By Sandra Lupien
Colorado is a headwaters state: the Colorado, Platte, Rio Grande and Arkansas Rivers all start here and wiggle and weave their sparkling ways through the Rocky Mountain State before reaching their far-flung mouths at far lower elevations. John Fielder was just a teenager when he visited Colorado on a school science trip in the 1960s, but he knew it would one day be his home. He could not have known that as a renowned nature photographer, Colorado’s expansive public lands would become his muse – one he would be compelled to protect from threats like fracking. I recently spoke to Fielder about his art, his love of Colorado and what moved him to join Food & Water Watch’s “Don’t Frack Denver” campaign to keep fracking out of the Mile High City and the public lands that form its watershed.
Sandra Lupien: How did your strong connection to nature develop?
John Fielder: I had an inspiring middle school science teacher who, each summer, would pack seven kids in a station wagon and take us on trips across the United States. We visited public lands like national parks, and learned hands-on about geology and biology. That experience planted the seeds for an appreciation of science and nature. In college, I had a chance to explore Colorado working for my uncle in the geology department of his industrial company.
SL: How did you find your way to photography?
JF: In high school I was inspired by an art teacher who helped me be creative with paintbrushes. Then, in 1973, I first saw the work of Eliot Porter, a contemporary of Ansel Adams, but he shot in color. Like Adams, Porter was both an artist and an advocate for the preservation of the landscapes he captured so sublimely. The very next day I rented a 35mm camera and started taking pictures with Kodachrome.
SL: Did you study art or science in college?
JF: I studied accounting! And after college I had a well-paying career in department store management in Colorado, but I quit after eight years to pursue a career as a nature photographer.
SL: What’s your favorite spot in Colorado?
JF: I’m a nature egalitarian. It’s all good, especially in the right light. But, at heart, I’m a mountain guy. Colorado has 28 mountain ranges, and as far as I’m concerned this is the most beautiful place on Earth. Right now, I’m sitting in my second floor home office in Summit County looking at the Gore Range. I see, at 13,560 feet, the peak of Mount Powell climbed first by John Wesley Powell in 1869. It’s got to be my favorite place in Colorado – the Eagles Nest Wilderness.
SL: What has changed about the Colorado landscape since you started shooting it?
JF: Let’s go from high to low. Up high – between 10,000 and 14,000 feet elevation – not a lot has changed. The hard rock mining industry effectively went out of business in 1893 when the price of silver crashed, and many of these places are now protected American wilderness. But lower, from 10,000 feet down to 3,300 feet [the lowest elevation in Colorado] there’s been a lot of impact from oil and gas, and human development. When I moved here in 1972, Colorado had 2.3 million residents; now there are 5.4 million. In addition to the homes, we see oil and gas infrastructure in those very backyards, as well as on America’s public lands.
SL: Why are you concerned about fracking in and around Denver?
JF: Most of the exploration is north of Denver in Weld County, but it’s all along the Front Range, and Denver’s in the middle of it. To me, the single greatest travesty of oil and gas exploration is having a well in your backyard. One’s sense of sight, smell and hearing is violated when you drive up and down the Front Range. To the north of me in Summit County, one of the West’s most beautiful mountain basins known as North Park has oil and gas infrastructure. I spent a week in that area photographing cattle ranches; all night I listened to the sound of a new well being drilled. Closer to Denver is South Park – the South Platte River Basin – comprising 280,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, which is being considered by BLM for oil and gas exploration. That watershed provides drinking water for Denver and its suburbs.
SL: What’s your big picture view of oil and gas extraction in Colorado?
JF: I don’t want the “extractive” to destroy the “attractive,” and by that I mean Colorado and most Western America states are beautiful, biologically diverse places. Oil and gas exploration and fracking do nothing but damage everything that we sense: sublime mountain views, the sound of gurgling creeks, the smell of clean air and the taste of clean water and the touch of powdery aspen tree bark. The problem is that two of our four public land management agencies, BLM and Forest Service, have a legal mandate to manage those lands for multiple uses. That means they are obligated by law to both protect the land, and to allow – if not promote – the leasing of public lands for mineral exploration. The latter is antithetical to the grand “picture,” which is that people are healthier, happier and more economically prosperous in societies that protect nature, not destroy it.
SL: What’s your bottom line?
JF: My degree is in accounting and my background is in merchandising, and I’m an environmentalist! I believe that ecology and economy – with the same Greek root, “eco,” meaning “house” – are symbiotic. History shows that societies that protect their forests and their water sources last longer than those that destroy nature and biodiversity. My belief that the oil and gas industry has no place in Colorado is based as much on economic science as it is on ecological science. Oil and gas industry jobs are short-term jobs, lasting only as long as the oil remains. The death of hard rock mining in the West economically stranded millions of people for decades. Tourism and recreation saved the day, and those jobs can last as long as we preserve nature. I would like to think that people appreciate the morality of protecting four billion years of the evolution of life on Earth, but some don’t. I hope for everyone’s sake they will consider just the economics and realize that states like Colorado are far better off basing their economies on the “attractive” than the “extractive.”
You can help protect our most beautiful natural places from fracking. Check out our public lands map to view threatened spots in Colorado and beyond. Tell your members of Congress to ban fracking on public lands.