Ansel Adams.

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

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So I had no sympathy with it and can't understand that kind of

Teiser: What was the Trustees for Conservation?


Adams: Oh, it was first set up as an organization that would receive monies
that were not tax deductible for certain gifts that might help the
club. But that didn't work, because the club itself was still tax
deductible, and the IRS said, "You're fooling yourself. You should
be tax deductible." So they granted the Trustees for Conservation
a tax deductible charter. But we didn't influence legislation
directly, you see. I don't know really what we did; it's one of
those rather vague things! The foundation, on the other hand, has
done just marvelously.

Teiser: What sort of people contribute to the foundation?

Adams: Oh, everybody individuals and organizations. I don't know the list.
But it's been very successful. Then they give grants to the club.
But then, you see, the club has all these lawsuits and is in great
danger now of a counter suit for many millions of dollars, which
some people are worried about, because we have made I think very
unnecessarily harsh statements and have caused considerable
financial loss through injunctions and actions that might amount to
libel. We are now being sued for I don't know what it is $10
million or something. So the club transferred all its property and
holdings to the foundation.

Now, for instance, Tuolumne Meadows. The Soda Springs there
was owned by the Sierra Club and was part of Tuolumne County and is
real property. So if the club had been sued and had lost the suit,
those assets would have been taken over and sold to the highest
bidder. So you could have a developer trying "monkey business"
right in the park. We just figured it's just something that the
club should get rid of, should unload for its own safety. So all of
the properties of the club, I think with the exception of the Clair
Tappaan ski lodge which I don't understand because it is a very
runnable thing that could be turned into a valuable operation the
foundation has taken that over, and the club is working out a
considerable debt, plus a considerable threat of suit.

Teiser: If the club should go under I think you mentioned it could go broke
the foundation could just keep on?

Adams: The foundation is independent.

Teiser: That foundation is a good thing?

Adams: Yes, it's the only thing.

Teiser: Are you involved closely with the foundation?

Adams: No. Except well, I'm close in a way. I'm not on the board; I

didn't want to be. Again, it's an "expert" situation. You have to
know far more than I know about finance and law. Wayburn's the


Adams: president of it. Dick Leonard was. Dick Leonard is really the
moving spirit. It's a terribly good thing, probably the saving
thing for the club. Of course, they wouldn't be in a position to
bale the club out. If the club goes under, it goes under, and
probably the attorney general takes over and administers the
remains. Any organization that is built on public funds, if it goes
broke, the state has to take it over. A bank can't. A bank could
take over physical assets, but members' dues and funds, perpetual
funds and all that, they have to go under the administration of the
state. I don't know the legality of it in detail. But I'll be
honest it had gotten so bad there, that I almost threatened to say
the attorney general should take us over. They did that with the
Gold Star Mothers, who were terribly mismanaged. They took money
from the public, very considerable sums, and it was so mismanaged,
the state had to step in and control it. It wasn't anything really
crooked. The state, you see, is responsible for the public funds
in a sense, the government protects -your funds.

And there's a very interesting legal thing: If I want to do
pictures for advertising, as I've done in the past use a family and
get the model releases from mama and papa and children, and then
the parents sign releases for the children those releases are
really not valid, because if anything was done that would work to
the detriment of the children, the state remains the guardian of
the children and would step in. The father, who was a lawyer, was
signing the release, but he said to me, "I know you're all right.
I know this photograph is perfectly fine. But if something
happened where someone misused the picture of these kids, my release
wouldn't count at all, and the state could come right in and I'd be
in trouble for even permitting it."

All that is very complicated I I'm not a lawyer. But I'm
always surprised to get certain legal truths. Things that come out
with planning and zoning and contracts.

Dams and Reservoirs

Teiser: Another of the great early battles that the club fought, the Kings
Canyon one I think you mentioned it as an example of how an
organization must compromise in order to accomplish things.

Adams: Well, we were very anxious to put over the Kings Canyon National
Park, next to Sequoia. I did my little stint I went east and
talked to congressmen and senators, presented the book

Teiser: This was in the thirties.


Adams: Yes. They heard it pretty favorably, but the water people, you see,
have great power, so the congressional committee would not allow
this park to be established unless the canyons of the middle and
south fork of the Kings and a few other areas were reserved for
reservoirs. So Cedar Grove, the south fork valley, and the middle
fork of the Kings Canyon technically were out of the park. That
made a lot of people mad, but we had to convince them that if we
didn't give in on those we weren't going to get a park. So they
said, "All right, we'll give in," and it was all right. We got it.
And now I think there's no longer any claim on it. The Bureau of
Reclamation has now given it up. I think it's reverted to the park,
perhaps subject to emergency use. But hydro power is so relatively
expensive now that I don't think it will be used.

As far as water storage, they've got much greater areas. You
understand that some areas can be turned into great dams but do not
have much depth; therefore they do not have much fall of water and
don't produce much power, but they can hold a gigantic amount of
water. The San Luis dam is one of these huge storage reservoirs.
People don't realize what it is the water is pumped into it from
the Sacramento. In fact, the water that flows into it is practically
nothing that's a very arid area. There's this huge lake, I don't
know how many square miles; then, as they release the water, that
water goes into the forebay, but it first goes through a power house,
so it produces power at about half the cost of getting the water up
there in the first place. It doesn't break even, but it does reduce
the basic cost. From the great forebay, by computer, it is directed
to the different aqueducts leading south to San Diego.

Teiser: Have there been any examples of made lakes being abandoned, let go
back to nature?

Adams: Oh, I think a few small ones. Now there's a very ridiculous movement:
Some people are saying we should take out the Hetch Hetchy project,
take down the O'Shaugnessy dam and let the valley revert to nature.
Well, it's the craziest thing I've ever heard of, because there's no
other provision made for San Francisco to get that much water. The
power situation there is highly illegal, to sell the power to the
PG&E. The Raker Act does not permit it, but we've always done it.
The alternate would be to have two separate power systems in San

I don't think there's any major dam that has been abandoned
that I know of. But there have been many small ones. They just
become a "plateau." Unless they take the dam down. Which is quite
a business. You see, the San Luis dam is an earth dam; so is the
Oroville dam. An earth dam is just a great pile of rock and earth.
Whereas Boulder Dam is a cement dam.


Adams: They had a terrible time with a dam in Italy. They had tested the
rock as being a very firm type and built the dam on it, but they
didn't know that the rock would gradually yield to the pressures.
Finally it gave way and the water began to leak out, and once the
water starts going, the dam goes down.

A dam is a very interesting thing in hydraulics. A very
strange formula is involved. It's like an aquarium. You have an
aquarium six by six feet, and you have to have a very thick piece of
glass. Now, if you had that aquarium a mile long, but only six feet
high, the same glass will still hold, because the water is subject to
to gravity. It isn't all pressures against the glass. So when they
build these dams, the dam itself very seldom goes out; it's the
contact between the dam and the earth that goes out. I forget the
formula. I've never really known it; I've just seen it. It's
pretty complicated. And after a certain distance in the length of
the dam, it doesn't make any difference, because the weight is
supported by gravity on the ground.

Teiser: You were mentioning the Hetch Hetchy was the Sierra Club ever
involved in Crystal Springs?

Adams: I don't think so. But we've always been interested in preventing

unnecessary developments. Of course, there's a big dam there above
Hillsborough in that canyon that people don't realize. The Crystal
Springs lakes were relatively small when they were first discovered,
and then they put in this dam which raised them. a hundred feet, I

Teiser: It is always considered an earthquake hazard, isn't it?

Adams: Oh yes. If that dam goes, I've been told, it's going to be awfully
bad for part of the Peninsula.

Teiser: The Sierra Club did play some part in the Point Reyes National

Adams: A very important part. We made a very important effort in that and
we had some unfortunate things happen. We did a very good book
[Island in Time], and then later a movie was made of it. For some
reason or other, Brower adapted the movie, edited and changed it,
and created great animosity. He used this movie and didn't give
credit. Poor editing; it's a very sad story. There was great
animosity there when there shouldn't have been at all.

Teiser: Who made the movie originally?

Adams: I forget the name. It's quite good. But Dave wanted to take all
the credit. Just a habit, you see, of acquiring as much credit as
possible for everything that everybody did, which I think was a
psychological attitude. It's just hard to understand.


Teiser: Do you feel that Brower underwent what's known as a personality

Adams: Yes, I think he definitely did. I think about three years after he
took the position of executive director, during which time, as
Leonard would say, he was simply marvelous, he suddenly was bitten
with the power bug, I guess you would say, and really went through
a very definite change, because some of the things are so illogical
and so irrational that it's hard to conceive of them.

Teiser: He would not have been capable of doing them earlier?

Adams: I had a feeling he would. He had always given us the feeling of
being most brilliant and clever and capable. But, it's a strange
thing. It's like people that have fanatical religious convictions
logic doesn't exist. And unfortunately, history shows that many of
the "movers and shakers," as Mabel Luhan called them, were
extremely difficult, irrational, illogical people. But they were
so convincing that a subsequent generation, or even their own, made
something out of their convictions made use of them in some way
within themselves. The Calvinist doctrine itself is something
that's pretty hard to understand.

Transferring Properties to Public Ownership

Teiser: Brower fought effectively, however, for Point Reyes?

Adams: Oh yes, he fought effectively for a great many things. And I want
to make it clear again that his total effect has been tremendous.
And for that I was very anxious to see him get the John Muir Award,
which was a straightforward recognition of conservation. I didn't
think he should be honorary vice-president of an organization that
he nearly wrecked. I wouldn't accept that position myself because
of him; I couldn't, in protest. I could understand the John Muir
Award. As somebody said, the railroad association could give
Mussolini the gold medal for making the Italian railroads run on
time, but you'd hardly appoint him to the hall of fame as a great
human being. [Laughter] Or as the savior of Italy. I don't think
Mussolini would really deserve being an "honorary vice-president"
of Italy. [Laughter]

But anyway, you come across those things in business. I think
a very good example of destructive belligerence is George Meany in
labor. He has the ability of practically irritating everybody, and
I don't know what he's gaining. I'm just aghast.

Teiser: Has organized labor ever stepped up for conservation?


Adams: Yes. Walter Reuther was marvelous. He was one of our great
losses. He was really a very understanding, balanced, very
intelligent person and very sympathetic. He had big plans, but he
was killed in that unfortunate accident. His union had a place in
Michigan, and one of the men who was operating it a high man in
the Yosemite Company would go there and assist him in their
recreational studies. He was just on the edge of really making a
great contribution.

Dr. Land thought he was one of the great important forces in
the country. He went to his funeral in Chicago. He felt it was
little enough to do. Then Land had another great loss with Whitney
Young of the Urban League. They were trying to solve that South
African problem and some people from Polaroid were in Africa. He
apparently had a heart attack and drowned. That was a great shock,
because all these people were interested in a better life for
people, in the out-of-doors certainly.

You see, the out-of-doors to the easterners means something
different than to us. It's not the wilderness mystique. We have
to understand that we have an awful problem now with the ghetto
and the urban problems and the underprivileged and the rural
attitudes the rural people are really land-users and exploiters
who enjoy hunting and fishing. But the elitist group which enjoys
the so-called "wilderness mystique" is in a pretty precarious
position. They're diminishing. They're growing in number but I
think diminishing in proportion to the population. Every time the
space program or the wilderness preservation or anything like that
is proposed, you find a big bloc coming up and saying, "Well, why
don't you spend these millions to improve the urban blight?" etc.
which is perfectly sympathetic. You see enough in San Francisco to
realize how perfectly ridiculous it is to see these great skyscrapers-
super slick, with imperial grandeur and just a few blocks away
there's rundown buildings and quite poor people.

I went into the Clift Hotel a very nice place and right
after supper I walked down the street past shops of postcards,
posters, books real porno places. Horrible stuff, really. Just
bad, not even funny. And full of people poring over this stuff.
And out in the street a guy had passed out with drugs on the corner
his knapsack spilled in the gutter.

Teiser: You took the wrong turn. You got into the Tenderloin.

Adams: I was right on Geary Street I And then in the afternoon I was going
down the same street and there was another man passed out on the
sidewalk. People just standing around. Apparently no action. We
see them right here in Carmel. This gorgeous glamor of the San
Francisco scene; it is a wonderful glittery place. New York's got
bigger buildings, but it really doesn't have the flare. But it's
got the other side too!


Teiser: The Golden Gate headlands park *

Adams: Well, that's very important, because let's see, about 1950, I

remember, I was very active in getting letters out, writing, thinking
about Fort Point as the nucleus of a national monument. Somebody
suggested that I carry it on and include the whole Golden Gate area.
But I didn't really organize it properly. Then under Wayburn, in
the middle 1950s, he and I worked very hard for the extension of the
monument. Even before that, I remember Newton Drury and a few
people, we thought about making a great state park, even taking over
part of Sea Cliff, buying out the houses on the cliff, which wouldn't
have been too much in 1950 (now it would be impossible) and taking
in the whole coast from Point Lobos out near the Cliff House all the
way down to Bakers Beach and Fort Point, and then all the way over
from Fort Baker on the other side to the military lands around Point
Bonita. And north to the Tennessee Cove. Well, that fizzled;
nothing much happened.

Then Wayburn and I tried to get the national monument going,
and then all of a sudden the real estate development was planned
a huge highrise project called Marincella. Then it [the park] came
to life again, and now a lot of people Wayburn and others have
really done a great service in effectively expanding it. So now it
goes from Point Lobos south through part of the Presidio, across the
bridge, to a little east of the bridge on the Marin side, west to
Point Bonita and quite a ways north. So where all that development
was to be, is now included in this area. It's really very wonderful.

That's what usually happens. Something is proposed; it gets
a big pat on the back, but it's not "realistic." Then it's finally
approved, but there's no funds to implement it. Then in the mean
time, the developers move in, and the property values raise, and
when the time comes it may be too late. It's like the Point Reyes
area. That was absolutely approved and established, but no money
was appropriated! So these developers came in, and while it was a
de facto establishment, it wasn't bought by the government, so they
started developing. The instant you put a house up, the property
value rises. There really should be a fundamental law which says
that when an area's selected and approved to be a government area,
the prices should then be frozen at that level until it's actually
purchased. The big organization in the East that buys land is
holding them for park purposes they buy it by the acre. It might
cost $100,000 or $1 million, but they hold it, and when the
government takes it over, it pays that money plus the interest,
which is 5 percent or something. But if the government just refuses
to take it over, they can sell or develop it. They have to they
have to turn it over, because they can carry the burden for just so
long a time. It's all very logical; makes a lot of sense. If I was
a capitalist and had a lot of money, I could say, "Well, sure, I'll

*Created as the Golden Gate National Seashore.


Adams: put up $250,000 to save this property and hold it." If I'm getting
5 percent a year, I'd earn a lot of money in total until it sold for
that amount. Might do just as well as if I had it in stocks or
bonds, but the prime inducement is there. Then of course, after a
given time, if the government says, "We don't want it," then I'm
free to sell it and do something else with it. It's certainly a
very important attitude and one that has brought a great deal of
very valuable land into public ownership.

A lot of people don't realize just exactly what this means. It
can be done. Because it's stupid just to say, "I'll buy the land
and hold it." You should get prior approval of agents if the state
thinks they're interested because it is of state park or national
park standards. The Audubon Society has done that; there's been
some very good things done. But if the government just says, "All
right, we're going to take this seashore. We approve it and we will
establish it, and we will put a superintendent there in a little
area, but we don't have any money to really acquire it," the whole
thing can blow up.

Teiser: On the other hand, sometimes it's hard to get the government to
accept some land that people want to give them, isn't it?

Adams: Well, there's problems there, you see. There has to be some reason

for use. Now, there's perfectly beautiful things look at this hill.
Mr. McGraw and I would just love to protect this area here. But the
county won't take it because there's no way to use it. It has to be
tied in with something. Then it goes off the tax rolls, which is
something that people don't like. (Putting it in a scenic easement
might solve the problem.)*

Teiser: Then the county has to maintain it if it accepts it?

Adams: They have to maintain it. Oh, it's a very complicated thing.

There's a little property down here. We're trying to get
Conservation Associates and other people interested in it. It's a
beautiful old house, one of the earliest in the area, and the
property goes down to the beach. But when you look at it, what use
has it? It's like a little memorial that somebody wants to give,
but such takes it off the tax rolls and it has no use. Now, it could
be attached to Point Lobos, you see. You could have a green belt
that went all the way to it. That would be something. But it is not
valid as it is. You see, the state would say, "Yes, we'll maintain
it if somebody will put up the funds."

*We did in 1976. A. A.


Adams: It's like our Old Capitol Club in Monterey which is a beautiful

old adobe, Casa Amesti, which was given by Mrs. Frances Elkins to
the federal government. She was a very great decorator, thirty,
forty, fifty years ago. The National Trust accepted it, but there
was no money to maintain it. The Old Capitol Club, which is a
group of leading citizens, a lunch club, took it over. It is used
for lunch, and they maintain it. It has to be open to the public
one day a week. I think it's open more than that now, but then, who
else has the funds to run it?

So to show you how this works for a while the initiation fees
were going to the National Trust and were tax deductible. The
understanding was that that money would then go into the major
repairs to the house when needed, like a new roof. Oh no, it just
went into the general fund. So now we don't turn it over to the
government any more. The $700 or whatever the initiation fee is,
goes into the savings account fund to take care of earthquake cracks,
painting, and general repair. We come out about even, but we do
maintain it. Now, if we didn't exist I don't know what they'd do.
They'd have to raise money somehow to keep it, and believe me,
keeping a place like that in security and keeping the garden up is
a real task.

Teiser: I want to ask you a little more about the Wilderness Act of 1964.
You were reasonably satisfied with it as it came out?

Adams: I think my reaction was that I was more satisfied than I ever

believed possible. We had a terrific battle on it, and everybody
pitched in. Now, the difficulty is in defining the wilderness
boundaries; again, it's subject to many variances. The interesting
thing is that the wilderness concept goes right across forest and
national park lands. You think of national park as being
dedicated to wilderness, but it really isn't. The wilderness sets
certain rigid restrictions that stop many developments, you see.

You could, for instance, put a road up to the base of Mount
Lye 11; you could do all kinds of things which would be intrusions
but might be justified from the park point of view. But if it's a
wilderness area, once established, it takes an act of Congress to
make any such changes. It's a very healthy thing. And we have
what they call "enclaves" or existing service areas, such as the
hikers camps, which everybody agrees should be maintained. Well,
they have become enclaves in a wilderness area. Like the Tioga
Road in Tuolumne Meadows. I'm plugging very hard for two more High
Sierra camps to make the system complete. And now that's caused a
little battle. I say at least one at the top of Yosemite Falls
would ^ open up that whole area for hikers and wilderness use. And
I don't see anything wrong with that, but the die-hards say, "No,
we can't have that, we can't have anything now."


Adams: And there's one class of devotees who claim that when a tree goes
across a trail you don't cut it, when a bridge goes out you don't
replace it. Which means closing off the country completely, which
to me is completely ridiculous because you don't have to go that
far. But absolutely no new roads and no elaborate trails and no
ski installations and no hotels should be built. When we were
writing up the plan for Yosemite, we were trying to keep sensible
Half Dome has a fixed cable up the east side so you can climb up by
hand. That wouldn't be allowed in a wilderness area. The wilderness
area should go to the top of Illilouette Ridge, but the ski people

Online LibraryAnsel AdamsConversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 → online text (page 70 of 76)