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The Oil Spill: A Conservation Photographer's Reaction

Florian Schulz, nature and wildlife photographer, is a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Concerned about the fate of the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the oil spill disaster, he contacted the Picture Show with this reflection on his work in conservation photography.

For many years now there has been strong interest in expanding oil drilling in the Alaskan Arctic, both on land and offshore. Many have considered the Arctic landscape a barren wasteland or a flat, white nothingness.

I take these sentiments as a personal challenge to document an extremely remote and mostly unknown area of North America — for a public that otherwise might never see it. It's true that at first glance some areas may seem desolate or barren. But those same areas may be teeming with life just days later, with tens of thousands of migrating caribou, or wolves or grizzlies.

For several years now I have been working on a project with Braided River Books, with the support of Earthjustice, in hopes of making public this visual account of a stunning ecosystem. And after spending many months, year after year on the ground among caribou herds, snowy owls and grizzly bears, I realized that the only way to effectively capture the vastness was by air.

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Working with experienced pilots, I spent more than 100 hours in the air over the course of two months. I remember gliding over the Western Arctic, suddenly encountering the Western Arctic caribou herd, which is 350,000 animals strong; grizzly bears wandered across the vast landscape; along the coast of the Chukchi Sea I found congregations of hundreds of beluga whales.

A group of musk oxen faces a blizzard in Alaska's western Arctic. Florian Schulz hide caption

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Florian Schulz

A group of musk oxen faces a blizzard in Alaska's western Arctic.

Florian Schulz

But by air I also saw the extent of the Prudhoe Bay oilfield and other mining operations, hidden by remoteness from the public eye. After watching the devastating effect of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I am horrified by the thought of offshore oil development in the Arctic. The climate is extreme. Operations must happen in complete darkness for several months out of the year, and ice constitutes a severe hazard. And, those difficulties aside, there is no known method for cleaning up oil in icy waters.

America has a long history of conservation and set a strong precedent with the creation of Yellowstone, the first national park. In light of the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf, it is important to take a break from rampant oil development and remember that commitment to the American landscape.