Photographer's profits wilt


IDAHO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The dirt is dry, the grass is dry, the alpine pond that normally glistens here is a pathetic puddle. But as he pulls off the road and scans the scene, Bill Bonebrake notices what's not in the picture.

"This would normally just be all flowers," he says, looking at the field unfurling beneath him. "A sea of color."

Normally. But not much is normal in Colorado, as the worst drought in 70 years continues to squeeze the Rocky Mountains, wringing the last drops of moisture from an already arid landscape.

If a lack of water is said to have a ripple effect, then the ripples of this drought grow wider every day. The first victims were the most visible: farmers and ranchers. Then it was homeowners in the path of burning forests. Now the drought can be measured in what can't be seen: flowers.

After scant winter snow, sparse spring rain and an unusually hot summer, Colorado's wildflower season has been altered, shortened and in some places hasn't come at all.

For nature lovers, this means a less colorful summer. For people who depend on wildflowers -- from botanists to beekeepers to photographers such as Bonebrake -- it means a less profitable year.

Fewer fields of harebell and columbine will mean fewer pictures for Bonebrake's line of postcards and greeting cards, which will mean fewer deposits in his children's college fund. Customers demand new work each year, he explains. "And I didn't get a lot of new work this year."

Bonebrake rises before first light and heads into the Rocky Mountains to bag his prey. Today he's after a specific wildflower. A manufacturer wants pictures of asters, purple-petaled flowers with yellow centers, and the photographer aims to oblige.

Besides filling special orders, however, Bonebrake always has in mind his main quarry: color. He's obsessed with finding that dazzling yellow sneezeweed and that dizzying orange paintbrush, set against a backdrop of green grass and white-capped mountains.

It's the idyllic image of Colorado he seeks -- and sells. But this year, the search feels more like a quixotic quest.

"This is money out of my pocket," Bonebrake says of the drought, as both his truck and the sun creep toward the top of Mount Evans, a location that has provided countless pictures during the 10 years Bonebrake has been in business.

During wildflower season, from June to August, Bonebrake will put 1,500 miles on his truck each week, crisscrossing the state and region. At 42, he won't hesitate to camp near a clump of flowers he wants to photograph. He won't think twice about sleeping in his truck. His goal is 50 new pictures. In a great season, maybe 100.

So far, he has six.

His wife, Lorraine, co-owner of JAMIT Publishing, which produces his works, sees the drought through his demeanor. He can't hide his disappointment after a day of tramping through brittle fields where wildflowers once came to his hips, or skirting mud flats scattered with bleached fish bones, which used to be lakes.

"So?" Lorraine says as he comes through the door at night.

"Dry," he says.

It's not just the money. Wildflowers give him an optic rush. "Color," he says. "Color is what excites my eyes. It's all about color."

Such passion for color makes him typical here. Flowers are to Colorado what swallows are to San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Their return not only attracts droves of tourists but also gives natives an annual, reliable thrill. Many Coloradans know precisely which week the pink fireweed will be up. They plan hikes and backpacking trips for those days when the red rose crown will be in bloom.

The names of wildflowers are deliberately beautiful, a kind of lyric poetry enthusiasts can recite to each other every season. Did you see any northern bedstraw yesterday? Is the winged buckwheat out? How are the snow buttercup and yellow monkey flower and fairy trumpet doing?

None is visible as Bonebrake pushes above the tree line, into the tundra, his truck growling around sharp curves on Highway 5, the highest paved road in North America. At more than 14,000 feet above sea level, where snow doesn't melt until August, if at all, conditions are ideal for mountain goats, marmots and the kaleidoscopic meadows envisioned by Hollywood set designers.

"Carpets of flowers as far as the eye can see," Bonebrake says, remembering the good years.

This year, just carpet remnants.

Scientists who study Colorado wildflowers are also concerned about the drought.

"There are a lot of very rare plants in Colorado and we're worried about them in places where they're already stressed by humans," says Dave Anderson, a botanist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, which tracks exotic species in the state. "They might be pushed over the brink and be extirpated."

Nearly 500 species of rare plants exist in Colorado, Anderson says. "About 30 of those species are extremely rare and only known from less than five occurrences worldwide."

Schmoll's milk vetch, for instance, occurs nowhere else in the world except Mesa Verde National Park, in southwest Colorado, and it simply didn't appear this year. "I was supposed to go to the park and map the area where the plant is located," Anderson says. "But the park service called and said don't bother."

At the famed wildflower festival in Crested Butte last month, first-time visitors were excited, as usual, but longtime organizers could tell this year wasn't normal. "Very dry," says Lee Renfro, festival director. "You have to promise yourself that, yes, they're there, and they will come up next year."

Bonebrake presses higher and higher, until at last he spies something purple sprouting from a rock. He stops. He gathers his gear and stalks toward the asters, as if any sudden movements might scare the flowers off.

A fat marmot watches dubiously as Bonebrake crouches over the flower and takes aim. The camera's click is nearly lost amid the howling wind and the cheeping pikas in the rock crevices.

Mission accomplished. It's not a sea, or a carpet, but it's color. Bonebrake climbs back into his truck. The marmot slides back into its hole.

"This is the part of being a photographer people don't see," he says. "The amount of time and the amount of miles I spend driving, looking for pictures. If I don't get them, then I just have a nice walk in the woods. There are worse ways to make a living."

J.R. Moehringer is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

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