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Bitten by the Conservation Bug Putting My images to work

I've been puttering around with focusing my photography on conservation. You know, producing images that bring more attention to our natural spaces, environmental problems, and more appreciation for the rivers, forests and clean air we have in the DC, Maryland and Virginia area. There was nothing wrong with the images I was producing and I don't mind working hard to make nature images that make people say, "Wow!" But for all the pre-dawn paddling, the long drives to the eastern shore and all those moments with froze fingers, I’d want my images to be more than beautiful. I want my images to make a difference.

So I have images of solar power arrays, wind power generators and plastic bottles in rivers, but they are just individual images from singular moments in time. For my work to be considered "conservation photography" they have to influence the way people think or what they do to make our natural world a little better. My images just haven't conveyed that kind of story yet. I've made videos to promote interest in the Potomac and I've captured sunrise time lapse video over every notable body of water between the Potomac and Assateague. My imagery just isn’t there yet to be considered conservation photography.

One part light, one part interesting subject, and one part shutter button. Nice images but not yet conservation.

The good news is that I've been doing work with a very collaborative and forward-thinking non-profit, Potomac Conservancy (Potomac.org). While the Potomac River has come a long way with respect to the quality of the water, one of Potomac Conservancy’s current areas of focus is stormwater runoff. With all the suburban growth in the area, there are fewer meadows and forests to absorb all the rain and snow melt. Given the resulting increase in stormwater runoff, Potomac Conservancy asked me if I had any images showing the impact of construction on our streams. While I didn’t have any images, I was aware of the large tract of forest and farmland in Clarksburg that was being converted into a new residential area. So off to Clarksburg I was headed to scout the location for stormwater issues related to the construction…

While using the drone to scout the location was fun, frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment. Sure, it helped me get a few obtain several images showing the construction juxtaposed on our ever-shrinking farmland and forests, but that those images spoke more to the reduction of forest and agricultural land than impact on the watershed.

One less forest and one less farm. This patch of land is ready for new housing construction.

Where I had learned that good photography was 1/4th planning and persistence, 1/4th good light, 1/4th good business sense and 1/4th luck, it was time to pull the persistence card. During that scouting run with the drone, several silt ponds caught my eye. I thought the presence of the silt ponds was a good sign - when it rains all that soil turned up by the construction needed to go somewhere. Even more they stripped the hill of any meadows or forest that might absorb the runoff. Silt ponds keep the silt from running into our waterways. Silt is a problem because it reduces the amount of sunlight reaching the bottom of our streams, rivers and the Chesapeake.

I came back on another day to check out those silt ponds and just as before, I started out with a little scouting trip with the drone…

Now I was on to something. The silt was getting past the silt ponds and into the local stream, Cabin Branch. It was time to put the drone away and explore on foot. Hiking down to the stream was interesting. At first I was reminded of the impact of the new neighborhood on the surrounding forest. The builders did what they could to control the storm water and litter, but when the rain comes, there's only so much you can do to keep the crap from flowing downhill.

A protected woodland behind the housing development still shows the impact of the construction.

But the forest was still there, and once I separated myself from the new construction you could hear the birds, see the deer and smell the forest. It was quite peaceful actually. This is what conservation should be about. To the new neighborhood's credit, they had a nice path through the woods, but I had gone beyond that to reach the stream.

Finally I reached the bottom of the hill where the drainage from the silt ponds flowed. I couldn’t get this vantage point from the drone. I just stood there as the story played out in front of me. A stream, Cabin Branch, flowed from my right to my left and it went from clear water to muddy muck. The silt ponds appeared to be failing or were overflowing - all that silt was running into the stream, clouding it up and running downhill to the county reservoir. I told myself, I guess I have my image - the clearing of the fields and forest had indeed impacted the water way.

As I was planning how to capture the scene, I recognized it was more than just a static scene. It's really not just a picture, but a story. And conservation photography is more about what you do with your images, than the images themselves.

Five months later this image was a two page spread in Potomac Conservancy's 2018 Annual Report (http://www.potomacreportcard.org/). Their page title, "The Next Fight - Eliminating Polluted Runoff at Its Source."

For what has been a struggle to date to figure out conservation photography, that day at the Cabin Branch stream was where the conservation bug bit me.

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