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A Man For The Outdoors: Jack Ballard
Montana Senior News, Dec.2015/Jan. 2016
It is no coincidence that Jack Ballard is one of the most widely published outdoor writers and photographers in America today. Chance had nothing to do with his success. But two facets from his Montana past did—a zeal for reading and growing up on an expansive farm-ranch near Three Forks.

“You can occasionally get lucky being at the right place at the right time with photography. But you can’t get lucky with writing,” explains Jack, whose freelance stories and photos have appeared in over 50 regional and national publications. “Some people may have an innate gift with words but unless you take your art seriously and work at it, you won’t be a good writer. That requires deliberately mastering the mechanics of writing and using different literary devices that lead to artistic writing.”

Jack’s interest in the written word traces back to his childhood when he and his six siblings could often be seen curled up with a book once chores were done.

“There was no TV on the ranch for entertainment but we had a pretty robust collection of outdoor youth fiction available at home. During the summer when we couldn’t get to the school library, we ordered a box of books from the state library in Helena. I would read them over and over,” recalls Jack, who now makes his home in Red Lodge. “I was a voracious consumer of fiction books on wildlife based in biology. Yellow Eyes and The Black Wolf of Savage River were two I wore out the covers on.”

In fact, you can see a telling outcome of the influence these books had on Jack if you search Amazon for The Black Wolf of Savage River. You will find one of Jack’s 10 book titles listed below it—Wolves: A Falcon Field Guide.

Like his other siblings, Jack assumed farm responsibilities early on. At six years old, he was feeding 100 laying hens daily for his mom who collected and sold the eggs.

“As I got older, I did more jobs—feeding the hogs and cattle, driving the tractor, putting up hay and stacking bales by hand. Every ranch from that era did those things,” recounts Jack. “When you grow up in that environment, you develop work habits that are invaluable. You develop a sense of urgency and punctuality about work and doing tasks on time.”

Although Jack’s father was not formally educated, he was curious about the outdoor world, which left a lasting imprint on Jack.

“Dad put out bird feeders and had a bird identification book nearby. He hunted and we fished. He had really good eyesight and was exceptional at spotting game,” remembers Jack. “When we were out on the ranch, he’d often say, ‘Look at the buck or watch that coyote!’ It was woven into the fabric of running our ranch and the occupation there.”

By the time Jack began penning his first stories in the early 1990’s, he had acquired two Masters degrees and was lecturing for Montana State University on the history and philosophy of public education. He did not have any academic training in writing but taught himself the craft through patience and persistence. As he says, “If you read good writing, a certain amount of it inevitably rubs off on you.”

Jack soon learned that if he wanted to sell his photos, editors would need a specific reason to publish them. So he focused on creating text-photo packages realizing if he sold the article idea, photos could follow. And they did.

“I figured out pretty quickly that unless a magazine had a need for photos, I would twiddle my thumbs waiting for a sale. But if I wrote an article about meadowlarks, that would provide the opportunity to sell my meadowlark photos.”

Jack’s advice to anyone considering a similar endeavor reflects the path he followed.

“If you want to do something, learn everything you can about it and work hard. Approach your vocation in an analytical manner and you can be a success at anything,” says this award-winning author.

While many people regard his career as glamorous, that is not an adjective Jack would use to describe his profession despite the varied places and opportunities it has brought him.

“When you are staring at your computer screen at midnight knowing you have a deadline coming soon, it is just a job,” he admits. “I awake every day knowing if I’m not producing, I’m not getting paid. I’m either unemployed or I’m working.”

As an outdoorsman and Montanan, Jack is especially concerned about future access to public and private lands so his home state’s hunting and fishing legacies are preserved.

“When I was growing up, we assumed families hunted. You can’t assume that anymore. We hunted our land and hunted on neighbors’ places. But ownerships have changed. Many ranches now have absentee owners and on-site managers,” notes Jack. “If you knock on those doors and ask to hunt, you will likely be told the ranch is not open for hunting.”

Not surprisingly, Jack feels strongly about supporting public and private programs and organizations that strategically acquire private lands to make them public. Whenever possible and appropriate, his prose educates readers to learn more about this important issue. Jack cites organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Public Lands Access Association, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers as examples of groups working alone and cooperatively along those lines.

When he is not backpacking in remote forests, fishing at timberline, or on intimate terms with his computer keyboard, Jack can be found renovating fixer-uppers he has bought around Red Lodge. He enjoys the physical work, which he considers, “a good counterpoint to the writing and photography.”

And when he really wants to tilt his world upside-down, Jack and his wife Lisa head someplace you might consider the Treasure State’s polar opposite—the Big Apple.

“I love New York City, the whole scene, the culture and access to the performing arts, looking around Times Square. There is all that energy. But I have no desire to live there,” adds this third-generation Montanan. “I just like to visit.”
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