Ansel Adams came to the White House in 1975 to deliver a print of a photograph from Yosemite National Park desired by President Ford and Betty Ford. Adams, still smarting from President Nixon's neglect of public lands, asked Ford to redefine the meaning of our parks, maintain their funding, and put a ''new emphasis on preservation and environmental responsibilities."
In 1983, Adams met with President Reagan, and not to deliver a photograph. He was a vocal critic of Reagan's rollbacks on environmental protection and preservation of wild areas. He said Reagan's land policies were ones of ''rape, ruin, and run!" According to Adams, had the nation been under the vision in the 1930s of Reagan's infamous Interior Secretary James Watt, Kings Canyon National Park would today ''look like part of the outskirts of Las Vegas."
After Adams told Playboy magazine in 1983, ''I hate Reagan," an embarrassed White House had the beloved photographer sit with Reagan for nearly an hour. Adams left unimpressed, borrowing from Oscar Wilde to say, ''They know the price of everything and the value of nothing."
One can only guess what sparks would fly if Adams, who died in 1984, could witness President Bush's resurrection of Reagan's rape, ruin, and run.
This week the Senate passed a budget bill that would allow for drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The House Budget Committee, at the urging of Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo of California, voted to include in its budget bill a proposal to lift moratoriums on offshore oil drilling in the lower 48 states.
In September, Pombo got the House to weaken the Endangered Species Act under the ruse that it oppressed landowners. Pombo wants to relax rules on public land for mining and oil interests. He even floated an idea to sell off 15 national parks.
Public outrage made him drop that idea, but he and the Interior Department are floating other ideas that would turn national parks into NASCAR tracks and football stadiums, ideas that include everything from selling advertising space on park buses and trams to selling naming rights to rooms, information centers, and park museums. There is talk of corporate sponsoring of trailheads.
That talk was in my head when my wife Michelle Holmes and I visited Zion National Park in Utah a month ago. The trip began three days after I saw the exquisite Ansel Adams exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. The closest airport to Zion is Adams's feared Las Vegas. There is still plenty of desert between the casinos on the strip and the canyon two and a half hours away, but as someone who visits an uncle periodically in America's fastest growing city, it is still stunning to see how fast the miles of earth become the outskirts and how fast the landscape becomes obliterated by billboards.
In Zion our most perfect moment, our ''Ansel moment," one of unthinkable beauty, came on a day in which we waded upstream in the Zion Narrows. The narrows is where the grand panoramic views of red and white spires at the beginning of the park close in like a vise at the end of the line for the public tram. We waded upstream in the narrows, until we were specks at the bottom of a chasm of walls 1,000 feet high and only 20 feet apart.
Orange light snaked down upon us. The contrast between daylight and dimness made the canyon a sandstone pumpkin. At one point, I took a picture of Michelle with the glowing walls behind her. For us, it was a moment of serenity and humble awe at a spot only our chilled legs could get us to. In Pombo's world, the wall behind Michelle would blaze, ''McDonald's Super-Size Narrows."
Ansel Adams said in his autobiography that ''Starry-eyed reaction to the splendors of nature is an invaluable experience for everyone, provided it is tempered in time with a realization that this reaction hopefully exists for the many rather than the few." As beautiful as our Ansel moment was, it is also haunting because too many politicians see dollars instead of stars.
Last month the National Park Service announced a $270,000 Save America's Treasures grant to help preserve Adams's works. This is while Congress assaults public lands and Bush ignores the call for environmental responsibility that Adams had issued to Ford. The outskirts of Las Vegas creep toward the day where all we may have left of our natural treasures is a photograph.
© 2005 The Boston Globe