We interviewed photographer Nicolaus Wegner, the creator of Forgotten Spaces: Wyoming’s Red Desert, about his advocacy to preserve a little-known area of Wyoming on the brink of being exploited for natural resources. The Red Desert—a wild and breathtaking territory in northern Wyoming— is in the middle of a hotly debated environmental proposal aimed at protecting the area from oil and gas development. Wegner teamed up with the Wyoming Wilderness Association (WWA) to create a stunning timelapse of the Red Desert in order to educate the public and fight for the land’s designation as a National Conservation Area. Nicolaus Wegner and Jennie Trefren of WWA opened up to us about the project and why the Red Desert is such an important area to save.
Resource: Much of your work focuses on Wyoming wildscapes. What draws you to the state of Wyoming, as opposed to nearby states like Colorado or Montana? What makes Wyoming in particular special to you?
Nicolaus Wegner: Wyoming is where I call home, and it’s been home for a good part of my life. While Colorado and Montana are both amazing states, there is something truly unique about Wyoming. The variety of landscapes and amount of natural resources is extraordinary. Almost disproportionate in some ways. We have amazing vistas like the Winds and Tetons, and most of Yellowstone National Park lies within Wyoming’s borders. There are also amazing badland and desert scenic landscapes in the Red Desert that would probably be national parks or designated wilderness in any other state. For me, it’s a photographer’s paradise.
Resource: Tell me about your work with the Wyoming Wilderness Association. What were your goals going into it, and what have you accomplished since then?
Nicolaus Wegner: Jennie Trefren of the WWA saw my Wyoming wildscapes videos, and came up with the idea to produce a video showcasing the highly contested Red Desert portion of Wyoming. Since that part of the state is one of my favorite locations, I was more than up for the project. Our goal going into the video was to display the completely natural and wild beauty of some of the terrain in time-lapse form, and to let the scenes do the talking. There are plenty of narrated documentaries when it comes to preserving and conserving special places, but very few time-lapse related conservation projects that are just simply about how awesome these places look. If people sit through the five and a half minute Forgotten Spaces video, they will have viewed over sixty scenes in the Red Desert.
Resource: Forgotten Spaces: Wyoming’s Red Desert is absolutely beautiful. How did you come up with its concept?
Nicolaus Wegner: The concept came about in a somewhat organic way. My time-lapse videos sort of gravitate towards a certain flow. I like to keep patterns going with light, terrain, weather, or whatever. It’s nice to have some established movement throughout the entire video in order to keep people engaged. So many time-lapse videos these days seem more like stock video licensing pitches than actual short films; lots of pretty scenes, but no real rhyme or reason to it all and usually quite random. It’s important to try and tell a story, no matter how simple that story may be. The audio track is just as important as the visuals. I wanted a song with a specific flow that allowed for a variety of views and moved both slow and fast. Came across Tony Anderson’s ‘Diana’ and immediately knew it was the track. It has a sad but somehow uplifting tone; a perfect sound for the emotions I feel when out in these places, realizing that it all could be lost some day.
Resource: What kind of equipment do you use and how do you prepare for shooting time-lapse sequences in such an extreme environment?
Nicolaus Wegner: I use Canon gear mostly, the 5D Mark II and 6D, as well as a very cheap 14mm Rokinon that works pretty well for time-lapse work. Preparation wise, a rocket blower and extra rain coat are my main defenses against inclement weather, but it’s impossible to completely prepare for the weather here in Wyoming. I had days out there with sunshine, rain, and snow all within a few minutes. Sometimes the wind can be difficult to deal with as well. I try to keep it as simple as possible as sometimes I’m hauling quite a bit of gear over uneven terrain with no trails other than what wild animals have made.
Resource: What was the most meaningful aspect of this project for you?
Nicolaus Wegner: Showing how varied and beautiful that section of Wyoming is. The Red Desert is really one of the forgotten places in Wyoming. This state is known for its mountains and natural resources, but not so much for the high desert and badlands. South Dakota’s Badlands National Park is pretty neat, but it’s nothing compared to the spectrum of amazing colors in Honeycomb Buttes WSA. These places need protection as half of the Red Desert is already pretty much developed. We all need oil and gas for daily life, but it’s important to set some areas aside for future generations to explore untrammeled by man. The northern section of the Red Desert is in dire need of more attention. Hopefully this video helps brings some awareness and gets people involved out there. If anything, at least it can be an archive video for what it used to look like if it gets overrun someday.
Resource: What kind of support or donations has your time-lapse video garnered for the preservation of Wyoming’s Red Desert? How will the Wyoming Wilderness Association be using your video to influence policy?
Jennie Trefen: The time-lapse video has resulted in several new Wyoming Wilderness Association members. New memberships are extremely important to us because of the way membership numbers speak to decision makers. The more members WWA has the more support is shown to decision makers, such as our Congressional delegation and local County Commissioners, that the public cares about protecting these lands. Right now one of the biggest contributing factors to the threats that the Red Desert faces is that many people don’t know it exists and don’t realize the values that are there. This video will help show people the beauty of the Red Desert and serve as an important introduction to its values. In turn, this will help generate interest and help demonstrate support for protecting the Red Desert.
Resource: What other areas of Wyoming are at risk for exploitation of their natural resources? Do you have plans to showcase these other regions in the future, and if so, will you be using the same time-lapse technique seen in this last video?
Nicolaus Wegner: All of the wilderness study areas in Wyoming are in danger of losing their status at the moment. The entire state is at risk in one way or another, even Yellowstone for geothermal use. It could be this state’s downfall in decades to come if we don’t concentrate on finding a balance between resource extraction and tourism. Tourism will always be renewable as long as we keep the natural beauty of our state intact. If I could get funding for such a project, I’d love to do a longer video with both time-lapse, real time and slow-motion on all forty-two of our wilderness study areas to showcase the amazing variety and natural beauty of so many unprotected locations. I’d very much like to include their huge amount of wildlife as well, as it is a major part of these areas.
Resource: Where can our readers go donate to help preserve Wyoming’s Red Desert?
Jennie Trefen: To donate or become a member you can go to the Wyoming Wilderness Association’s Donation page here.
This interview has been shortened and edited for content. All images used with permission.