Ansel Adams.

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

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Teiser: After Hetch Hetchy was done, how did those people who had fought it
feel about it?

Adams: Well, there was nothing they could do. They accepted it; it was

done. I remember thousands of people fought the Golden Gate Bridge.
My mother used to think it was "just terrible, ruining the Gate."
Well, the bridge is up. I personally don't think it was so bad.
I think it's a very majestic structure. The Bay Bridge is certainly
marvelous, but a lot of people fought that. Of course, a lot of
people just fight for the hell of it, just to fight something. And
I was guilty of many, many positions myself. I'd go right along
with opinion, because my friends did.

Atomic Power Plants

Adams: I came to this dilemma on the meetings with the club over atomic

power. I'm not a scientist; by no stretch of the imagination can I
be considered a fraction of a scientist. So when the vote came up
on an atomic power issue I had no real right to vote. I abstained.
[If] I knew there's somebody there I trust [who] knew more than I
did, I would go along with him, as an expert.


Teiser: Do you think that a club like the Sierra Club shouldn't make that
its business?

Adams: Well, I think in the first place, if it concerns pollution and

destruction of the natural scene, it certainly should. But they
shouldn't make judgments on uneducated opinion. In other words,
the club should have gotten a special panel of scientists, you see,
and taken their majority opinion. Because very few people in the
club know anything about it. I don't know anything about it. When
my scientific friends are for atomic power, I trust them, and I
think they have enough knowledge to make a valid statement, and I
can follow them.

Teiser: What would be the mechanics of getting expert opinion? Would they
get a fund for a study, or ?

Adams: Yes, you'd have to do that. Of course, there have been many studies
made at certain locations. You go to Stanford and you have [Paul]
Ehrlich and a few extremists in that area and you go to somewhere
else and find other viewpoints. We find that when the club has
asked for studies, they've usually gone to the places that they
know they're going to get a certain favorable response [from].
That's happened time and again. Now, getting an impartial response
is something else. So theoretically they should have taken a
scientist from MIT and from AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] and from
Harvard and California and Chicago maybe twelve people that would
be invited to join in a panel, primarily by correspondence if
necessary. Have a mediating group of nuclear physicists who could
know what they're talking about and could interpret it. Then get
their opinion. And if three out of eight said atomic plants are
no good, well, we'd be favorable. If eight out of three say
they're dangerous, we'd be unfavorable I

You see, here's a situation which is a very bad thing. It
shows how people can be really fundamentally dishonest at times.
We've fought very hard to get PG&E off the Oceano Dunes to protect
the state park. PG&E said, "Fine, we'll consider this and we'll
do something about it." And Doris Leonard, I think, was very
important in talking to the executives. They agreed. "We have to
have this plant. We have to find another location." They went
north beyond Pismo Beach and chose the Diablo Canyon site, and the
club approved of that. Instantly, along comes a group within the
club against Diablo Canyon. "The most beautiful canyon on the
coast" a gross exaggeration!

There were certain characters like Martin Litton and others who
just took Diablo Canyon as a challenge and said the Sierra Club
betrayed conservation and ruined this beautiful canyon! And they
made special photographs of the oak trees, etc. It isn't the


Adams: camera that lies, it's the photographer. So they made it out that
this was really one of the most extraordinary places on the coast.
Well, it was a nice little canyon, but there are scores better.
I've seen many real, not motivated photographs. And while I regret
having any beautiful spot spoiled for any purpose, at least they
took the proposed plant off the state park Oceano Dunes, which are
very beautiful, and put it in this remote canyon; they had to go
somewhere. But of course many claim we don't need any more power.
We said to one of the directors who made such a fuss about this,
"Did you walk in to San Francisco from Redwood City this morning?"
Of course not, he came up in his Buick with one person in it. When
the power goes off, they're the first ones to complain. So I have
a very sour impression about such unreasonable people.

Private Interests and the Public Interest

Adams: Now, in the earlier days they weren't quite so unreasonable. There
was more unreason on the other side. I knew some business people
in Visalia and Fresno who would say, "There's too many parks. We
shouldn't have any parks. Yosemite Valley's all right, but you're
strangling the cattleman and the rancher; cutting him out of his
livelihood." Well, to a certain extent, the park and wilderness
areas have caused serious loss to the cattlemen. But with the
advent of the feed lots, they now have no leg to stand on. Because
the animals are raised for a good part of their life in very well
controlled pasture and then put into feed lots and stuffed. Now,
for sheep, I've been told it's no longer economical to run sheep
into very high country. When Muir came, the Sierra was just
absolutely infested with sheep, and they tell me that the damage
is not yet repaired, that they created such fundamental damage to
the ground cover that what we see in the Sierra today is pretty
much the result. The meadows must have been quite different in the
fifties and sixties before they started running sheep. Of course,
hunting is another thing we feel we probably have the privilege
of hunting as part of the American dream, but I'm a thousand percent
against it. The hunters were very much in opposition to parks and to

You have a very protracted, continuing opposition to this, and
you have it often come up in Congress. There have been several
worrisome bills presented. One was that all government lands
should be administered by the nearest township. That would mean
Yosemite would be run by El Portal! And another one is that the
government should sell off government land to private interests!
That bill was actually presented. It didn't pass, but there are a
lot of people that feel that way.


Teiser: Were the national forests used at all to reconcile those people?

Adams: Well, the national forest is valid, only in the sense that it's

controlled. You see, grazing and all other use is by permit. And
just like trees, the ground cover is a resource, and just so many
cattle can use it. If it's over-used, it's ruined for quite a
while, maybe forever. So, the Forest Service controls grazing and
lumbering and, of course, mining is a fundamental privilege that
goes somehow with the land, like water rights. The Hudson family
here, I've been told, owns the mining rights to enormous amounts of
country around here. They just bought the mining rights, just like
you would the oil rights. A lot of people did that to protect the
land, because quarrying is part of mining. I could go to a person's
land here that might have an attractive bluff and say, "We're going
to have to protect this. I'll buy the mining rights to your
property." And for a hundred dollars or a nominal amount, I could
buy that and perhaps give it to a trust and nobody could exploit it.
No matter who owns the property, the mining rights could be owned
by others.

Teiser: So individuals own mining rights in the national forests?

Adams: No, they can't in the national forests, only in private lands.

Unless you had mining rights to begin with, then the Forest Service
might take them over. That gets pretty complicated legally.

Teiser: The Forest Service allows mining in the national forests?

Adams: Yes, I believe so, in appropriate situations. And the national

monuments, under the national parks, have to carry mining rights.
A national monument, by law, cannot preclude mining. You can still
mine in Death Valley. I can go in there and stake a mining claim.
But I can't open a resort.

Teiser: But the basic philosophy of the national Forest Service is quite
different from that of the National Park Service?

Adams: It's tremendously different and it should be clarified. Very few
people realize what the difference is. The National Park Service
is for preservation of the natural scene for the enjoyment of the
people, and they use the word "re-creation" as well as "recreation,"
and nothing can be done in a park of any commercial nature except
under contract. Concessioners operate under permits. You can't
even collect pine cones!

Now, the Forest Service is an institution which is designed to
protect and control many natural resources. In the early days when
my grandfather was a lumberman in Puget Sound, forest harvesting
was severe; they completely denuded the country. I remember flying


Adams: twenty years ago over Vancouver Island. It looked like there

wasn't a bush for hundreds of miles. It seemed completely logged
out. There was an unlimited amount of timber in early days, so
they just never thought anything of it. Then Gifford Pinchot came
on the scene, and he realized the whole forest resource of America
was going down the drain; that in a matter of a few years there
would be little left. So the Forest Service was established. You
have to remember that this cutting was on primarily public domain
land, and there were no restrictions. I don't even think people
had to get permits. They would buy up vast tracts for nominal
amounts. The railroads did that, such as the Southern Pacific and
Union Pacific, acquired millions of acres, which they sold or
leased to lumbermen. It's all very complicated.

Up in northern California the redwood groves were privately
owned; they never were under public domain for many, many years.
They were bought out very cheaply. And that's why the Forest
Service never had influence there. There is the Mendocino National
Forest and a few other areas, but most of it is privately owned.
So when the state parks were formed and the Save-the-Redwoods
League became active, they bought much land from the private owners.
They usually got along fine. They said, "We wish to establish a
grove or a park, and we have a million-dollar pledge, and we want
to buy this timber. We'll take all you can give us." And they'd
sit down and have lunch or drinks and negotiate. The Save-the-
Redwoods League has done the greatest single job of conservation
with the least acrimony. Some very contemporary activists in the
Sierra Club think the Save-the-Redwoods League was responsible for
a great loss of redwoods. Being totally unrealistic about the whole
thing. Some think you can simply take those areas and put them in
parks. Well, you can't. You have to pay for it, under the
principle of eminent domain.

The tragedy in the Redwood Park is that we had a very fine
location sixty-something thousand acres all ready to go, and then
I must say my friend Dr. Wayburn and a few others said that wasn't
enough, they wanted a hundred thousand acres, and they threw a
monkey wrench in the procedures. The lumber people caught on and
started cutting into the best areas, and finally we ended up with
what is now, for me, an inferior park, instead of the superior
stands, which you might have had if the first plan had gone through.
The several years delay was a tragedy. Another tragedy is that the
government can establish a park like Point Reyes National Seashore
and the Redwood Park, but they don't appropriate money. In the
meantime, the land value goes up. So when the government does get
around to buying, they're paying three or four times as much for it
as they would have at first.




Adams :

Teiser ;
Adams :

Now I think there's some law being invoked that when the government
once designates an area, the value at the time of determination
holds, plus a logical amount of interest which would accrue if
there were a delay in appropriations. Do I make myself clear? And
those things are very important. The Point Reyes Seashore lost some
very valuable areas. They can come and take my house, but they have
to pay me the appraised value. Eminent domain is inflexible. If
they came and said to me, "I offer you X dollars for this property,"
I can say, "No, it's worth more than that." So I take it to court,
and then the judge can either agree with the proposed value or put
a new price on it. But no matter what happens, when that price is
determined by the court, I have to give it up. There's no way I
can hold it.

Now, the only law that is a little "aloof" is the homestead act.
There were many property rights in Yosemite, such as around Lake
Tenaya, and I think the Sierra Club property in Tuolumne Meadows
was homesteaded, so they were automatically excluded from the
acquisition of the park for the lifetime of the owners. They can't
be touched; I think that's part of the homestead law. And I think
a homestead cannot be taken for bad debts. I think a homestead is
an absolutely secure situation, which was based on the fact that a
man and his family go west to start a farm and he homesteads his
land. He's got that asset; nobody can take that away from him any
more than if I went into bankruptcy, they couldn't take my cameras.
A carpenter can't lose his tools. He can't be deprived of his
means of livelihood. He can lose his house and his sofa and his
liquor collection and everything else that he owns, except his
clothes and his wife and his tools. They are safe, and that's in
a way the principle of the homestead.

During the twenties, one of the campaigns the Sierra Club was
fighting for was for acquisition of private lands in the national
parks. Were there lands in Yosemite that were then brought into
the park?

Oh yes, many lands. All around Tenaya Lake; the club got those for
the park. We got some of the land at Wawona; I don't know how much,
but there's still a great deal of land at Wawona that's not in the

You say "we got." Did the government appropriate money for it?

Well, what the club did in many cases was to buy the land and hold
it for the government when it had the money. It was a risky thing.
It's what the Nature Conservancy does. They'll go to somebody and
say, "We need $5 million to secure this parcel of land. The state
is interested and the government is interested, and if within a
certain number of years they don't buy it, then we will sell it."


Adams :

Teiser ;



In other words, they make the attempt. We tried to get them to
buy the artichoke fields down here, but there's too much money
involved. In other words, the state or the county couldn't
possibly afford to buy it for what it was worth. Now, Tom Hudson
sold twenty-seven acres of their property to the state, adjoining
Point Lobos, for $4,500,000. Well, that was understandable; that
was increasing an important area. And then he donated many acres
on the other side of the road. But he'd put that property up as
collateral option money to try to save the artichokes. He really
did a wonderful job of trying to save some of our land, and almost
went bankrupt. The bank was very helpful. The bank, by law, had
to foreclose, but they invoked some kind of regulation that
permitted him the time to sell it to the state, which was a good
thing. The state got it at a pretty good figure, and he gets out
off the hook, which is fine!

We did somewhat the same in several areas I forget where they
were. Then, of course, the McCauley property was available at Soda
Springs, and the club thought that they should buy that to protect
it, because it was in Tuolumne County and was outside the park.
Anybody could come in and start a development. Then by law they
had the rights of access and the rights of water. The city of
San Francisco was concerned over that.

San Francisco, after Hetch Hetchy was established (to go back
to that for a minute), wanted to close the entire Tuolumne watershed
to traffic, as a dangerous possible pollution hazard to the San
Francisco water supply. Well, that would have involved about half
of Yosemite National Park] There was a big fight. Of course, we
won on that. That was a public issue, because it was conclusively
proven that the pollution was minor, and the water had to be
purified anyway.

Well, that's another case of incompatibility,
supplies, like cattle and recreation.

People and water

Now there's no stream in the Sierra that's safe to drink out of!
We used to think nothing of going up to Merced Lake and camping by
the river and drinking the river water and other streams then the
purest water in the world. You can't do it now; there's just too
many people in the area.

Do all these people have to bring their water in?

You have to boil or chlorinate your water or otherwise treat it.
A lot of people don't do it. Mr. Colby, in the early twenties,
got ptomaine poisoning somewhere near Reds Meadow. The water had
perhaps run through a cattle or sheep camp. So you can get these
bugs anywhere, but now it's very serious.


Adams: The club bought the Tuolumne Meadows property on the basis of
certificates. A number of people put up $100 each and got a
certificate of part ownership. And that gave us the required
money. I forget what it was. I shouldn't be quoting, because I
don't know. I think it was 250 certificates $25,000 in all.
Some people thought it was very extravagant, but we got this whole
section of land. The whole idea was to hold it until we were sure
that the government could properly operate it. Now, we had a very
sharp superintendent once, who wanted to put the Tuolumne Meadows
Lodge right on our border thinking that it would bug us into
getting rid of it. We saw what the motive was, and we took it to
Washington and stopped it because it was such an obvious trick.
The lodge didn't belong there; it was just a bureaucratic ploy,
you see.

Believe me, there's been plenty of monkey business in the
Park Service and the Forest Service. What's going to happen is
always a political gamble.

The Sierra Club and the Government

Teiser: In going over the Sierra Club Bulletins of the twenties, it looked
as if a lot of government officials were great friends of the
Sierra Club. They'd come to camps

Adams: Yes, that was a very important thing. That leads to the immediate
present, or the last seven or eight years. In the early days we
did have a very fine relationship, especially with people like
[Stephen T.] Mather, and the early directors and secretaries of
the Interior, and the Forest Service people. They knew what we
stood for. And we'd voice our opinions very strongly, and we'd
offer help, and we'd make studies for them, and all kinds of
efforts to come to conclusions. Sometimes we lost, but everybody
was on a first-name basis. There weren't any nasty things going on.
Oh, once in a while there 'd be a doublecross, but it was very rare.
Leonard was very fine at negotiations. Bestor Robinson was a very
important man for many years, and he was our liaison man with the
Forest Service.

Teiser: How did he happen to achieve this?

Adams: Well, he was a lawyer who I think had clients with lumber interests
and advised the Forest Service. He was terribly interested in
conservation, and he understood the Forest Service point of view,
and he knew when to stop. He would say, "The Forest Service has
its lawful obligations, and I'm trying to get them to see the light


Adams: in this case, and please don't butt in at the moment. I think I've
got it under control." And we'd agree. He could talk to these
people, and as a rule he accomplished an enormous amount.

[End Tape 25, Side 1]
[Begin Tape 25, Side 2]

Teiser: You were saying that Bestor Robinson was a man of importance.

Adams: Well, he was accused by many of the more activist members of selling
out to the Forest Service, and a lot of things which were not true.
He was very definitely attempting to try to bring us together, and
he did, and he had, I know, a high order of mutual respect. The
realities of the situation are that the people who own property and
are in business are naturally going to protect their interest,
which relates more to those people I've mentioned, more to the
business types, and in very many cases in opposition to the Interior
Department and the National Park Service.

Now, [Harold] Ickes tried to combine the Forest Service and the
Interior into a new department called the Department of Conservation.
I was all for that, and a lot of people were, and then we finally
realized that it's good to have two enemies in adjoining houses
rather than in the same apartment. [Laughter] I mean, you really
couldn't reconcile the two, because the word "conservation" covers
a multitude of sins. It's a very bad word in many cases because
it's so broad. Bestor, time and again, would have meetings with
them, authorized by us. He would arrange meetings. I remember
many times when Colby or someone would call up this was in the
thirties or forties "We are having lunch with the chief forester.
Can you come down?" Well, I come down; we sit and talk. And he
might be pounding on the table, but always with a twinkle, everybody
with first-name status, and we'd all leave friends. Well, that went
along fine until Brower got in as executive director.

He worked wonderfully for Dick Leonard for a year or so. Dick
thought he was the greatest thing that ever happened to the club.
We all did. I was instrumental in getting him in. He gave up a
big job with tenure at the University of California Press. He
really is a highly gifted man, there's no question of it. But
then he began to get the aggressive bug, and gradually went down
the accusation road, and would bring in personalities, making very
bold statements that weren't always factual. And these people
finally pulled away; they wouldn't talk with us.

Teiser: Was Bestor Robinson one of them?


Adams: Well, Bestor Robinson left. He was very much in opposition to

Brower when he started that tactic. But these people in the Forest
Service and the Park Service and the state, they wouldn't talk to
the club people any more because Brower represented the club in the
most aggressive, what we call shin-kicking way. You don't sit down
to talk business with somebody and then kick them in the shins, call
them S.O.B.s and then say, "What do you want? You can't have it."
That attitude is terrible!

That's why the Mineral King got by us. We never knew anything
about it until it was formally announced. Now, in the earlier days
the Forest Service would have discussed that with us. We had
discussed for many years the development of ski areas, and Mineral
King was discussed as a ski area. The difficulty was the road
that's one of the main problems. You can't desecrate the country
with new roads, and of course it is usually too expensive.

There was dead silence for six or seven years. Then they come
out with the Disney plan a bombshell. It never would have happened
before. And this occurs over and over again. And even Dick, to
some extent, has been a little hypnotized with what he calls "Brower
achievements" like "saving" the Grand Canyon.

Well, Brower did a great deal. It's by no means a settled
situation, I assure you. One of his basic principles was to seldom
give credit to anybody else working on a project, and that rankled
with other associations. You suddenly find out that here's two or
three more important organizations who are working along the same
lines, but he never would admit it.

The Park Service and the Forest Service

Teiser: I've been reading a little about Stephen Mather, and it struck me
that there were some parallels, and some contrast too, between
him and Brower.

Adams: The only way you could say they were alike is that they were

extremely forceful and direct action people. Mather was a very,
very fine man and was very wealthy. He dedicated himself to the
Park Service. He did found it, in fact. He was the first director.
And he's the one you see, [it was] proposed that the Park Service
should invite business firms to operate the public service. Mather
was very much for that because he was a free enterprise man. I
frankly think government operation would have been best. It would
have solved a lot of problems, but it also would have invited a lot

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 62 of 76)