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Colorado artist brings ecological message to DU’s Earth Day Summit

John Fielder spoke at the University of Denver Earth Day Summit April 20.

Artist John Fielder has spent a lifetime photographing the Colorado wilderness — drifting on rivers through remote canyons, gazing across family ranches at towering mountains.

Through observation, Fielder said he came to recognize something: It’s all interconnected. Everything in the world depends on something else. And, he concluded, it won’t take much to forever alter an entire environment. When every element is connected to the others, like bricks in a wall, just removing a few bricks can bring the whole thing down, he said.

“You destroy enough and make enough creatures extinct, and eventually you destroy the whole system,” he said. “I don’t think anybody knows how quickly this can all happen.”

Fielder, whose landscape photographs hang throughout the Driscoll Student Center, spoke at the University of Denver Earth Day Summit April 20, sharing his observations with more than 100 students, faculty and staff. He presented images he took in a series that re-created William Henry Jackson’s famed 19th-century photographs of Colorado. He pointed out how subtle changes in the environment are stressing other pieces of the ecosystem.

A string of warmer-than-normal winters has given rise to pine beetle infestations, Fielder said. A century of logging has decimated fire-resistant old-growth forests, and the resulting fire-suppression campaigns have left forests vulnerable to catastrophic huge fires instead of environmentally beneficial smaller fires.

And as the state grows, the population needs more and more water. Coloradans have built canals and tunnels to channel water from the high mountains to the dry plains and growing cities. And they’ve flooded valleys and canyons with dam projects to store the precious runoff, changing the landscape along the way.

Fielder said he has seen some cause for optimism. In the 1980s, Coloradans created the state lottery and dedicated the profits to land preservation. But lately, Fielder said, he has seen politicians try to tap into that money for other uses.

Land preservation, he told the group, should remain a priority for Colorado. It’s not just good for the environment; it’s good for every aspect of the state. While conservation protects the water needed for survival, tourism to see those wild lands brings billions of dollars in revenue that supports the entire state, he said.

“If we protect our ecology, you will have a better economy,” he said. “The single best investment we could make is protecting clean air, blue skies, our water.”

As part of the Earth Day Summit, participants gathered in groups to discuss smarter conservation, better governance, sustainable trade and engineering a more sustainable  campus. The day included locally sourced vegetarian meals and a lunchtime keynote by Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Co.

Fielder said the day brought back memories of his college days in the late 1960s, when the first rumblings of ecological activism came to the mainstream. And he commended today’s students for taking an active role in protecting the planet, while warning them that there is no room for complacency.

“It’s a lot more urgent now,” he said. “You’ve got to get everybody thinking about this.”



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