In rare win for nature, photo project shows little change at Yellowstone

A Yellowstone photographer recreated the first images ever of the region, which helped convince Congress to designate it as the world's first national park.

Bradly J. Boner/Jackson Hole News & Guide/AP
The Grotto, shown here on August 24, 2012, was the only geyser William Henry Jackson was able to photograph in eruption during the 1871 Hayden Survey. Mr. Jackson was able to document Yellowstone's geyser basins more thoroughly when he returned to the park with the second Hayden Survey the following summer of 1872.

When William Henry Jackson photographed what is now Yellowstone National Park in 1871, his stills confirmed what up until then were only rumors of a natural wonderland in the West, full of countless geysers and hot springs, lush forests and deep canyons, waterfalls and a pristine mountain lake. 

In a rare win for nature, not much has changed in Yellowstone in the nearly century-and-a-half since Mr. Jackson’s pictures debuted. That’s largely because his images helped convince lawmakers in Washington, D.C., that the glory of Yellowstone needed to be preserved for future generations, helping establish it as the world’s first national park in 1872.

Now Brad Boner, a photojournalist based in Jackson Hole, Wyo., wants to honor the foresight that saved America’s natural splendor. Mr. Boner has replicated in color more than 100 of Jackson's black-and-white photographs in a forthcoming book, "Yellowstone National Park: Through The Lens Of Time," and in an art show celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service (NPS) this summer at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole.

The exhibit, Boner said, testifies to the success of the world's first national park.

“The great experiment of Yellowstone – which every year captivates millions of visitors from all corners of the globe — has transcended generations, and this project leaves readers with a message that the effort to preserve Yellowstone should be maintained for generations to come,” wrote Boner in a synopsis on Kickstarter, a fundraising site where he raised almost $22,000 for the project from the public in only one month.

Boner captured his scenes of Yellowstone over several trips to the park in the summers of 2011 and 2014. He spent much of the time wandering, holding Jackson's photographs up to the horizon.

"Things would just sort of click and fall into place. All of a sudden, you're looking at the landscape that is in the photograph that I was holding, that Jackson took," Boner said. "There were definitely times I got goosebumps," he said. 

Though much of  the scenery has remained the same, Boner’s photos show some changes: Rock pinnacles at Tower Fall have crumbled and altered the flow of Tower Creek; the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake has eroded dozens of feet in some places; the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where Jackson once stood, collapsed into the chasm.

Jackson first traveled to Yellowstone in 1871 to explore the region for the US government with geologist Ferdinand Hayden. There had been two small expeditions to the region surrounding the headwaters of the Yellowstone River in the northwestern Wyoming Territory that reported magnificent natural wonders there, but “many dismissed them as romantic embellishments and fabrications,” as Boner describes on his Kickstarter page.

But Mr. Hayden and Jackson confirmed the rumors. In fact, when Hayden returned to Washington he became an impassioned lobbyist in Congress, fighting to designate the region as a national park "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

“Jackson’s photographs – among of the first ever taken in Yellowstone – served as tangible, indisputable proof of the region’s iconic landmarks,” writes Boner. 

Today, Yellowstone is one of 411 federally protected areas in the country, including national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, and historical parks, which host more than 307,000 million visitors a year, according to the National Park Service.

In October, the NPS raised entry fees for 100 parks to generate money for crumbling trails, roads, and buildings. The agency said its maintenance needs have been growing for years, amid Congressional cuts that have pinched its operating and capital budgets, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported.

This report uses material from the Associated Press.

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