When a wildfire ravaged his Colorado hometown of Basalt in July this year, Pete McBride, 47, was reluctant to leave his 120-year-old house, fearing it would be the last time he would see the 80,000 images in his basement. After 20 years as a photographer for National Geographic, Outside, and other magazines, McBride has amassed a formidable archive in the course of traveling to 75 countries.
“As a kid, I loved to be outside and was happy being alone for long periods of time, especially for a 6-year-old. I didn’t see the power of the camera until I worked as an intern at a newspaper called High Country News, a small publication in Colorado,” he said. “I went to Dartmouth and wrote a thesis about grazing livestock on public lands. Then I took some pictures and the newspaper loved the photos before they even saw my story.”
McBride has documented everything from the depletion of the earth’s natural resources to global cultural moments to feats of adventure and daring. In this last category, he has scaled mountains and traversed canyons, training his lens on and coming close to the edge of human endurance himself. Perhaps it is as an eyewitness to danger and disaster that he finds the greatest grace in the notion of safety and redemption.
The Colorado River Reflooding
Running through seven states and two countries, the Colorado is considered the American Nile. With more than 100 dams, the river supplies drinking water to 40 million people. “We have asked too much of the river, and it no longer reaches the sea; its delta is completely dried,” said McBride, which has “rippling environmental effects. Those deltas, where they interface with the ocean, make up a giant flyway for birds, which helps protect our crops and keeps insects at bay.” It also flushes salt out of the river, which limits the ability to grow crops. In 2014, the gates of Morelos Dam on the Arizona–Mexico border were lifted to allow a “pulse flow” of water into the Colorado. “The human spirit and celebration of that moment, with people in Mexico celebrating a river, was one of the most uplifting things to see,” said McBride. “The river’s ecological memory jumped back to life. Within 30 minutes you could see little crustaceans swimming in your hand that had been waiting patiently for decades for the water to return. It’s symbolic of nearly every watershed system in the world, which are showing signs of contamination, depletion, and over-allocation.”
It started because of some foolishness by humans, but anything — even lightning — could have started something like this.”
The Lake Christine Wildfire
On July 3, 2018, a fire began at a shooting range in Basalt, Colorado, McBride’s hometown. “Conditions were so dry and temperatures were hotter than ever, so in a way it wasn’t surprising,” he said. “In the long run, it’s probably good, since fire is a natural tool of regeneration for the area.” The winds changed a couple of times, and it became challenging to battle the fire. Above the town, slurry bombers dropped red fire retardant, working in concert with helicopters, but “there wasn’t enough water, and they were scooping rocks and mud out of the river. We’ve prevented fire in a lot of these places, where they used to happen naturally. We have tried to control nature for so long that we’ve prevented natural systems from doing their jobs. We move and develop in these forested areas, then scratch our heads when the fires come.” It will take a long time for the forest to come back — the wildfire burned a total of 12,588 acres — but it will come back stronger, said McBride.
Wildlife Corridors in Africa
For McBride, natural systems don’t just support humans, they should support wildlife, too. “We are losing species everywhere, but I recently photographed a success story related to poaching in wildlife, corridors, documenting a group that moves elephants from disaster to safety in Malawi.” If we understand that animals naturally move and don’t stay in one pocket, he said, “then we establish that wildlife populations have value to local communities. Once you do that, the animals are more inclined to be protected, and locals won’t see them as an opportunity for poaching but as a long-term benefit, in terms of tourism and national parks that connect to other parks, allowing animals to move safely.” Thus, we help create safety through economic stability and education via protection of the environment, with women in Africa playing a key role. They are “a secret force,” he says. For example, Samburu women in Kenya create beadwork that generates income, empowering them to support their families and send their children to school, which helps keep them safe from violence and social instability in their communities.