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Know the West

Documenting destruction from above

A young photographer highlights the environmental crises facing Indigenous communities at home and abroad.

In July 2019, Paul Wilson, a 23-year-old self-taught photographer and enrolled member of the Klamath Tribes in southern Oregon, flew his drone camera over a forested hillside near his family’s seasonal camp. He had been coming to the area, 30 miles northeast of Chiloquin — a treaty-designated space where tribal members used to hunt and forage — since before he could remember. Now, it was unrecognizable: The winter before, the land had been clear-cut. A key calving ground for elk and deer — a place where Wilson and his family had often hunted — had been destroyed. 

 

Instead of stands of pine trees, grassy meadows and spongy marshlands, there were brush piles larger than buildings. “It was hard to fathom,” he told me. Only from the air, gazing through his drone camera, could he begin to comprehend the scale of the destruction. One photo he took shows a dusty brown circle stripped of living vegetation — nothing left but a lone pine tree where an entire forest once stood. “To see the extent that the landscape has been changed, and will be changed for decades — we’re at this really critical point where, if we don’t develop protections predicated on saving our last timber stands, we won’t have a forest,” he said.

A few weeks later, Wilson’s photos became part of the Klamath Tribes’ formal complaint against the U.S. Forest Service’s management practices in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. The tribes said that the clear-cutting violated the agency’s obligation to honor their hunting rights by preserving important elk birthing grounds and migratory corridors.

Tall and soft-spoken, Wilson radiates the quiet grandeur of his images, which celebrate the land and the stories it tells about his tribe and the other Indigenous communities that have too often been left out of the historical record. He wanted to depict his community from within, using the framework photographers know as “visual sovereignty.” For Wilson, who divides his time between photography and environmental activism, visual storytelling is a way to counter the losses he has witnessed, from the Klamath Basin all the way to Alaska and Patagonia. He is often immersed in the stories he tells. “I’m jealous,” he told me, referring to photographers who can separate their identity from their work. “I don’t get to step out of the frame.”

Deforestation from the Bluemile project near the Klamath Marsh in Oregon.

WILSON GREW UP in Chiloquin, the third of five siblings in a small tribal community of just under 1,000 people near the headwaters of the Klamath River. One of his earliest memories is of the 2006 protests calling for the removal of four century-old dams on the Klamath River, which had decimated salmon populations and damaged the water quality. His mother took 9-year-old Wilson and his sister, Ashia — who was still in a stroller — to Portland, where they marched with tribal members from throughout the Klamath Basin. “We’ve always been tied into advocacy and protests since we were kids,” he said. Wilson first picked up a camera — his iPhone — in high school. He had begun hiking around Chiloquin, seeking out trails and sites that his father told him about — places that held particular cultural significance, like the vast Klamath Marsh. Later, he would visit with tribal elders and tell them about what he’d seen: a bald eagle grabbing a fish from a waterfall he’d just swum into; a hidden spring bubbling up from the earth. These were fairy-tale moments, he said, but, “I didn’t feel like my words were giving them justice.”

“I didn’t feel like my words were giving them justice.”

His father bought him his first real camera, a Nikon D3200, in 2016. Many of the places Wilson visited had changed in the decades since his father and the other elders had seen them. Wilson’s camera became an archival tool, documenting the changes to the landscape — the clear-cutting and the toxic algae blooms that have formed along the Klamath River because of the dams.

Within those catastrophes, Wilson also captured a kind of beauty, said his sister, Ashia. “Not that I don’t see everything else, but the way he photographs water, tribal members and their relationship to land — there’s always so much life and movement in his work.

Robert Wilson, Klamath Tribal Member, and his grandson Tahnai Eggsman after a successful day of gathering traditional first food, Wokas, on the Klamath Marsh.

In recent years, Wilson has widened his lens to chronicle Indigenous communities beyond his own tribe in places like Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, where he works as a photographer and videographer with Ríos to Rivers, a nonprofit that empowers Indigenous youth to protect their waterways. Before the pandemic, he spent much of his time on the road, meeting with other Indigenous youth involved in the environmental and climate movements and attending the 2019 UN climate conference in Madrid, Spain. That all came to a halt last March. He returned to Chiloquin and began a regimen of daily Zoom meetings, trying to keep the momentum alive on issues from removing the dams on the Klamath to preventing the construction of new ones in South America. Wilson met some of his closest friends and supporters in far-off places like Patagonia. They, too, came from remote tribal communities dealing with the toxic legacy of colonialism and extractive industries. Their activist response was “not unique,” he said. “We’re seeing this outspoken solidarity from other Indigenous youth.” 

Paul Wilson photographed at Burney Falls, CA in 2019.
Veronica Cardenas

LAST SEPTEMBER, less than a year after Wilson flew his drone camera outside Chiloquin, a massive wildfire erupted nearby. Wilson grabbed his camera, determined to document the disaster in a way that would benefit his community. Outside the family home, Wilson set up a time-lapse to photograph the smoke clouds from the 242 Fire, while planes flew 200 feet above him, dropping flame retardants on the blazing forest.

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As the flames spread, Wilson posted his images on social media, together with important safety information on containment and evacuation routes. He also talked about the clear-cutting that preceded the disaster. Thanks to their valuable and sustainably managed ponderosa pine forests, the Klamath Tribes had once been among the wealthiest in the United States. But in 1954, the Klamath were among the first tribes to lose their federal recognition under U.S. government’s termination policy, a sweeping congressional act that also enabled the government to profit from the tribe’s rich timber resources. The decision authorized the sale of 700,000 acres of Klamath land to form the Fremont-Winema National Forest. During the timber boom that followed, the government logged the native ponderosa almost to obliteration, replacing it with lodgepole pine, a faster-growing but far less fire-resilient species. Even after the termination era ended and the Klamath Tribes regained federal recognition, the land remained in government control, as it still does, with many of the once-rich resources degraded.

“Forest district managers have disregarded tribal community members for decades,” Wilson wrote in the caption to one of the photos he posted on Instagram. “The continued removal of Indigenous people from the landscape, and intentional disregard of Indigenous sovereignty (supreme law of the land) will be the single greatest proponent of the coming climate crises.”

He recalled how a few months before the fire, he had stood in one of the last remaining ponderosa pine groves near Chiloquin with a tribal committee that had formed to address the clear-cutting. Though the fire spared his community, it incinerated more than 14,000 mostly forested acres. 

“It was eerie,” Wilson told me, describing how his photos had, in a way, foreshadowed the blaze. Now, that entire grove of trees, just a few miles outside of town, was gone.

The 242 fire burns through the night near the Williamson River outside of the Chiloquin, Oregon.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado. 

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