In 1938, the National Park Service launched a poster program to increase visits to America’s outdoor sites, from Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon. It hired artists from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project — created under the New Deal — who produced 14 stylized designs before the program ended a few years later at the onset of World War II.
Capturing scenes of nature in all its wonder, from the monumental eruption of a geyser to textured logs of Petrified Forest, the silk-screened works were serene and idyllic. But these protected regions are now under threat, as a new series of WPA-inspired posters by artist Hannah Rothstein starkly reminds us. Set in the year 2050, her illustrations present our future parks as they may appear if we don’t act against climate change. Rather than the nature walks, field trips, and campfire programs advertised in the original WPA posters, among the delights we may look forward to are disappearing geysers, warming rivers, dying trout, and starving grizzlies.
Such are the sunny outlooks Rothstein has listed in her update of a Yellowstone National Park poster, which is one of two original WPA works she has edited. Five other depressing creations, which reimagine a charred Redwood forest (“Once home to world’s tallest trees”) and an arid Denali/Mount McKinley (“Visit melted permafrost, snowless peaks, & vanished tundra”), are dystopian visions of contemporary posters designed by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises, a company launched by historian and former national park ranger Doug Leen, the self-styled “Ranger of the Lost Art.” Leen began his business by diligently tracking down the original posters, which are dispersed among the Library of Congress’s archives and private collections, and painstakingly restoring them as derivative art — which then led to many national parks requesting that he create posters for them in a similar, WPA-inspired style.
Rothstein’s series (which has received Ranger Doug’s full blessing) arrives amid increasing worry over President Trump’s proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is now run by climate-change denier and IRL Satan Scott Pruitt. While terrifying and pessimistic (although, in this vision of 2050, at least the Park service still exists), her images are especially resonant, illuminating how our actions today — or lack thereof — can have dramatic impact on iconic and irreplaceable landscapes.
“When presented with scary facts, it’s often easier to take a ‘hear no evil, see to evil’ approach than to accept and act upon the information,” Rothstein told Hyperallergic. “It’s my hope this work helps everyone admit that climate change is an imminent issue and thereby inspires them to act.”
For starters, she said, people can contact their senators and representatives to urge them to resist environmentally hostile policies. This month also presents plenty of opportunities to take action for the sake of our planet, or at least pause to appreciate nature’s gifts: April 22 marks Earth Day as well as the March for Science; National Parks Week is ongoing until April 23; and the People’s Climate March will take place on April 29. If you’re looking for some effective posters, Rothstein’s National Parks 2050 series sends across a loud and clear message. For her part, she’s donating 25% of proceeds from sales to climate-related causes.