Ansel Adams.

Conversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 online

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getting wood and water and getting out there battling the elements."
And that was a very important part of their philosophy.

So the Forest Service gradually undertook a recreation program,
and then the Sierra Club worked with them in getting them to save
certain important areas. We were very instrumental in accomplishing
a great deal with them, and I think we could have controlled the
Mineral King situation because we weren't against any ski development
as such; we just didn't want to have some colossal enterprise going
on in a beautiful place and building a road across Sequoia National
Park to get to it.

But again I have to say that Dave Brower and his particular
group were so antagonistic and so uncompromising that the Forest
Service and the Park Service and the lumber people, who used to talk
to us (we used to come sometimes to very reasonable, balanced
conclusions) would no longer have anything to do with us. So the
costs of that regime will never be known. It's a thing I never like
to forget, and I certainly can't forgive, because I know the damage
is too great. And you don't get anywhere by kicking people in the
shins when you should be sitting down around the table.

I think I remember saying that the Save-the-Redwoods League
faced the reality and handled it in the most wonderful way. The
lumber people owned the redwoods, not the Bureau of Public Lands or
the Forest Service, lands that could be switched around by government

edict. This was private property. Now, how do you save redwoods on
private property? You buy them. You either get them to give them,


Adams: or you buy them. The Save-the-Redwoods League and the state parks
on the matching-fund bond issue bought very considerable areas of
fine redwoods. And my recollection of the whole thing is that the
lumber people really cooperated pretty well. I mean, they sold at
a minimum. But you can't merely appropriate it without recompense,
and that's what the wild-eyed people that have taken over the club
in recent years have tried to do. They've said, "They can't cut
their trees. These are redwoods; this must become a state park."
Where's the money? "Well, that isn't important." It happens to be
important because eminent domain is a pretty well-established fact
of the American constitutional government. You just don't go in and
appropriate lands. The animosity that that attitude caused, you
never know what the price was on that.

Some people say that the Grand Canyon was saved from dams
because Dave Brower and his group took extremely aggressive action.
Remember that phrase, "Would you flood the Sistine Chapel to better
see the ceiling?" [Laughter] Well, that was my phrase which he
appropriated, and I was always ashamed of it because we never
intended to flood the Grand Canyon; we were going to put dams at
the ends and somewhat restrict the river, but the Grand Canyon was
not to be filled with water. They gave the impression that the
whole Grand Canyon was to be turned into a lake, you see, which it
wasn' t.

Well, in any event, I'd rather dams were stopped, but I think
they could have been stopped by logical methods, as well as what I
call "aggressive public opinion dynamite." I'm not entirely happy
having the Grand Canyon developed in even most minor ways,
accompanied with basic hard feelings. I think problems can be
balanced. And again, I'd like to say that even in the 1920s there
were many poor people what we call now our ghetto group who were
questioning the expenditures of funds for a lot of wild rock and
trees in the parks when there were dire social needs.

I remember when Point Lobos was bought for $400,000, and Colby
raised half of it and the state put up the other half. I think it
was $400,000. I had some friends who were absolutely furious to
spend all that money for just a lot of old cypress trees and rocks
when we have poverty, health problems, and other shameful situations,
right in San Francisco. They have a very strong point. In the next
several years, this point will have to be resolved, because the
ghetto people aren't going to stand for the incredibly miserable
treatment they're undergoing, while they see billions of dollars
spent in rockets and space exploration and buying up vast tracks of
wilderness, which to them means nothing at all. I believe it's a
matter of education. And I'm really concerned about it. But I know
that even that early, in the twenties, there was still a feeling of
antagonism the cattlemen and the San Joaquin people were very


Adams: resentful of the park, because of the restrictions on cattle running.
They were very resentful on parks because they couldn't hunt when
they wanted, especially even in the hunting season.

We had the problem of the Lone Pine-Porterville road come out
in the twenties or thirties. Colby and his group were very much
against it because it was a true invasion of wilderness. The club
had figured out that the best way across the Sierra was at Minaret
summit; the road would go up the San Joaquin River, pass Huntington
Lake, and on over the crest. It was the least interesting part of
the Sierra at that point, although the Minarets to the north and the
San Joaquin Mountains to the south were wonderful. But the pass
itself was far less interesting than Tioga; the least interesting
pass in the whole Sierra.

So we made a gentleman's agreement. I was at that particular
lunch with the chief of the Highway Division. It was a gentleman's
agreement; such things couldn't be legally bound. As long as this
administration was in, they'd support it. We would press for the
Minaret summit road if they would give up Lone Pine-Porterville road.
Nobody mentioned developing the Tioga; we thought it was just too
impossible. And it was at that time, technically, with the
machinery available. Well, of course nothing happened. The Minarets
road wasn't developed and the others weren't developed, and the Tioga
road was then developed. And I remember putting up a squawk and
saying, "Well, why don't we press for our Minaret summit road to
forestall this?" Oh, everybody became very mad and denounced the
Minaret summit road, that it would "bisect the John Muir Trail."
And that was the emotional plea, as if it would have beheaded the
Sierra! The John Muir Trail does cross that area, but when you're
bisecting a trail, just what do you mean? I mean putting a road
across and putting an overpass or an underpass to something is not
doing any damage to a trail. And I wanted the road to go over in
the form of a parkway where there would be no side roads in those
particular areas, which would mean that you'd have to go away almost
to Mammoth and come back on this little old existing road to Agnew
Meadow and that you wouldn't have the road as an invitation to
invade the wilderness.

The frantic people on that opposition side considered it to be
absolutely awful, and they denounced the Minaret summit road. And
then the Tioga Road was put through and did a great amount of damage
that never should have been done and could have been avoided had this
other road been established. And we still don't have the Minaret
summit road. As sure as fate we're going to have one at Lone Pine-
Porterville, and further development of the Walker Pass, and further
development of Tioga because this population that's growing in the
San Joaquin have got to get their products east.


Adams: Dr. [Edgar] Wayburn, who was president of the Sierra Club during
its more impassioned and sometimes more stupid period, replied
when I asked him, "What are the farmers at Bakersfield, Fresno, and
as far as Merced going to do?" "Let them go up to Sonora Pass or
Donner Summit." I said, "Well, let's be realistic. You're telling
a million people that they have to move their produce hundreds of
extra miles, and they're going to fight for a road across the Sierra.
Why don't you accept this fact and have it where it will do the
least damage?" I was considered a traitor to the cause for that
attitude, but I still stand up for it. If that kind of thought
signifies being a traitor, well, so be it. I find it very disturbing.

I find the lack of logic and I've always found thisin the
early days that there were always a certain number of people who
were very practical. I can think of people like Colby and LeConte
and Robert Price and Judge Tappaan and Marion Randall Parsons and
Aurelia Harwood and, oh, Bestor Robinson, Dick Leonard et al who
were primarily completely devoted to the ideal but also were, in the
best sense of the word, practical. They were trying to say that,
after all, people do exist and we can't exact impossible things.
How do you save the most? Because by cutting out this Minaret road,
you are not saving the most, you are losing. I'm all for saving the
most too, but there are ways of doing it.

Then of course you have in the next ten years the development
of different modes of transportation the plane and the rapid transit
systems are certainly going to cut down the automobile and the truck.
But we don't know when or how. But I still am emotionally shocked
when I see a helicopter coming into a High Sierra meadow. But then
I'm also shocked when I see a string of fifty mules come in and chew
up the meadow. The meadow isn't hurt by the helicopter. So I've
had to make that decision.

In fact, I always had that tendency. When the first idea of
a cable railway to Glacier Point was suggested, we all rose up in
abject horror. I mean, this was like desecrating the Vatican or
something. Then the road went in. (It was either the cable or the
road.) The cable was so resoundly beaten that the government
constructed the road. And when I saw the road and its terminus at
Glacier Point, I realized what a hideous mistake I'd made in support
ing it the road against the cable. Because the cable would have
gone where we planned it and hoped it to be, up the gorge on the east
side of Sentinel Rock, and you wouldn't see it. There's power lines
there now that you don't see.

Teiser: There were early suggestions that an elevator be put inside the


Adams: That would have been perfectly acceptable but extremely expensive,
and would have presented a tailings problem, but I don't think too
bad. I do not believe you could do it in one stage. You can take
a mining cage with a few people a long way down, but to have an
elevator to handle big crowds of people for a three-thousand-foot
drop you've got an engineering problem. So you must have perhaps
three stages; at least two. And that involves a great deal of power
and what would you have done with the tailings the rock? You see,
when they cut out the Wawona Tunnel, most of the rock went into
building the esplanade that you drive out on. Some went east to
some fills in the road and some also went down towards the valley.
But that's a four-thousand-foot tunnel which is 20 by 20 feet; it's
a terrific amount of stuff, but they used that to build up the
esplanade that you drive out on, etc.

One of the most wonderful things about Yosemite is that from
that esplanade view you cannot see a road or any of the works of
man whatsoever except the old four-mile trail if you look very
carefully. And there is a quarry that was west of El Capitan, which
is now grown over. Most people think it's a gully. But there's
absolutely no sign it's one of the great achievements of planning.
Well, if you go over to the far edge and look down, you see the
highway by the river. But when you look at the main view you see

Teiser: That brings up the point of reclamation not in the usual sense
but you say there's a quarry overgrown. Have you seen a lot of
damage repaired, in your recollection?

Adams: Yes, quite a lot. Some roads have been taken out. Not much damage
has been done in Yosemite. The road from the Ahwahnee to Camp Curry
and the road north from the old village were taken out. It's not
quite as simple as it sounds. They have to remove all the blacktop
and several feet of fill, and then they have to allow natural soil
conditions to develop. The roads cut the meadows in half. But the
scar of the old road from the Central Bridge is practically gone.
I haven't seen too much damage in the valley. The place where great
damage occurs and can never be replaced is on the granite slope from
Olmsted View going down to Tenaya Lake. That's a great tragedy.
They also cut right through the roche moutonnee beyond Tenaya Lake.
It'll take another glacial epoch to replace it.

On the east side, Leevining Canyon is an irreparable mess. It's
a wonderful road to drive on, but it's just a vast cut in the mountain

Now, in some of the other parks the road up to Mesa Verde is
very visible from below. I think the worst example of stupid
engineering is in the Hawaii National Park, leading up to Volcano


Adams: House through the rain forest. It's an absolutely straight road

for miles and miles and miles. When you see it from the air, it's
just a cut. And the superintendent was so proud of that! (He was
an engineer.) He said, "This is one of the straightest roads in
the whole park service. It's wonderful." All they had to do was
to wind it about a little! But now it is just a cut. When you're
driving on it, you go for miles in a straight line, and when you're
up above, flying, it's just a gash. It's very bad taste.

Well, my conservation concept just grew, a kind of "personal
Topsy." And I became more and more interested in the club. For a
while I was a member of the American Alpine Club. That's a very
snobbish group. We really didn't have anything in common. It
really is high society, again an elitist club of the worst kind.
There are nice people in it, but they're just out there to climb,
you know. I don't think they have much or any influence in

Forces For and Against Conservation

Adams: The Appalachian Mountain Club has been wonderful. Then, of course,
Robert Marshall set up the Wilderness Society, which was a great
thing to do, and George Marshall, his brother, has been very active
in the Sierra Club.

Teiser: You mentioned staying in the apartment of someone named Marshall
in New York when you were helping the Newhalls move. Is that the
same one?

Adams: Yes, that's the one. They had an apartment on Ninety-sixth Street,
then they built a house on Beekman Place. It was very beautiful.
Then they moved out to Beverly Hills. They're marvelous people
George and Betty Marshall. Really dedicated. Their father was
the great Louis Marshall, a liberal lawyer. The story is he left
$15 million which was divided up between three brothers.

Robert Marshall was a strange, recluse-type person who was
devoted to wilderness. He loved Alaska, especially the Brooks
Range, and he died rather young of a heart attack. He did an
immense amount of good in founding the Wilderness Society.

Now we have a problem that ties in with the oil pipeline
problem. Really it's a situation that if you're not going to have
oil, you've got to have something like it. Do you need the oil?
A lot of people say you don't, and then the realists say there's a
lot of oil coming from Venezuela. But South America may nationalize


Adams: its oil. So the government had this idea of securing resources from
the north shore of Alaska, the Arctic side. And the oil pipeline
is to me probably the stupidest thing in the world because it's
absolutely vulnerable to sabotage eight hundred miles of mostly
exposed pipe. Just imagine what you could do in a total wilderness.
They do have shut-off valves frequently to control pollution.

The brightest idea I heard of was building super tanker planes.
They'd be several times bigger than the 747. They just load up with
oil and fly to special air fields, and of course the bigger the
plane is, the safer it may be. But if it does crash, it would
probably be completely consumed by fire. It depends where it crashed.
But it would be safer from the pollution point of view than great

We didn't get anywhere with Canada, which was too bad, because
we could have paralleled some lines there. So it all boils down to
the question, do we need the oil? And if we really are honest and
truly need the oil, then I suppose that's the place to get it. But
the pipeline seems to be the worst possible way of conveying it.
Don't worry too much about the pollution hazard, though, because in
normal conditions I think pollution would be a very minor hazard,
but in war conditions we'd have something else to worry about.

Teiser: Well, in the early days the forces against conservation seemed
spearheaded by the big businessman. Now they're what?

Adams: Well, there's been enlightened big businessmen who've always

supported environmental ism. There's been the mining interests, the
lumber interests, the cattle interests, and the sheep interests, to
whom restricting areas in which they could function would naturally
be to their disadvantage. Seeing that they do not have any wilder
ness mystique whatsoever, they think we're just a bunch of nuts.
They just can't understand us or our ideals.

Then you take people like Walter Starr, who is one of the early
Sierra Club people, a great man; he was a lumberman, head of the
Soundview Pulp Company. And he was really in a very difficult
position, because whatever he would support as conservation would be
in antithesis to his business interests as a pulp manufacturer. He
did a great deal of good in trying to convince the lumber industry
that there was some give and take involved, and that they had to
consider natural beauty, that we knew we had to have pulp, but we
don't have to destroy a prime place to get it. That had been the
battle all along, and we fortunately had very fine industrial
people who would support our theoretical point of view. But then,
when it comes to the showdown, they very often have to take the
realistic point of view in relation to their business.


Adams: We have a situation in Yosemite now that they've closed off the
plaza in front of us [Best's Studio]. We think it would be
perfectly wonderful to have all that blacktop taken up and the plaza
put in pools and greens and trees and make it just a mall. We'll
have to adjust our business to it, that's all. Instead of having
cars out there, we'll have, we hope, a very beautiful mall in which
people will congregate. But what they did was just to cut it off
to keep the cars out of it, and they haven't done anything since.
It's been extremely bad for business. So then we come in as conser
vationists, put it this way, and say, "For God's sake, get business
and get that mall going. From the business point of view, why did
you cut the cars out until you were ready to do this thing to the
mall?" It's cost us maybe $20,000 in the last two or three months
alone, just by not having cars and an empty parking lot.

Well, the government said, "It's n experiment to see how
people use it." Well, the people aren't going to use an empty
parking lot; but they certainly would come and use a mall. So
that's one of the things we're hitting very hard on now. Balance
the conservation! Ideally, we shouldn't be there in the first
place, but we are there and the concessions are there, and the
public is served in a particular pattern. Now the automobiles are
going to go out and there are going to be buses, which I think is
great, and then the accommodations will gradually be cut down, and
then all of the facilities in the valley will be moved out. And
while there will be the restaurants and perhaps our studio will
remain, all the employees should be moved out. I'm pleading just
to have somebody sleep in the building at night, just for security
the manager, somebody. And even that is considered to be out; it's
up to the rangers to protect! But that's quite a number of years
in the future. It's this constant balance, you see, between
obligation, the ideal theory, and the fact that Yosemite belongs
to the people and is a great experience which everbody should
share all that contrasted with the concept that it should be
restricted only to those that can walk in for miles on their own

I think there was a time when I would have espoused that idea,
because I could walk anywhere on my own feet ten thousand feet
elevation a day, if necessary but that is a very selfish point of
view. And yet, there has to be a balance. Now, when you look at
the Disney development, that's a terrible, hideous thing in the
other direction. So who's going to make the decision of what d.s_
control? I mean, the focal point of policy. What is the vista
cutting going to be in the valley, getting out this overgrowth of
trees? Well, normally it would have been taken care of by fire.
We had fires every so often; the Indians burned off the undergrowth
and small trees so they could better see game, and the whole open


Adams: Sierra forest, as Muir saw it first, was the product of fire. We
stopped the fires, and now we have this tinderbox of undergrowth.
And we no longer have vistas, so we can hardly see the great objects.

Teiser: What do you do? Selective logging?

Adams: Well, if it isn't selective logging, it's clear cutting it's a

terrible thing to try to even figure out what to do. You have to
have a committee or group of people who are sympathetic in the
aesthetic sense. I mean, we'll not just dig tunnels to see a view
through. We have to say probably 1900 would be a good year to hit
for, and study old photographs and just take out hundreds and
hundreds and hundreds of trees. We're burning off the meadows now.
We've burned thirty-four thousand little trees off the El Capitan
meadow, which was a terrible mess for a few months, and then it all
came out green and^lively again. If that hadn't been done there
wouldn't be any meadow in about ten years; it would all be small

Now, what right have we got to interfere? We have interfered
by restricting fire; that's been the first interference. See, if
you just said, every time a fire starts, let it burn.... This whole
hill here, where we are now, was burned off completely in, I think
it was, 1923. And if you go out on the road, you'll notice there's
oaks on the north side of the road. There's no oaks on the south
side. That road was a natural fire break. Now what's going to
happen to this hill? It's changed a little in ten years, but in
theory it should have burned off before this. It burned off more
than fifty years ago. If it's not burned, then its basic character

Like the bug infestation in Tuolumne Meadows. I've seen three
of them. When I first came there was a stand of dead trees, with
young trees coming up. Twenty-five years later, another stand of
dead trees, and young trees coming up, and then, not too long ago,
another stand. Then they sprayed, when they wanted to stop the
infestation. Well, did they stop it? They completely changed the
character of the forest. The hemlocks persisted beautiful hemlock
groves all over the Tuolumne area. And they sprayed down the river,
and all the bugs left, and then all the fish left, and now the bugs
are back again. I think they're learning now, that this was a
natural thing, which has been going on for thousands of years, which
gave us the Tuolumne Meadow forest. So why do anything about it?

For a number of years, you'll see a beautiful mixture of white
tree trunks and then they gradually fall and go back to the soil,
and the new trees grow up, and pretty soon the bugs get them. This
is a balance. But I don't know how long these shrubs on this hill,


Adams: for instance, are going to last. How long-lived are they? They

could easily defeat themselves. We could have a fire, and nothing
would remain for a while. Aesthetically, it may be sad to look out
on a burned hill. That's where man's interference comes in; he
doesn't want a fire.

Teiser: I grew up in Oregon, and I remember great mountainsides of dead

trunks of trees from their terribly, terribly intense forest fires.
The forests must have been protected and allowed to grow so dense
that when it came the fire destroyed everything.

Adams: Well, that's it. Around Sequoia Park and the foothills now are the
most deadly areas we have, and even the big trees can't take the
threat of really intense fire. The big trees have taken many fires.
You see charred scars on them. But when a fire starts up in that
present area, it's going to be something unbelievable.

Now, what can you take out? We talked about selective logging.
You go into a beautiful forest, and they have this tree taken out,
then that one and that one. The trees are felled and the forest