When Colorado Gov. Roy Romer and his director of natural resources, Ken Salazar, met in 1990 to devise a new funding plan for land conservation, the pair did an odd thing. They called a photographer.
The photographer, John Fielder, was arguably already the most prominent living chronicler of Colorado’s natural beauty. A transplant from North Carolina, Fielder had been tramping around the state and shooting wild places since the 1970s, his richly rendered landscape photography filling coffee table books and guides, gracing postcards and calendars.
Fielder was no politician. But he knew Colorado — and knew its open spaces were worth saving.
Fielder and the governor’s group came up with the idea to amend the state Constitution, through a statewide ballot initiative, devoting funds from lottery games to land conservation. Voters approved the ballot question in 1992, creating Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO).
Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the program spends a total of about $100 million annually on conservation projects, neighborhood parks, and wildlife programs. Local areas preserved with contributions from GOCO money include Filoha Meadows, the Rio Grande Trail and Sky Mountain Park.
To commemorate the anniversary, the state called on Fielder once again, enlisting him to travel Colorado and photograph some of the land affected by GOCO. Fielder set out in 2010 on a 35,000-mile, 18-month-long road trip, shooting nearly 1,000 of the 3,000 sites where GOCO money has gone to work.
Fielder will show off what he found Friday at the Wheeler Opera House, with a public slide show and lecture on his travels to GOCO sites. His pictures from the trip also fill two new books, “Guide to Colorado’s Great Outdoors: Lottery-Funded Parks, Trails, Wildlife Areas & Open Spaces,” and “Colorado’s Great Outdoors: Celebrating 20 Years of Lottery-Funded Lands.”
Aspen is part of a 40-stop tour for Fielder, sharing his work and talking about what GOCO has done. The Wheeler event benefits the Aspen Valley Land Trust and Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program.
“It’s amazing how pervasive lottery funds have been,” Fielder says of what he found on his trip.
Here in the valley, he saw them at work on his bike rides down the Rio Grande, in the wildflowers of Filoha Meadows, in the unspoiled expanse of the Grange Ranch near Basalt, and in people relaxing on park benches in Redstone Park.
It’s not difficult, of course, to make Colorado’s mountain peaks and untouched valleys look pretty. Yet Fielder’s work captures the life vibrating in a mountain landscape in a way you rarely feel it in a photograph. The key to that, he says, has been studying Colorado’s rare light.
“Photography is two things. It’s about being in the right place at the right time, and the more you’re out there, the more that happens,” he says. “And it’s about having a good eye for design. But it’s also understanding light. That’s the overarching thing in photography, being able to understand how the light affects the landscape.”
He brings his same exhilarating aesthetic to the GOCO sites. Though these parks and preserved ranches and such don’t have the same barefaced gosh-wow appeal of a 14,000-foot peak or a mountainside field of columbines, they are vitally important to Colorado, Fielder argues. And he treats them as such.
Fielder is an heir to Ansel Adams, using the seemingly apolitical medium of nature photography as a tool for conservation. Any one of his photographs capturing God’s work in Colorado is, effectively, a rallying placard for clean air, clean water and conservation. He points to Enos Mills, the naturalist and writer who lobbied for designating Rocky Mountain National Park, as a hero as well.
But, he says, he didn’t become a photographer to be an activist for conservation.
“At the beginning it was loving the out of doors and an appreciation for ecology,” he says, “witnessing remarkable moments of light in wilderness and travel. Then, trying to make a living out of photography, there was no time for advocacy. I was just trying to feed my family. But once the economics got better, then I had the time and resources to start paying nature back.”
His advocacy work started with U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth inviting Fielder to talk to the public about the value of wilderness, as Wirth tried to push a bill protecting new land through the U.S. Congress, and built from there. After GOCO was passed, Fielder sat on its board reviewing grant applications for its first eight years. That work is coming full circle now with his GOCO book projects and speaking tour.
“It’s taken years to figure out how to use my photos to acquaint people with conservation and environmental issues,” he says, “and develop advocacy through public speaking, toward protecting the most beautiful place on earth: Colorado.”
Fielder, who lives in Summit County, north of Silverthorne, has himself become a Colorado icon with stunning, chromatic portraits of mountain scenes and little-known swaths of wilderness. This project, though, challenged him to photograph some less majestic subjects — things like swing sets and playgrounds. But, he says, those sites are a testament to the power and importance of GOCO funds.
“Giving access to every family to a park or a trail or an open space in their backyard, that’s been one of the great egalitarian things about the lottery. It’s not just Sky Mountain Park in Pitkin County, it’s having a trail, like the Rio Grande Trail, going through everybody’s backyard and swingsets, too, and getting people out of doors.”
During his career, Fielder has hiked and skied into some of the most remote places in our state. In 1993, he and writer T.A. Barron spent a month hiking around the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area, covering 225,000 acres on foot for their book, “To Walk in Wilderness.”
Hitting hundreds of GOCO sites was, at times, less idyllic.
“I designed a new kind of photography called drive-by-shooting,” he laughs. “In eastern Colorado the towns are few and far between and I had to photograph swing sets and playgrounds because they’re a huge part of lottery. ... So I’d be driving about 10 miles an hour, steering with my knees and taking pictures as quickly as I could so that I could get to the next community before dark. I had a lot of fun.”
Since the economic downturn of 2008, state legislators have regularly made attempts to divert GOCO funds to other needs in our cash-strapped state. In this year’s legislative session, unsuccessful efforts were launched to use lottery dollars for veterans and schools. Both of this year’s efforts died in committee hearings.
By design, GOCO’s funding from the lottery is difficult to siphon away. It was formed with a constitutional amendment to make it so. A change to the constitution would require a statewide vote, and Fielder doesn’t foresee residents defunding nature any time soon.
“If Coloradans think there’s a better way to spend that money, so be it,” he says. “But we keep seeing signs that people hold open spaces in very high regard.”
Over the last 20 years, 85 percent of open space tax initiatives have passed in Colorado, including Pitkin County’s open space property tax, which voters last renewed in 2006 with 72 percent support. A notable exception was Garfield County’s effort to create a sales tax to support open space, which voters rejected Nov. 6.
So, with 40-plus books under his belt and decades searching for the most sublime of Colorado’s remote scenery, what’s John Fielder’s favorite?
“It’s right in your backyard,” he answers. Yup, he says, between here and Crested Butte in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
“The east fork of the Crystal River, which is the Crested Butte side of the West Maroon Trail, that’s probably the greenest place I’ve ever seen. When you’re standing on top of Frigid Air Pass and you’re looking southeast on the Crystal. I think it’s the greenest place I’ve been in my life. Ireland has nothing on the east fork of the Crystal River.”
Wheeler Opera House
Friday, Nov. 30
$10 general admission; $50 VIP