A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Zack Frank, the young photojournalist behind Undiscovered America, his project to photograph 56 places across the country that should become the next generation of national parks — Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge among them! With this ambitious project, he hopes to contribute to a new vision for the next 150 years of conservation in America.
We met at Punchbowl Falls on the West Fork Hood River, a fitting spot for a conversation about overlooked gems that could stand next to the nation’s best-known national parks with a little vision and restoration. Our meeting was made possible by local filmmaker Christopher Alley, whose Ampersand Productions is currently filming a documentary dedicated to the new national parks movement, and featuring the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, in particular.
Zack came to the Undiscovered America idea from seeds sown in his youth, when his family drove from Pennsylvania to the great parks of the northern Rockies, including Yellowstone. These early experiences helped shape Zack’s refreshingly holistic vision for the national parks that would focus on restoring gems like Mount Hood and the Columbia Gorge as unique ecosystems that are not represented in the national park system today.
His 6-month grand tour of future parks is funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign that drew nearly 300 backers and set a record for nature photography projects. Zack will be the first known photographer to visit the 50+ sites proposed for national park status.
Once his tour is complete, Zack will release a 200-page Undiscovered America book documenting his journey, and hopefully rallying a new parks movement in the same way that earlier photographers brought places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Redwoods and North Cascades to the public conscience for the first time. Images from his trek will also be displayed as a traveling show in art galleries across the country, further helping to spread his vision for a new era of national parks.
Though Mount Hood and the Gorge are part of Zack’s tour, they are different in that they are anything but “undiscovered”! Yet, they do fit perfectly the larger frame of bringing more enlightened and sustainable land management to these special places under the unique stewardship of the National Park Service.
Zack brings his experience as a photojournalist in the United States Marine Corp to the project. After meeting with him, it was clear that also he also brings a remarkable degree of wisdom, confidence and determination to the project that are beyond his years, a reflection of his time spent in Iraq during his service to our country.
We’re also very fortunate that Zack has chosen to continue his service to the country in the form of his Undiscovered America project. Hearing about his vision for the next wave in the American conservation movement was a breath of fresh air. Too many in the old guard of the movement have become prisoners of playing defense, a necessary posture during an era of intense attack on the environment, for sure, but now suddenly out of touch with a new generation of Americans looking for a more compelling and sweeping new vision.
Zack’s project avoids that the fear tactics and hot-button issues approach to conservation that no longer resonates with younger people, who instead are responding more to messages of hope, new ideas and opportunities to work collaboratively for broader solutions than the false choice of “wilderness-or-nothing”. National parks offer a great fit for this generation.
Zack says that he marches to the drum of the likes of John Muir, Timothy O’ Sullivan and Ansel Adams, and embraces the same sweeping vision that caught the imagination of the American mainstream and helped build the National Park System we treasure today. Most importantly, he thinks in increments of decades and centuries — not just the next election campaign or fundraising cycle. In that way, he is true to the pioneering conservationists he holds as his inspiration.
I challenged Zack with a series of defeatist arguments I have heard against protecting Mount Hood and the Gorge as a national park — all too often from some of Oregon’s conservation leaders: how can an area with ski resorts, major highways, utility corridors and cut-over forest lands even be considered for national park status?
One by one, he knocked these arguments down with real examples of existing parks where these supposed deal-killing obstacles like these are managed within a park context, in concert with a broader conservation philosophy that still ensures a sustained natural legacy.
Zack Frank doesn’t see himself as a standard bearer, simply part of an emerging coalition. But what I saw in Zack is the face of a new generation of conservation leaders — whether he knows it, or not — who are unencumbered by false dichotomies and narrow orthodoxy that have too often muted the conservation movement. He is solidly a millennial, and like so many of his generation that I encounter, Zack gives me a renewed energy and sense of optimism that we can once again do great things on the conservation front, and starting with a new national parks movement!
We’re just passing through, after all…
During our visit on the high cliffs above Punchbowl Falls, we watched as a group of tribal fisherman worked the massive pool below the falls for spring Chinook. As they went about their tasks, it struck me that these men were fishing in the footsteps of generations of ancestors who had harvested salmon at this spot for millennia — and that that the stakes are very high for the Mount Hood region, right now.
For centuries, the abundant ecosystems of Mount Hood and the Gorge have supported a large Native American population with a natural bounty that only now is at risk, thanks to just a few decades of rapid development and over-harvesting of resources. In this context, the broader frame that Zack Frank raises for Mount Hood the Gorge is this: we’re just passing through, so what will we choose to leave behind for future generations?
While the ecosystems in the Mount Hood region have so far been resilient in the face of these new pressures (the forests have continued to recover after repeated harvesting, salmon return to ancient habitat when we reopen once-damned streams like the West Fork), we are now facing an unprecedented onset of global climate change. Will the sprawling maze of new clear cuts that now mar the upper West Fork valley recover, once again? Probably. But for the first time in millennia, we don’t really know for sure, and so our margin of error grows narrower in just how far we can push the ecosystem to meet our needs.
On our walk to Punchbowl Falls, Zack and I talked about some of the answers that were all around us. Restoring Mount Hood means thinning plantation thickets, where industry efforts to short-circuit the natural reforestation cycle on clear cuts has left dangerously crowded stands of unhealthy, fire-prone trees. One such thinning project was underway at the Punchbowl site, where the Western Rivers Conservancy has carefully removed several insect-compromised trees from the forest.
The Punchbowl property, itself, provides another answer: private land trusts working with local communities and governments to restore and bring into public ownership the most important sites and habitats. This continues to be the winning formula for Mount Hood and the Gorge, with much work to be done — and still a need for a larger national park vision to guide often fragmented efforts. Like most of the sites on Zack’s tour, the broader vision for Mount Hood and the Gorge will require a creative blend of acquisition, restoration and new partnerships.
Wy’East Comes to Visit
As I finished my interview with Zack Frank, the tribal fisherman below us were packing up their harvest for the day — a string of salmon that would soon provide food for their families or perhaps be sold in one of the familiar roadside fish stands.
As we watched them scale the cliffs above the falls with their catch, the crest of Mount Hood — Wy’East — suddenly emerged from the clouds, brilliant with a fresh dusting of snow. Zack had spent the morning on the mountain, socked in by a lingering Pacific front, so it was his first sighting of the mountain on this leg of his trek.
The scene unfolding at that moment could not have made a better case for why Mount Hood and the Gorge deserve better: the raw beauty, the amazing collection of ecosystems, from rain forest, fire forests and oak savannah to alpine and desert ecosystems; and perhaps most unique to the area, the rich, unparalleled human history. It was all right there in front of us, and I was thrilled that it could be part of Zack’s journey!
How to support Zack
Zack’s current project was successfully funded through his Kickstarter campaign, but you can still support him by visiting his website and ordering a copy of his forthcoming Undiscovered America book.
You can also be a friend of the national parks. Zack recommends the National Parks Conservation Association (and be sure to let the know you support new parks!), but I would suggest an even broader offering: an open mind to what might be, and a willingness to help a new generation of leaders realize their bold aspirations — including a new national parks movement!