enlargement to discern. They were only noticeable in reducing moire and color aliasing. The drawback is that to use the feature, you have to generate a new DNG file, open that file to do the final RAW conversion, and generally delete the DNG afterward in order not to waste disk space – for the Canon RAW file of 25MB in this example, the DNG is 93MB. Because of that, I did not find worth it to integrate Enhance Details into my regular workflow, but kept open the option to use it on a case-by-case basis for demanding uses. Lloyd Chambers, initially enthusiastic about Enhance Details to the point of calling it “most significant feature introduced in Photoshop/Lightroom in a long time, possibly ever”, subsequently noticed artifacts and declared it a “a no-go garbage feature”.

Were you aware of Enhance Details, and if so, how did it work for you?

Using Super Resolution

Unlike Enhance Details, Super Resolution doubles the linear resolution of the image, quadrupling the number of pixels. It also works with any type of file, not just RAW files. The first challenge in using Super Resolution is to find it. Super Resolution will eventually be available in Lightroom, but currently, to use it, you have to invoke Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). If you open a RAW file in Photoshop, ACR will automatically start. For a non-RAW file, navigate to the file in Adobe Bridge, right click, and select “Open in Camera Raw” (on the third line of the menu). In ACR, right click on the image, and you should see “Enhance…” as the second to last line of the menu. You can then check either “Raw Details” (to activate Enhance Details) or “Super Resolution”. The result is written in a DNG file called Filename-Enhanced.dng. There are absolutely no parameters to choose, so you’ll certainly don’t have to tinker around – but note two pitfalls be avoid below.

Comparison

If you have a large computer screen, you may find the side-by-side display useful. Click on the image below to enlarge.

When using Super Resolution the preview window said “Estimated completion time: 5 min”. However, the computation took only 45 seconds (Mac Pro 2013 3.5 Ghz 6-core). By contrast, Topaz Gigapixel AI took 25 minutes. There are reasons for such a difference, as the nature of those neural computations make them very intensive, and I was skeptical.

The image above is a 100% pixel view of the TIFF file enlarged 2 times via Photoshop Image Size (set to automatic), which is the reference for this comparison.

As is often the case, Topaz Gigapixel AI creates a file full of details from the TIFF, although some of them may look more artificial (the bushes) than others (the palm tree).

When applied to the TIFF file, Adobe Super Resolution doesn’t do much better than Photoshop’s resizing.

Results are entirely different when applied to the RAW file. However, the sky is rendered with unacceptable pixelation. To deploy super-resolution, one currently needs to use Camera Raw, that has a slew of default settings. One of them is sharpening, which is not visible unless you expand the “detail” panel. I tried again after zeroing the sharpening slider.

Much better, which shows how careful one has to be about hidden settings! However, there are still artifacts, and the detail level doesn’t match Topaz Gigapixel. On the other hand, Topaz Gigapixel can create some unnatural-looking detail, is more complex to use because of its options and sliders, and considerably slower.

Based this, and other images, I am not terribly impressed, however its less aggressive approach is less likely to produce unnatural results. Since it comes for free with Photoshop – once you’ve paid the “Adobe tax” – does improve on basic Image Size, it is still worth to give it a careful try if needed. Some reviewers (fstoppers, Petapixel) seem to find it amazing that Super Resolution doubles the pixel size, but are they aware that Image Size does that too?

Update

After writing this post, I wondered why others seem to observe better results from Adobe Super Resolution than I did, even if by failing to compare directly with basic Image Size, they make the gains unclear. The second review linked above mentioned that Super Resolution works better with cameras that do not use an anti-aliasing filter. The topic deserves a more thorough investigation, but I am in the middle of writing a book, so I only did an additional test, this time using a file from the Sony A7R4 that has no anti-aliasing filter. So that there is zero doubt about the resolution of the file, I used an image shot with the Voigtlander 65mm Apo-Lanthar, maybe the sharpest lens in 35mm photography.

A photographer had posted an example with better results from Lanczos interpolation than from both Adobe Super Resolution and Topaz Gigapixel, so I have included that method in the test. From left to right: Photoshop Image Resize (bicubic), RawTherapee Lanczos, Adobe Super Resolution, Topaz Gigapixel. Click on images for 100% pixel views of the center and four corners.

On that image, the two interpolation methods (bicubic and Lancszos) yield comparable results – consistent with what I’ve seen before. Adobe Super Resolution and Topaz Gigapixel both provide noticeable improvements. They are quite close, but the latter still looks better to me.

Our National Monuments Introduction

Here are the draft first two parts of the introduction I wrote for “Our National Monuments”. I would appreciate any feedback, either through the linked poll or via comments.

I

Ask a person on the street to name a national monument, and you will probably hear about the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, or memorials commemorating our presidents and war veterans. However, in the United States, the term has a more specific meaning and at the same time includes features more general than built landmarks as defined in the Antiquities Act:

the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as part of thereof parcels of lands, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.
In 1906, as the western frontier was closing, preservation of archeological sites in the Southwest gained national attention. As Congress was debating, looting of archeological sites escalated. Recognizing that the legislative process could be too slow to prevent permanent damage, Edgar Hewett and John Lacey created the Antiquities Act to enable a quicker executive response. Consistent with the Progressive Era’s vision of common long-term ideals served by a competent and forceful government, the Antiquities Act used broad language in a modest-looking bill to entrust vast powers to the President. The bill states that national monuments are federally protected areas containing objects of historic or scientific interest. The President can swiftly proclaim them with only a signature. The versatility of the law, used by 17 Presidents from both parties, would make it a cornerstone of preservation in America.

President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed as the first national monument Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a natural feature of geologic interest. By the end of 1906, he had proclaimed Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona over a large natural area of 60,000 acres. Congress had been debating over the Grand Canyon since 1882, but even as commercialism was running unchecked, by 1908, it had not yet acted to protect the quintessential American wonder. President Roosevelt did, by proclaiming Grand Canyon National Monument, an area over 800,000 acres. Many landscape-style national monuments would follow. In 1978, President Carter made the most substantial use of the Antiquities Act by proclaiming eleven national monuments in Alaska, the largest expansion of protected lands in history. Several dwarfed the Grand Canyon in size. In the 21st century, even larger marine areas received protections as national monuments.

What distinguishes a national monument from a national park, then? National Park Portfolio (1917), the National Park Service’s first publication, acknowledges that “the name monument is clumsy and misleading.” Indeed, small archeological and historical sites alluded to by the term “antiquities” constitute the minority of today’s approximately 130 national monuments. According to the current National Park Service (NPS) terminology, a national monument is “smaller than a national park and lacks its diversity of attractions.” However, some national parks are small, while many national monuments are large and equally diverse. The difference resides not in the lands themselves but rather in the way they are protected.

Congress designates national parks, but presidents can proclaim only national monuments. The NPS–justifiably one of the most recognized and beloved federal agencies–manages all the national parks. However, national monuments’ management spreads across the NPS, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Forest Service (USFS), and five other lower-profile agencies. National parks, established for preservation and the “enjoyment of the people” (per the NPS Organic Act of 1916), receive yearly funding from Congress. The money goes towards the maintenance and development of infrastructure to support visitation. National monuments are created for conservation. Their proclamation generally lacks funding, resulting in a scarcity of facilities, information, and publicity needed to “put them on the map” for the general public. When they became popular enough, Congress often redesignated them as national parks, reinforcing the perception that national monuments are less important. Like Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon, thirty national monuments would become national parks, attesting to their intrinsic value. However, the disjointed jurisdiction and lack of funding combined to make national monuments rather obscure destinations.

II

This all changed on April 26, 2017, when several national monuments made the headlines on major news outlets. That day, President Trump signed an unprecedented executive order to review all the national monuments created through the Antiquities Act since 1996 that were larger than 100,000 acres. The review’s objective was to determine if former presidents had abused their power and if the protections curtailed economic growth, eyeing removing protections towards industrial development.

The review targeted a total of 27 out of the 35 larger protected areas. They included all five marine national monuments and 22 of the land-based ones. Almost all of them are located in the West, just like our first 15 national parks, owing to the more arid climate and rugged topography that discourage settlement but bestow abundant natural beauty. The exception is Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument located in Maine. But as quipped by writer Stephen Trimble, “Maine is really part of the Western wilderness; it’s just misplaced.” Roxane Quimby had acquired and donated those lands to the federal government specifically to establish the national monument.

Together, the national monuments at risk represent a broad cross-section of natural environments, from deep canyons to high mountains, from cactus-covered plains to conifer forests, from deserts to lush river habitats. Those 22 land national monuments cover a significant portion of the American landscape, totaling about 11 million acres. For comparison, the 51 national parks in the contiguous United States total about 19 million acres. The marine national monuments are another order of magnitude, totaling 218 million acres.

Besides their vastness and diversity, those lands hold natural and historical treasures that rival those found in our beloved national parks. Vermilion Cliffs National Monument’s Paria Canyon is more than twice as long and every bit as impressive as Zion National Park’s Virgin River Narrows. The monument also houses unique rock formations like The Wave that has become world-famous. California’s densest population of Cholla cactus thrives in Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness of Mojave Trails National Monument rather than in the better known Cholla Cactus Garden of Joshua Tree National Park. Giant Sequoia National Monument protects more sequoia groves–almost half of the total number–than Sequoia and Kings National Parks. The Sonoran Desert portions included in Ironwood Forest National Monument and Sonoran Desert National Monument are as beautiful and representative as those in Saguaro National Park, if not more pristine. There is no national park where you could wander amid an array of petroglyphs as numerous as in Gold Butte National Monument or Basin and Range National Monument.

Chronologically, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, proclaimed in 1996 by President Clinton, was the first national monument under review. The last one was Bear Ears National Monument, proclaimed in 2016 in the waning days of President Obama’s administration. Both embody promising new ideas for conservation.

Per the Antiquities Act, Presidents can create national monuments only from federal lands, not from state nor private lands, so they are not “land grabs.” However, after the proclamation, management had generally been transferred from one federal agency, the BLM, to another, the NPS. The culture and mandate of those two agencies differ significantly. NPS lands are only for preservation and compatible recreational uses. The BLM administers more surface land than any other federal agency, one in every 10 acres of land in the United States. However, those lands were considered leftovers without clear guidelines for use. Not until the BLM received its Organic Act (mission statement) from the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 were those lands recognized to have a public value and actively managed with a multi-use framework. By default, all traditional activities are authorized: logging, drilling, mining, cattle grazing, hunting, off-road driving. Additional protection can be achieved by converting those lands into national monuments. As an agency aligned with rural land users, the BLM would emphasize collaboration with local communities and support a range of traditional activities as long as they were compatible with the proclamation’s conservation objectives. Secretary of the Interior Babbitt envisioned a new conservation role from the BLM that would later be formalized with the creation of the National Landscape Conservation System in 2000:

it can become the greatest modern American land management agency, the one that sets the standard for protecting landscapes, applying evolving knowledge and social standards, and bringing people together to live in harmony with the land.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument marked the first time a new national monument – the largest national monument in the continental United States! – was created under the BLM model of conservation. Subsequently, all the large national monuments would remain with the agency and follow that model. Despite the BLM’s more inclusive vision of conservation, the review targeted 18 of the monuments they managed. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS), another multiple-use agency, came second with 5 of them. Scientists back a new goal to conserve 30% of U.S. Lands and Oceans by 2030 to protect the earth’s climate and biodiversity. As empty lands are no longer available for the NPS model of conservation, the BLM model of conservation is our best hope to achieve it. Over the past half-century, the only new extensive parklands with federal protections have been national monuments.

Bears Ears National Monument is a cultural landscape populated millennia before there was a state of Utah. The tribes hold the land sacred because it is their ancestors’ burial site and a continual source of physical and spiritual healing. Five tribes have connections to this area: the Hopi, Navajo, Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute. They agreed to set their generations-old differences apart to petition President Obama to establish Bears Ears National Monument. It was the first native-driven national monument. For the first time, its proclamation assigned shared management responsibilities between the tribes and the federal government, with guaranteed access for native traditional uses. As such, Bears Ears National Monument was a significant step in social and racial justice, righting and healing the wrongs stemming from the American West’s settlement. The native and environmental communities held hopes for a new conservation model converging the national parks ideals with the indigenous respect and worship for the land. Still, the review process barely gave them a voice.

The language of the Antiquities Act is so general that its limits are unclear. Both the courts and legislatures have repeatedly sustained the previous presidents’ actions, finding that the smallest area compatible with preservation can be quite large. Should local voices have priorities over the nation’s interests? Does an economy based on tourism and recreation work better than one based on resource extraction? Both sides of the argument have merits, but for a long time, the vast majority has been approving of protecting our natural and cultural heritage. Visitation numbers also show that recreation has become the dominant use of public lands. People from all walks of life and all political persuasions can relate to nature and find common ground in our public lands. Since President Theodore Roosevelt enthusiastic wielding of the Antiquities Act, a pattern has repeated itself time and time again: controversy and local outrage over new national monuments, eventually turning into near-universal approval. The public comment period of the summer of 2017 had generated overwhelming support for the national monuments under review.

If you do not see the survey below, click here. Like school grades, 1 is worst, 10 is best. Comments entered in the survey are visible only to me, but if you’d like them to be public, you can comment on this blog post.

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