Before They're Gone

Three photographers train their lenses on a rapidly vanishing America.

Before-They-re-Gone

Before-They-re-Gone

Whenever we take a picture, we capture a moment that will never exist in exactly the same way again. Every photo is an elegy of sorts, an immediate memorial to an instant that's gone forever.

But for these three photographers, this idea has meaning on a greater and more pressing level. Whether due to development, climate change, or public policy, many facets of America are going faster than we can capture them with our cameras. Carlton Ward, Jr., Ron Niebrugge, and Annie Griffiths Belt are committed to photographing imperiled nature and culture, and they're fighting to make sure that their photography won't be the only thing that remains.

Florida's Ranchers

Few people know that ranching has been a part of Florida's culture since the first cows arrived with the Spanish in the 1500s. But the strong tradition, along with the natural landscape it depends on, is threatened by ever-encroaching development.

Some 1,000 people move to the Sunshine State every day, according to the Florida Department of State. And, says photographer and eighth-generation Floridian Carlton Ward, Jr., unfortunately, most of them don't bring along an understanding of the state's heritage. Without it, they don't see the value in what's lost to development. Ward's worst nightmares are realized every time he drives by a new subdivision quaintly named after the ranch or habitat it replaced.

Because the ranches have always depended on the natural landscape for livelihood, their lands are among the few remaining places in Florida that look almost the same as they did 200 years ago. While in the western U.S. cattle can do near-irreparable harm to the landscape, Florida's moist and resilient soil provides some of the best wildlife habitat in the state. Ward points out: "You don't have to go in and cut a lot of trees to make the ranch work -- panther habitat and cattle habitat can be one and the same."

To that end, Ward has set up the Legacy Institute for Nature & Culture, which will make grants to Florida-based conservation photographers. To him, human beings aren't the invaders -- we are an integral part of the environment. And he believes that Florida's cowboys are this environment's guardians.

Disappearing Landscapes

Ron Niebrugge lives in Seward, AK, a photographer's paradise with Kenai Fjords National Park on one side, and the Chugach National Forest on the other. An Alaskan native, his passion for photographing his natural surroundings is practically unavoidable. For him, climate change is not a scientific postulation but a reality that he documents daily.

For Niebrugge, sharing the beauty of the Alaskan landscape, while it lasts, is an important part of encouraging preservation. He gets to see things others will never have the chance to -- in part because some of them are so remote. To get the shot of the Brooks Range at right, for instance, he had to drive for two days straight on a dirt road. His photos also can require a lot of patience: To catch the Childs Glacier calving (that's glacierspeak for when a big chunk falls off), he spent days holding his finger poised on the shutter for 5 to 10 minutes at a time, just waiting for the ice to drop.

He says that photographing has made him even more attuned to change and preservation than he might be otherwise: "The better a photographer I am, the more observant I become. Because I'm a photographer, I go back year to year to places I wouldn't otherwise see. But, these days, I often go back to a neat place and find that it's gone."

Imperiled Wilderness

When, along with her friend, the writer Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Griffiths Belt decided to embark on a project that would advocate for the natural landscape, she focused on the last slivers of wilderness -- the mere 1 percent -- in America.

To give her images emotional impact, she wanted to make them look different from the vivid nature photography we're so used to seeing. Belt hit on an old-fashioned technique: shooting with black-andwhite infrared film, then hand-coloring the prints. Though she'd never done this before, she figured that after 25 years of shooting transparencies she understood color.

She was wrong. The photographic journey began as a way to increase others' awareness of the natural beauty of American wilderness. But, Belt says, it actually taught her to see color, and nature itself, in a different way.

While the National Geographic photographer had always enjoyed shooting the natural world as part of her job, she hadn't specialized in it. But she holds dear the hope that people who've been fortunate enough to be successful in photography follow whatever passion they have to give back to the world. "We really do have power to influence with our images," she says. "Especially when photographers can work together, we really are a force."

Before-They-re-Gone-Silhouetted-against-the-Flori

Before-They-re-Gone-Silhouetted-against-the-Flori

Silhouetted against the Florida palm trees, this cowboy has a yellow rain slicker lashed to his mount.
Before-They-re-Gone-Horses-stop-for-a-drink-on-th

Before-They-re-Gone-Horses-stop-for-a-drink-on-th

Horses stop for a drink on the The Bar Crescent S Ranch in Hardee County.Carlton Ward, Jr.
Before-They-re-Gone-Cowboys-camp-along-the-Great

Before-They-re-Gone-Cowboys-camp-along-the-Great

Cowboys camp along the Great Florida Cattle Drive, 2006.Carlton Ward, Jr.
Before-They-re-Gone-Cattle-cross-the-wet-pasture

Before-They-re-Gone-Cattle-cross-the-wet-pasture

Cattle cross the wet pasture of the Adams Ranch.See more of Ward's photographs at his website, www.carltonward.com. For more information on the LINC foundation, including more photographs, visit www.linc.us.Carlton Ward, Jr.
Before-They-re-Gone-The-ice-blocks-that-fall-off

Before-They-re-Gone-The-ice-blocks-that-fall-off

The ice blocks that fall off the Childs Glacier are bigger than a bus.
Before-They-re-Gone-Old-growth-forests-are-increa

Before-They-re-Gone-Old-growth-forests-are-increa

Old-growth forests are increasingly rare, but the fallen tree in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, CA, is a sign of a healthy forest.Rob Niebrugge
Before-They-re-Gone-The-Trans-Alaska-Pipeline-ski

Before-They-re-Gone-The-Trans-Alaska-Pipeline-ski

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline skirts the Brooks Range near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.Rob Niebrugge
Before-They-re-Gone-The-Copper-River-Delta-is-a-m

Before-They-re-Gone-The-Copper-River-Delta-is-a-m

The Copper River Delta is a major stopover for migrating birds.See more at www.wildnatureimages.comRob Niebrugge
Before-They-re-Gone-An-alligator-and-wood-stork-i

Before-They-re-Gone-An-alligator-and-wood-stork-i

An alligator and wood stork in Florida tangoed for half an hour before moving on.
Before-They-re-Gone-The-iconic-shape-of-a-bison-i

Before-They-re-Gone-The-iconic-shape-of-a-bison-i

The iconic shape of a bison in Wyoming was so clear that Belt could focus on the blizzard.Annie Griffiths Belt
Before-They-re-Gone-A-white-tailed-deer-in-northe

Before-They-re-Gone-A-white-tailed-deer-in-northe

A white-tailed deer in northern Wisconsin.Annie Griffiths Belt
Before-They-re-Gone-This-Mexican-gray-wolf-on-an

Before-They-re-Gone-This-Mexican-gray-wolf-on-an

This Mexican gray wolf, on an Arizona preserve, may be the last of his kind in America.These photographs are all from her book, Last Stand: America's Virgin Lands (National Geographic, 2002). See more at www.anniegriffithsbelt.com.Annie Griffiths Belt
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