Photograph by Nabil Rahman
Read Caption
Fritz Hoffmann photographs American Bison from an aerial boom lift at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colo.
Photograph by Nabil Rahman

A Boom With A View

From 50 feet above the hoof-pounded Colorado plain, I can hear police sirens stir the coyotes. One after another they serenade Denver’s first responders with their canine howl. This may be the nuttiest thing I have ever done for a picture: chase semi-wild bison around with a 50-foot aerial boom lift hitched to a pickup truck.

Of course the proud herd of 87 below me want none of my games, but this is the vantage point I’ve chosen from which to collect landscape views for a National Geographic story on America’s toxic wastelands—EPA Superfund sites. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colorado, is one of them.

From the 1940s to 1982 the area was used for chemical weapons and agricultural pesticides production. The EPA listed it as a Superfund site in 1987, and remediation has been paid for largely by Shell, the main polluter. It’s now managed by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, which transferred 16 bison there in 2007. The herd has since grown to 87—presently too many for the land to handle.

View Images
An angry American bison bull charges from the roundup corral across the shadow of Fritz Hoffmann’s rented aerial boom at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge near Denver. An annual roundup is held to sample DNA from the bison, in order to cull those related to domestic cattle. Blood tests also help gauge the success of the Superfund site cleanup.

My assistant Nabil Rahman and I have been traveling the country with the rented truck and boom, photographing sites that are on the National Priorities List (NPL) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—commonly known as “Superfund.” One in four Americans lives within one mile of a Superfund site. There are 1,300 locations on the NPL. Thousands more have been identified as needing cleanup. Yet few people under the age of 40 that I’ve met while working on this story know what Superfund is.

Nabil and I had already set up similar booms in Picher, Oklahoma; Los Angeles; Hanford, Washington; Butte, Montana; and Hastings, Nebraska. But at each location there were new tests to pass.

View Images
While photographing from the boom in a housing development in Montebello, California, Hoffmann had to prove that he was actually photographing for National Geographic and was not a peeping Tom. Flying the National Geographic Explorers flag from the bucket helped, but he still couldn’t convince people he wasn’t a landscaper out for hire to prune their palm trees.

Seen from 50 feet up, the perspective shifts in a way I liken to a traditional Chinese landscape painting—more of a 2-D field where near distance is at the bottom and far distance is at the top, rather than on the distant horizon of a flat plain. A separation of the elements in the composition occurs in a way that pleases the mind.

Since elevated platforms are never where you need them when photographing, the boom puts me where I want to be. The bison roundup at the Arsenal was a fortunate opportunity. My hunch was that it would be nearly impossible to follow the herd around open acreage with the boom. I was right.

The full moon was about to set over the Rockies. The bison crossed Yosemite Street toward bales of prairie hay that Fish and Wildlife used to draw them closer to the roundup corral. They were but a dark mass on the land. “C’mon, get in formation, gotta see humps,” I muttered into my camera. Gusts from the dawn wind agitated the boom and my slow shutter. A cow and her calf drew the four-legged crowd toward the east as the sun broke the horizon. I rotated the bucket in pursuit.

Fritz Hoffmann is known for documentary style narratives that portray society, culture, the environment and global economics. He is currently working on his eleventh story for National Geographic magazine. You can see more of his work on his website.