Jack Ballard might be the only person to run for Congress with his bird dog as an integral part of his campaign. Of course, there are many other important elements to his platform, such as education, healthcare, jobs and wages, the impact of drought on ag lands, wildfire mitigation, and more. Jack is the consummate outdoorsman, a nationally renowned outdoor writer and photographer who literally wrote the book (two actually) on elk hunting and now he’s planning to use his background as a communicator, former farmer/rancher, outdoorsman, and educator to find workable solutions in Congress for all of us. On today’s podcast, he joins Rick Saez as he dives deep into his platform and the changes he wishes to see in the world.
Jack Ballard’s Vision For Lowering Health Care Costs And Supporting Rural Schools
Welcome to episode 300 with Jack Ballard. Jack might be the only person to run for Congress with his bird dog as an integral part of his campaign. There are many other elements to his platform such as education, healthcare, jobs, wages, the impact of drought on ag lands, wildfire mitigation and more. Jack is the consummate outdoorsman, a nationally renowned outdoor writer and photographer who wrote two books on elk hunting as well as numerous books on iconic species in the Rocky Mountains and elsewhere in the country. He’s planning to use his background as a communicator, former farmer, rancher, outdoorsman and educator to find a workable solution in Congress for all of us.
I’m excited to be here at Jay Peak, Vermont with Jack Ballard. Jack’s running for Congress in Montana. He’s an Outdoor Writers Association member as am I. We’re here for the annual conference. We’re going to talk to Jack about what he’s doing for Congress, what he’s going to do in Congress when he gets there, and some other stuff about his outdoor career. Welcome to the show, Jack.
I always start by finding out how everybody got introduced to the outdoor biz. I’m assuming your introduction came from the family farm because you grew up on a family farm.
It was the outdoors, which was part of my life from as far back as I can remember. I was going out when I was a little kid, following my dad around feeding Black Angus cattle in the winter and smelling hay in the summer, chasing grasshoppers, on and on.
You had family chores? I’m sure.
Yes, more chores than I cared to remember. By the time I was in early grade school, I spent almost an hour doing chores before I left for school in the morning and about an hour in the evening.
I only like milking cows and cleaning out barns.
Milk cows, fed chickens, fed bulls, clean out barns. The worst was cleaning out the chicken house. That was horrible.
I’ve been in some chicken coops. They are messy, dirty and smelly. It’s worse than cows. I haven’t cleaned them, though. What did you do for fun? You’d sound like you did a lot of work.
We ran around for fun. When I was six years old, I got a BB gun. I ran around and shot at things with my BB gun for fun. We did things like jump off the haystack into a small pile of hay and hope you don’t get hurt.
Now that climate change is upon us, we have to figure out what we can do.
You break bones, I’m sure.
Interestingly, out of seven kids, I had an older brother that cracked a collarbone. That was it. I attribute it to lots of weight-bearing exercises. Water on the ranch was horrible. We drank skim milk. I consumed gallons of skim milk and did a lot of weight-bearing exercises so I have pretty good bones.
Why was the water bad?
The nature of the well is hard, mineral rusty water. If you let the water hit the side of the house when you were watering the grass inside of the house, it’d turn brown after a while.
Other than coaching ski races, have you had a traditional outdoor job? Did you work in retail or as a guide?
I’ve never done any guiding but I did teach at MSU Billings for about fifteen years in the education department. Other than summer jobs, that’s the only traditional job I held for a long period of time.
Nothing related to outdoor? No retail? You’re just an outdoor consumer.
What inspired the conservationist in you?
That’s a number of things. My dad was a rancher and there was a little bit of us against them in relation to certain wildlife species but he also loves wildlife like to try to identify different birds and things. That piqued my interest at least in wildlife. I started thinking about the bigger picture of how the species are doing.
Also, the land because you had a family farm. I’m sure you were always concerned about the health of the land.
You’re always concerned about the health of the land. As a farmer, you’re trying to find that balance between how much you can produce and how much you need to rest. Weather plays such a huge part in the type of farming ranching that we did. You get extremely aware of how weather affects plant growth.
In Montana, you had some extreme weather.
We did. Although, the weather is more extreme now than it was when I was a child.
Climate change is upon us. No matter what they say. How did you pick up photography and writing?
I picked up photography and writing by reading outdoor magazines. My dad subscribed to Outdoor Life. When I got in college and stuff, I looked at other outdoor magazines and at one point thought, “I could do this.” I have two graduate degrees so I did a lot of writing in grad school.
How about photography?
Photography was an accident. My ex-wife had some Nikon camera equipment and I started messing around with it. One fall, we went to Yellowstone to tour around, do some hiking, and listen to the elk bugle. I had that camera and took elk photos. It grabbed me.
It’s amazing to be able to go see something beautiful, then snap a photo and see what you created on the computer screen, the prints or whatever it is.
Part of that is the best experience I had on that trip. This is in the film days. This is when you’re advancing your film manually with your thumb. I got on this herd of elk. It’s the closest to them that I had anything on the trip. The color was beautiful. Everything was perfect. I get to frame number 36 on my roll of film and that’s cool. I advance it. I’m going to get bonus frame 37 and then bonus frame 38. In bonus frame 44, I’m going, “Uh-oh.” If you shot back in the film days, you know the end of that story. There was no film on the camera. There was a little bit of a motivation to go back and somehow try to recapture that.
Were you able to recapture some of those pictures?
Not exactly but I’ve got some wonderful images that I shot on slide film back in the day, and then digital in Yellowstone with the elk so I feel like I’ve redeemed myself.
Did you give up your faculty position and go into full-time writing and photography or was that simultaneous?
No, I did give up my faculty position. I started doing the writing and photography on the side and kept finding more outlets. It was successful. I was fortunate to have a department head that was sympathetic to what I was doing. I wound up dropping from full-time to half-time. I taught half-time for about three years and then resigned completely, which I don’t know if that’s the smartest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s that regular paycheck, insurance and all that. It’s worked out well so I don’t have any regrets.
You can’t overestimate the corrupting influence of money in politics in the US right now.
You’re running for a US House seat in Montana. I’m happy to see that two of your key issues are climate change and public lands. That’s hugely important for those of us in the outdoors. Not even if you’re in the outdoors, it’s hugely important for life if we’re going to continue life on this planet. Environmentally, it feels like we’re still reliving the ‘70s. Give us your outlook on the environment on public lands over the next 3, 5 to 10 years.
The frustration for me in relation to public lands with climate change is how slow we’re moving on a lot of things. I see things in Montana that aren’t dramatic issues. I’m thinking particularly of the way that invasive species, plant species, in particular, have thrived in wildlife habitats in Montana. There’s not a whole lot going on to address that.
I live in California and I’ve seen it in California. My entire life growing up as a kid in the ’70 and late ‘60, East of LA, we used to joke about not being able to see the mountains because of the smog. Our lungs would hurt at the end of the day. It seems like it’s better but we’re still driving all these gas-powered cars. It’s like, “When are we going to get past this?” Do you think we’ll be able to do it in our lifetimes?
If we don’t, the consequences are pretty severe for our children. It’s a bigger issue than fossil fuels. Although that’s a big part of it, the way we do agriculture is another important thing. The destruction of all of those ecosystems around the globe is rainforests. People are aware of that sink carbon, but also the mangrove coastal ecosystems that are hugely beneficial for carbon sequestration, and also buffer coastal communities from storms. There’s a huge picture in relation to climate change. It’s hard to latch onto one piece at a time.
It’s almost like we need different groups to take on different pieces so that we can get them all at the same time. Mother Nature has a very complex web.
What you said is that the key is to have different groups that understand their slice of the problem. The Federal government has a role in trying to put that all together in a meaningful way, manage it, move it along, deal with private enterprise and entrepreneurial efforts to get the most bang for our buck.
Help fund some of those smaller groups because they might have a great cause and idea but no money. Do you still find time to get outdoors? What kind of things do you do these days? You don’t do any of that because you’re running for Congress.
I’m focused on running for Congress. Running for political office has the ability to change people in ways that are not helpful in representing their constituency. I’m very committed to the idea that as much as possible I’ll continue to be the Montana that I am because that’s what helps you represent people. I’m going pheasant, wild turkey and waterfowl hunting. When elk season opens, I’ll go back to our family elk camp and hunt elk. That’s what I’m going to do.
It’s funny how people do change. I can’t figure out if it’s the money because everybody says there’s no money but there’s obviously money in it. They get into the office and flip almost.
If we want to get into my view on the political process having seen it. You can’t overestimate the corrupting influence of money in politics in the US. If I listened to the political consultants on my shoulder, I would be making fundraising calls four hours a day, every day, trying to rake in money. I’m running for Congress. I’ve read the research that indicates that the average representative in Congress spends about half of their working hours raising money for the next election. You wonder why nothing gets done. That’s your answer.
It’s not what is getting done. It’s probably not getting done by the people in Congress because they only have four hours a day left to do their work but they’re probably getting fed all kinds of stuff from aids and various people that they don’t have time to vet and read, “Do I believe in this? Go sell it.”
The other thing that is hugely problematic that I’m seeing is I got into this race in August 2021. If I win my primary by the time the general election comes around in 2022, I will have been campaigning for fifteen months. I have a flexible work schedule. I can still work and campaign through the primary and general elections. It’ll be a full-time deal. Who has fifteen months that they can set aside their life and run for office? The other thing that would be hugely beneficial in getting better representation for normal people is to severely shrink that election cycle. Maybe 6 weeks, 2 months for the primary and the same for the general election and get it done.
You would have to pass some law to make them not able to campaign until X date. That’d be tough because with the news cycle and everybody wants to talk to you and get your feedback. You have to almost legislate them, not the people running.
That also contributes to the polarization in the country. When you pretty much start at the end of one election, you start campaigning for the next. Politics, politicians and polarization are in people’s faces year-round. If we shorten that cycle, people would have months to sit back, breathe and say, “You vote for the other party but you’re still a good neighbor. I like fishing with you.” That’s okay.
Do you have any daily routines you use to keep your sanity or stab all that stuff?
My biggest thing that I use for sanity is the outdoors and exercise. I was an athlete in high school. I maintained some kind of competitive athletic influence all through my adult life. I get outside a lot working with the dogs.
What kind of dogs do you have?
English setters, a father and son.
Are they hunting dogs?
Yes, the father, Percy. He’s a bird hunting machine. He’s also a bit of an oddball for a setter. He loves to hunt waterfowl. He’s an extremely skilled waterfowl retriever. If the weather is okay first of September, I hunt with him until the duck season closes in January.
Do you have any favorite books or books you’d give as gifts? You’ve written some books.
I give books away. It’s typically my own. I did a wildlife photography book years ago. Same time, I was also working on a book. It’s called Large Mammals of the Rocky Mountains. It’s an encyclopedic, biology/natural history of mammals in the Rocky Mountains that typically weigh over 100 pounds.
That must have been fun to put together.
It was fun and a lot of work. I learned a lot doing the research on that mammal’s book particularly. I was fortunate to be able to talk to dozens of biologists at state game agencies and Federal agencies. It was tough but it was a rewarding project.
Anything that we consume is related to climate change. Be intelligent.
Was that the first encyclopedic type book you’ve done?
Yes, and I had written up a number of the species as smaller pocket guides. The original editor on those pocket guides said, “That’d be cool if at the end of this, we put all these together into a big book.” That sounded great. He went off of the series for some reason but then he came back on. That’s what we did. In the end, I had to write up 4 or 5 species that we hadn’t done a pocket guide on but other than that, it was expanding and working with those.
Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks that want to get into outdoor writing, outdoor photography, the outdoor business?
The writing and photography are frankly tough. When I got into it, photography use film so you had to be a good photographer because you went out in the field. It wasn’t like you can check your LCD screen and say, “I got the exposure right there. There’s this branch sticking through the fish’s head that I’m trying to photograph in somebody’s hand.” It took more skill.
If you got some of those bad shots, there wasn’t the editing software to fix it.
When I first started submitting photos for publication, you stuck twenty slides in a plastic sleeve and you send them in snail mail. It was a totally different process. The post-production editing software, being able to shoot digital and see where you’re at on an LCD screen has frankly made it so much easier to get professional-level photos. That part of the business is tough. Stock photography, when I was starting out, you could place slides at stock agencies. They would market things. It was a 50/50 split if they sold stuff.
The one agency that I worked with had a $75 minimum. The minimum I was going to take for an image was 37/50 on my split. There are stock agencies all over that you can buy the same rights for $5. All that said, if you do good work, there’s no substitute for quality. People that are good writers and photographers that are passionate about what they do and find a niche can still make a living on outdoors.
What does 1 or 2 actions all of us in the outdoor biz can take to dial up the urgency about climate change? I was born in 1960 and some of the things we’re doing, we’re still doing them as we did in 1965. Now that climate change is upon us, we have to fast-track. What can we do?
Everybody has to figure out the thing that reminds them of the urgency. I’ll tell you my silly little thing. I pretty much take cold showers. There’s a little bit of a mental discipline piece to it but when I get in the shower, I take a cold shower. If I’m filthy dirty, I take a hot shower once in a while. Routinely, before I go to bed, I take a cold shower. It reminds me that I saved two gallons of hot water. It keeps it in my face that my actions make a difference.
People were developing something like that, whatever it is, to create their own personal awareness. At the end of the day, consumption is climate change. Anything that we consume is related to climate change. Being intelligent in how you consume. A lot of the products, I’m consuming renewables. What’s the carbon footprint of the clothes that I wear, the vehicle that I drive, and the food that I eat?.
What’s your favorite piece of outdoor gear that you’ve purchased for under $100? This is the hardest question I ask from what I’ve learned.
I’m good at losing knives so I’ve purchased lots of knives. A single-blade folding locking knife with about a 2-inch blade is what I use for everything. I can dismantle a whole elk with a little 2-inch knife. I bought lots of those. I try to buy quality that’s US made. It comes in under $100.
I don’t know a ton of folks that have grown up on farms and ranches but a handful have a 2-inch blade that’s in their pocket all the time. You’re right. They can do anything with it. It’s amazing. Did you learn that on the ranch, on the farm?
My dad had a pocket knife. He had three blades and did everything with that.
As we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to say or ask about?
Back to the sense of climate change and wildlife conservation, try to be mindful of what’s going on in your backyard. I am interested in what’s going on around the globe but where I can affect meaningful change is in my community. Keep your focus there. Try to pick out one project or organization that you’re passionate about and get behind it. Work hard to make it happen.
Where can people find you if they want to follow up? What’s the best way to reach out to you?
Jack, thanks for taking the time. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you. I look forward to hanging out with you.
- Jack Ballard
- Outdoor Writers Association
- Large Mammals of the Rocky Mountains
- Facebook – Jack Ballard’s Campaign
- Twitter – Jack Ballard’s Campaign
About Jack Ballard
Jack Ballard might be the only person to run for Congress with his bird dog as an integral part of his campaign. Of course, there are many other important elements to his platform, such as education, healthcare, jobs and wages, the impact of drought on ag lands, wildfire mitigation, and more. Jack is the consummate outdoorsman, a nationally renowned outdoor writer and photographer who literally wrote the book (two actually) on elk hunting and now he’s planning to use his background as a communicator, former farmer/rancher, outdoorsman and educator to find workable solutions in Congress for all of us.