Ansel Adams.

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

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Colorado, and he has big mining interests back of him. It's not
easy. It's a very complex thing.

The Alaska timber situation is simply ghastly. I mean, the
Forest Service there is dangerous. I don't know what they're doing
with that, whether they'd be able to control it. But they've let
out 97 percent of the land all at once, a lot of it for cutting
trees for pulp. It can absolutely ruin southeast Alaska. There's
no really good land plan around. We have Mount McKinley National
Park and Glacier Bay and Sitka National Monuments; these are
historic. Some of these monuments are just little areas with an
old building or a totem pole relics, you know. Canyon de Chelly
is a national monument, and that's primarily because of the great
ruins. But it happens to be one of the most beautiful parts of
America and it's really owned by the Navajos. So there we have a
double protection.

Sunset Crater National Monument there's nothing there but a
lot of recent lava which, if its aluminum content is as it is in
Hawaii, could very easily be enticing for strip mining. Although
in Kauai they like the lava to become eroded into soil because it's
cheaper to process. I think it*s 18 percent aluminum.

I think it's just a great big game, and you have to watch
every play of it.

Teiser: Every now and again, someone wants to mine the town of Columbia in
California go under the buildings and dig up the streets to pick
up the gold that's been left around.


Sentinel Rock

Adams: Well, they go over and over again Sierra foothill land with the

dredgers; they get some money out of it, and then they come along
with a better process and do it all over again. I don't think
there's enough gold in Columbia to permit that, but there are
people who'd be perfectly willing to do it for twenty bucks a
square mile, you know. It's really sad!

Teiser: The San Jacinto tramway, the one that was built finally, do you
think that was such a bad thing?

Adams: No, I never could see anything wrong with that. The club opposed
it, but I don't think more than half-heartedly because a lot of
people down there wanted it as opening possible ski areas and
recreation areas- very seriously needed. Now, I've been down there
several times. I've only been able to see it once. It's an awful
big mountain, and when the light is right, you might see the little
It's like Yosemite. There's a power line that goes up by

and that's where I want to see the [Yosemite] tramway
go if it goes at all. You won't see it. It's much better than a
road. There's been all kinds of trouble at San Jacinto State Park,
concession trouble, and whether they wanted a restaurant or some
kind of resort, or whether they wanted to keep it natural and

They have another cable tramway at Albuquerque, and you know
that's all public lands, but very deserty. And you can see those
cables in the morning when the sun hits them. But they go up the
southwest side of the Sandias. Apparently they give a very
spectacular ride. There's a nice restaurant at the top, and I
don't think it does any harm at all.

You see, the whole thing about tramways is that people just
have an idealistic opposition. But if you bring a tramway up the
dull side of the mountain, and you bring people to the top, and then
you have this wonderful wilderness view and you have nothing
intruding in that, then the tramway is a great asset. For instance,
you could have a tramway at Glacier Point, and people would emerge
to a great view; it could be an enormous emotional experience. It
would do very little, if any, harm.

Now, if you had one at Half Dome or one that comes up the face
of Glacier Point, then you're doing a lot of harm. That would
become serious intrusion. A lot of people have a perfectly blind
opposition, without any definition of fact at all. That, to me,
is very annoying, because we've done some terrible things that if
they had been accomplished in another way would have been most


Adams: Then, of course, in ten years time you're going to have all kinds of
changes in transportation. I think the tramways are being improved.
The helicopter, short-take-of f-and-landing planes, can bring people
to the edge of things and leave the wilderness inviolate. Or if
you're going to have a pack trip into the mountains, you can take
all the supplies for the entire trip in, with a helicopter. A half-
an-hour flight in, and a half an hour unloading and half an hour out;
you've saved the damage of thousands of mule days.

Then the other idea, of course, is just closing off the areas.

There's people that want Yosemite to be completely closed at El

Portal. You would have to walk in. To me, that is totally
unrealistic and totally selfish.

Teiser: It's a long walk.

Adams: You see, there's always the groups that say the wilderness exists
and everything should be open for all our citizens, because after
all, we all own it. Well, they don't realize that that would ruin
the wilderness if it is fully open. You'd automatically destroy it.
Then there's the extreme opposite group which says only those who
are capable of back-packing or arduous work should be able to go into
the park. Politically, that's absolutely impossible, so it's just
silly to talk about it. The only way you'd do it would be to
establish a dictatorship and by imperial decree set it all aside as
the emperor's garden, or something. {Laughter] You never could
possibly manage it in a democracy, and I don't think you should try.
I think people should have the privilege of seeing as much as they
can and experiencing as much as they can, providing it doesn't do
any harm.

Part of the wilderness devotee's idea is to leave things go.
If a bridge falls, you never build another one; if a tree falls
across a trail, you never take it out. Well, that effectively just
bottles the areas up, closes it, and you might as well consider it
as a specimen on a shelf.

I don't know what kind of emotional hysteria and paranoia
they're solving by these attitudes, but they sure exist.

Teiser: What's the difference between a wilderness area and a primitive area?

Adams: Well, you've got me there. These definitions are so complex.

Primitive area is where its occupation and use is primitive perhaps
like an old mining town. It might have a road in it, but there's no
new development. There's no hotels. Nothing contemporary goes in.
I mean, things are kept as they were.


Adams :

Teiser :

Adams :

Now, I think possibly Cades Cove in the Great Smokies that might
be called a primitive area, because people continue to farm and
live as they did a century ago. Well, I think they'd have a
television set somewhere. But there's no paved roads. The old
log cabins are there, and the old way of life.

Mineral King, as it stands now, I would say would be a
primitive area. There is a very difficult road going into it, and
a few shacks, maybe a mine I just don't know what its status is.

But a wilderness area is where you have no culture, as we call
it, only the most essential things, like a trail or a bridge, or a
fire station.

The Gila Wilderness Area it was established at Aldo Leopold's
suggestion as a primitive area and then became a wilderness area


Well, you see, there were people living there the natives. And I
think that was just a step to attain the objective, but not doing
it too devastatingly quick. Then of course they want to put in dams
there, on the Gila River.' And you find people now who think Lake
Powell is the most beautiful thing they ever saw. They go out in
boats go up all these gorges, which were formerly canyon cliffs,
They never saw the canyon before; I never did. They think it's just
marvelous filled with water. It's a matter of taste!

That Eliot Porter book, The Place No One Knew, is expressing an
ideal. And it's fortunate, perhaps, that very few people knew it,
because it couldn't have stood heavy traffic. Even the Grand Canyon
will suffer from the traffic, but not as much as others. The beaches
will get rather dirty and cluttered. A lot of people in there cause
sanitation problems but of course they have occasional floods that
clear it up for a while. But the dams on the Colorado River are
already really silting up.

We don't realize what's going to happen, say, to Boulder Dam.
It's not very many years before it will be a great big mud plateau.
I don't know how many freight trains of silt are coming in there
every day. And of course the water below that now is absolutely
pure almost pure because the silt is taken care of. So while the
Colorado used to run muddy red into the Gulf of California, it now
has very pure water, because it has a series of dams. And each one
of those dams is acquiring the silt and silting up getting shallower
and shallower and finally it'll just be quicksand, and the water
will pour over the face of the dam, and that's the end of that.
Because the Colorado carries down a tremendous amount of erosion
material. And the interesting thing about the Colorado River is that
the river cut at about the same rate that the land rose. The river


Adams: has the same altitude that it had a million years ago. I don't know
the exact figure, but the river still flows at about the same
altitude as it always had!

I remember in that country you'll get a heavy rainstorm, and
you'll see the mud running. In twenty years, say in Monument Valley
and certain other areas, I can see the profound difference, and all
that mud's gone somewhere. It goes into the streams. In the
natural course of events, it would get into the Gulf of California.

Of course, you know what happened in the delta of the Nile
boy, that's a controversy'. Because the Aswan Dam has now stopped
the water, and all the nutriment which came down to nourish the Nile
delta doesn't come anymore. The farms are going and there's all
kinds of agricultural problems, but there's plenty of power. But
apparently it just upset the whole economy of the country.

Teiser: How was Glacier View Dam stopped? Was there any special thing?

Adams: I don't know. I think these things are just a matter of how much
power is on the other side. You have to get the philosophy of the
Corps of Engineers clear, which nobody seems to be able to do. The
Army Engineers are kept going as an organization because in time of
war they're terribly important; they set up the military earth works
and all that. But they now have "civil" construction, huge projects.
And it's often been proposed that they abandon this work and private
contractors be brought i'n. The Army won't hear of that. But while
we're in peace time, the Corps of Engineers has to be kept busy
channeling rivers and building dams. They have to do something to
keep the staff alive and knowledgeable. They love to get their
hooks in any construction work they can. They're channeling rivers,
like the Napa River and many others, which from a flood control
principle is wonderful, but absolutely ruins it in the natural sense,
And the flood control is because there's a lot of people around.
There 'd be no need for it if there weren't so many people.

In the Los Angeles area, in the San Fernando Valley, and in the
San Joaquin Valley, you see these tremendous areas excavated for
flood control dikes. In case of an extreme flood the river's kept
in bound. Well, now they've got so many dams, the danger of a big
flood is not so great. But say they have the sudden threat of a
heavy storm at the Oroville Dam area; they have to store an awful
lot of water. Well, then they hope they can move that into other
storage areas. When the storm comes it may fill up the dams. If
the dam's already full, it no longer controls the flood. The water
goes over the top of the dam and may raise Cain below. So now they
try to anticipate these things lower the dam in advance so it will
take it, and put the water somewhere else. It's quite an amazing


Teiser: The big fight over Dinosaur National Monument started in about 1950,
I guess, and I think the Sierra Club put out a special issue of its

Adams: Oh yes, they had a big campaign on that. Wallace Stegner wrote a
book on it. Yes, that was quite a campaign. I didn't realize it
was that late.

Teiser: Did you take special part in it?

Adams: No, I just voted against the dam, put it that way.

Teiser: Were you in agreement with the Sierra Club's actions?

Adams: Yes, I think so, especially with the one of finding alternate sites
and going about it in that intelligent way. Philip Hyde did some
beautiful pictures of it.

Teiser: And that was a thoroughly effective campaign?

Adams: Very. Well, that was well organized. It was done with a lot of
dignity, and there wasn't much ruffled feelings, and there was
logical persuasion.

Citizens' Campaigns

Adams: I think it's like when we got rid of the Humble Oil plant, up here
at Moss Landing, an example of laying the cards on the table. And
the president of the company and Tom Hudson and myself Bill Kramer
and a few others we're all on pretty much a first-name basis. We
just told them that we didn't want them and it would be very
dangerous for the farms in the Salinas Valley, which was about the
only clear farming area remaining in the state. The refinery would
invite big industry and it would be very bad for their image. They
pulled up stakes and went to Benicia. Of course, what Benicia
thinks of us is not polite [laughter], but they already had many
refineries, and that's a more appropriate setting. But Tom was
really wonderful because, with his own money, he would fly to Texas
to see the president and sit down and have a couple of drinks with
him, or go out to dinner and talk. And he would say, "You know,
we're talking about real values scenic value, cultural value, and
now you people come along, and you start a trend which will
completely ruin these values, and it will not be good for your image.
You don't want to do that, do you?" It worked.


Adams: The same with the PG&E, when they put in that huge plant at Moss
Landing. This just shows you how crazy it can all be sometimes.
They started up the plant and, my gosh, there's a plume pollution!
And the citizens of Monterey, they walked down Alvarado [Street]
protesting. They got everybody up in arms. PG&E put a big ad in
the paper saying that this was as much a mystery to them as it was
to anybody else: this was the largest plant of its kind in the
world, or one of the largest, and no matter what it costs, we're
going to stop the pollution, you can be rest assured of that. But
they hadn't found out what was causing it. A chemist from Santa
Cruz wrote a brilliant technical, scholarly-sounding paper for the
Monterey Herald, in which he decried the use of sulphur-bearing
oils have no need for it in these days. And PG&E was really
criticized for this use of primitive fuel. But they weren't
burning oil; it's all natural gas! There wasn't any oil in the
place. They have a stand-by tank; in case the gas line breaks,
they have enough oil to put in for a day or so, but not for regular

Well, what happened was that in the old plant, which burned
natural gas too, the fire-box heat was such that the combination of
oxygen and nitrogen it's too complicated for me to try to explain
it technically did not take place. But in the new plant the heat
was so intense that this association, this nitrogen effect
unexpectedly took place. When it went up the stacks it was a
combination of nitrogen and I don't know what, but it wasn't what
you get in sulphur-burning oils. I don't think there's any sulphur
at all in it. But it cost them an awful lot of money to reconstruct
those fire boxes and prepare the gas before the oxygen went in.

Teiser: They would have done it without the citizens' protests.

Adams: I think so. PG&E has been very cagey about this. I think they've
done wonderfully in many ways. They know they can't do it all, and
they always have been pretty good. They've been wrongly accused of
milking the public, but they work under controlled rates. They have
to put a lot of money in plants and future prospects. Well, when
you get that big, no matter what you do is considered wrong; they
just accept it. I think they've acted splendidly in this no matter
what the cost, the official told me, "We mean to correct it. It
might cost $20 million, but we can't afford pollution to come out of
a natural gas plant! This chemistry is confused. I don't know hov
we made the mistake. Somebody just left off a cipher somewhere."
It's a $160-million plant, you see. You should have seen those fire
boxes when they were building them; the cooling tubes that go out to
the ocean are twelve feet in diameter. The amount of concrete
that's used is fantastic.

Teiser: What does it do to the ocean? Did people complain about that, about
raising the temperature?


Adams: The temperature of the ocean changes about 5, up and down, over the
year anyway. The outfall is sufficiently far out that there's no
perceptible effect.

Teiser: There seem to be a lot of fishing boats still around there.

Adams: Well, in fact, raising the temperature a little would probably help
the fish. In some areas, raising the temperature as much as 10 has
brought in a whole new set of sea life. We don't know why the
sardines left Monterey. I guess they just got tired or scared of
the tourists! But it's conceivable that if the temperature went up
or down, then they might come back. We don't know yet. So long as
the outfall is far enough out, and so long as there's no real
pollution going out of the stacks, we have little to complain about.
They are building great cooling towers at many of the inland atomic
plants. I think it all relates to the third law of thermodynamics
I think it's the third law you just have to get your water back to
a low temperature. You think you've got all this hot water; why
don't you just put it through and heat it up a little more? But it
just doesn't work that way. I never could understand why, but it
doesn't. I was told I think here the pressure is, oh gosh, it's
unbelievable, and the temperature is about 1200 F. It's called
"live steam;" you can't see it, it's so tremendously hot.

The Sierra Club and Its Chapters

Teiser: Tomales Bay State Park I guess was a local problem?

Adams: Yes, that vas local. We must give credit to the chapters for many,
many wonderful things that happened at the local level. And my
personal hope is the club would become sort of a federation of
states like the government a federation of chapters with a central
office that is professionally staffed. And these chapters then act
as entities. Their delegates would comprise a senate and the senate
would run the club as a whole. If that came to pass, we'd get out
of these very complex politics that's plagued the board ever since
we grew to a large size. There's been ego trips and struggles to
be president and lots of back-of-the-scenes pulling that's one of
the reasons why I got out. I just couldn't take it any longer. It
seemed a horrible waste of time.

Sometimes the chapters would just go ahead and tend to their
own knitting. They were having their own troubles, but they
accomplished a great deal. The San Francisco chapter, the Los
Angeles chapter the Midwest chapters have been wonderful. And
the Eastern and the Kentucky chapter, Southeast I forget; we've
got so many of them now. They've all had real accomplishments.


Teiser: They have increased in recent years?

Adams: Oh yes, we have one or two chapters accepted at every meeting.

Teiser: It's interesting that it was a western organization that they came
into, rather than establishing separate ones in the East.

Adams: Well, there was the Wilderness Society, but they never wanted

chapters. And the National Parks Association they didn't want
chapters either. We first had the San Francisco chapter and the
Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club because that would better
control the state. Then there was a great fight against other
chapters. They didn't want the club disintegrated. And then came
our Mother Lode chapter. I don't know how it really developed,
because there was a great opposition to chapters in the beginning.

Teiser: Why?

Adams: Well, they didn't want to dilute the club's power, you see. And
I can see that from a certain point of view. But then when we
became national and a lot of the membership is outside the state,
that's another matter entirely. The Atlantic chapter did a great
deal of good protecting the Hudson River.

Brower moved his allegiance to the Atlantic chapter and then
put a barrier up against any information. The Atlantic chapter is
now broken down into several smaller ones. But when Brower
transferred his allegiance to the chapter, he prevented any basic
club information being published in the Argonaut, which was their
paper. In all this controversy there wouldn't be a word about home
policies, etc., and he even got the New York Times to write as he
dictated! And we had one terrible time getting information over to
the members. It was really a dictatorial coup. You talk about a
Hitler situation! It was simply dreadful. I never want to go on
record as ever getting soft about Brower or anything he did,
because it really approached disaster. In fact, it did. I think it
almost wrecked the club. I don't think we will ever be able to
recover full prestige, because we got into such a bind of opposition

Teiser: Well, perhaps a shift to a chapter system is in order.

Adams: Yes, and I think the chapters will support that. They were the ones
that were very mad and very unhappy when all this trouble came out.
Some in the East were terribly disillusioned when they found out
this information had been withheld. But the CMC, which is Concerned
Members for Conservation it cost us $12,000 just to reach the
membership of the club. We published a mimeographed sheet and
addressed them to the 120,000 members, and with the postage it came
to $12,000.


Adams: We have now twelve hundred members of the Friends of Photography,
and we were talking the other day about the budget, and every time
they send an announcement out it's $125 for postage and printing.
Well, we have four shows a year, or five, right away there's $1500
cost for announcements. Bigness has certain advantages, but also
the administrative costs are high.

But when you want to reach 120,000 members, you've got a
$12,000 bill it's the cheapest way of getting to them. Now [1972]
a postcard would be 6c, and printing the postcard would probably
be one cent; so that would be ?C each I It's frightening when you
think of all these things. The amount of letter writing and the
amount of mimeographing and duplicating and Xeroxing it gets to be
absolutely tremendous.

When I joined the club, Nell Taggart was running the whole
thing by herself with a few volunteers out of a little office in
the Mills Tower. Now we have computers and a big staff and high
rent and all kinds of equipment.

I remember Dr. Land saying, "Oh, the good old days of Polaroid
Company, when you knew almost everybody in it." It would be a few
hundred people; now there's twelve thousand Polaroid people in
Cambridge alone. And then he gets worried, you know, and he says,
"It's about forty thousand people in all, with the families.
That's quite a city to be mayor of I And if I make a mistake, it
affects that number of people. It isn't just my money or the
company money. But suppose some mistake is made or sales go down
and we have to lay off a certain number of workers, here's all these
people to be responsible for." Well, of course, he's a humanitar
ian. I don't think many of the big companies are too conscious of
that sort of thing. Oh, they have to give some thought to it, I
guess .

But the club membership is now, I think, 130,000. It was
1AO,000; I think it's been losing a little. The pendulum has been
going the other way. I think that's because there are so many
other local and national organizations starting up. When I stop to
think of all the organizations I have to support just because I'm
interested, I can't possibly afford it or justify it. But I have
to do the best I can. I don't mean I can't afford it. I can afford
some of it. The checks don't bounce. But it's all out of
proportion. We have the Friends of the Sea Otters, we have the Save
the Bay Association. Now the Friends of the Sea Otters, started by
Margaret Owings , is a wonderful organization. They're trying to
keep the abalone people and the sea otters in balance! Then we have